Reps from 130 countries descend on Beijing for Belt and Road forum

Chris Taylor for RFA
Reps from 130 countries descend on Beijing for Belt and Road forum Russian President Vladimir Putin (second from right) arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport to attend the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, Oct. 17, 2023.
Parker Song/ pool via AFP

China kicked off its third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing on Tuesday, saying that representatives from about 130 countries were attending including Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with a representative of the Taliban. 

Putin, whom President Xi Jinping refers to as his “dear friend,” last visited China for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022, declaring a “no limits friendship” days before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Trade has burgeoned between the two countries since – Russia exports about 2 million barrels of oil per day to China – and Xi and Putin are expected to discuss trade, including Moscow’s aim to build a second natural gas pipeline to China.

They are also expected to further cement their shared enmity toward the liberal West. 

The only senior European Union representative in Beijing is Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, given broad western European skepticism of China’s ambitions and a reluctance to share a platform with Putin, who is wanted for alleged war crimes. 

Notable regional attendees include Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who arrived late Monday for his official visit, where he will focus on strengthening trade and investment ties. 

Srettha will pay a courtesy call on Xi and hold bilateral meetings with Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Zhao Leji, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, as part of his four-day visit, the Thai foreign ministry said in a statement. 

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his wife arrive at Beijing Capital International Airport to attend the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, Oct. 16, 2023. [Pool/AFP]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet and Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo also arrived in Beijing on Monday, as did Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape.

The conference marks the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, a vision spelled out by Xi in 2013 on visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia. Today it has 152 members and has been the driving force behind power plants and railways, as well as causing controversy over so-called “debt diplomacy.” 


Regional non-attendees include Malaysia Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, though his country sent a delegation led by Transport Minister Loke Siew Fook. 

A notably absent country is India, which has never attended a forum. 

“Even before the … emergence of the Indo-Pacific construct, India staunchly opposed the BRI and, along with Japan, sought to present an alternative to the initiative,” Sana Hashmi, fellow at Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, told Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews. 

“While some countries initially attended the [earlier] BRI forum[s] and later decided to distance themselves from it, India consistently recognized the potential detrimental impact of the BRI on its national interests and the regional landscape. 

“India’s concerns about the BRI – expanding China’s sphere of influence, increasing regional dependency on China, trapping countries in debt and violating countries’ sovereignty – have been shared by several major powers and like-minded countries over the course of a decade,” Hashmi said.

Signs at the China National Convention Center announce the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, Oct. 16, 2023. [Reuters]

Ilshat Hassan Kokbore, vice president of the Executive Committee at the World Uyghur Congress, said “First, China wants to expand its influence in Afghanistan and neutralize any potential threat to its sovereignty. Second, China wants to develop close relations with the Taliban and turn them against the U.S. 

“Third,” he said, “China wants to use Afghanistan to further cement its relations with other countries on the One Belt, One Road [the initial name of the BRI], such as Iran and Middle Eastern countries.” 

Christoph Nedopil Wang, the director of the Griffith Asia Institute, told The Guardian that inviting Putin was essentially a snub to western governments, highlighting “the alignment of Chinese and Russian political priorities.”

‘Shared future’ 

Ahead of the forum, China last week published a white paper that claimed “the ultimate goal of the BRI is to help build a global community of shared future,” in what can be seen as emblematic of China’s aim of achieving solidarity with the Global South as a counter to a U.S. dominated world.  

Among a dizzying array of claimed accomplishments and future goals that include air, maritime and road economic corridors, the paper also emphasized “people-to-people ties … [and a] spirit of friendly cooperation of the ancient Silk Road.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo launches Southeast Asia’s first high-speed railway, a key project under China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, during a ceremony at the Padalarang station in Bandung, West Java, Oct. 2, 2023. [AP]

Chinese nationalist tabloid Global Times reported on the forum's decorations and atmosphere in Beijing. Some foreign guests expressed optimism about peace and global cooperation. It’s been four years since the last BRF in 2019 and China is eager to showcase the BRI’s decade-long achievements.



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