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Pursuing Deeper and More Concrete Economic and Trade Cooperation Through High-Quality Belt and Road Development

By Wang Wentao Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2024-01-05

The Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing in October 2023 marked the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). During the forum, President Xi Jinping spoke on several occasions, demonstrating a Chinese perspective of impressive scope and depth and a vision for the greater good of the whole world. His speeches represent a program of action for embarking on a new phase of high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, a solemn declaration in support of genuine multilateralism and free trade, and a call for all to join hands in building a global community of shared future.

I. A decade of relentless efforts and fruitful outcomes

President Xi proposed the BRI based on his deep insights into the future of humanity and development trends in China and the world. It was a major theoretical and practical innovation for the CPC with regard to opening up. Over the past decade, Belt and Road cooperation has progressed from a rough outline to a fully-fledged initiative, with blueprints becoming specific projects. Delivering significant and meaningful results, the BRI has become a widely welcomed global public good and a platform for international cooperation.

A Chinese approach to global governance reform

Although it was put forward by China, the BRI belongs to the world and benefits all of humanity. It offers a new solution for improving the global governance system, one which has received enthusiastic support from a growing number of countries.


Container Terminal III at the Port of Piraeus, Greece, February 19, 2022. A model BRI project, the Chinese-operated port serves as a key maritime hub for trade between China and Europe. It is the fourth largest container port in Europe and one of the leading container terminals in the Mediterranean. XINHUA / PHOTO PROVIDED BY COSCO PIRAEUS CONTAINER TERMINAL S.A.

People have warmly embraced the notion of building a global community of shared future. China can only do well when the world is doing well, and when China does well, the world will do even better. The BRI has helped link China’s development with that of the world and bind the Chinese dream with the dreams of people from countries worldwide. It has become a compelling example of how to build a global community of shared future, a concept that was included in a UN resolution for the first time in February 2017. Over the past decade, China has signed over 230 Belt and Road cooperation documents with more than 150 countries and 30 international organizations across five continents. The BRI has given rise to richer prospects for global development, a new model for international cooperation, and belts of development and paths to greater happiness that benefit people in various countries.

The BRI has marked an improvement in the mechanisms for multilateral governance. As a vivid example of multilateralism, the BRI upholds the principles of mutual respect, equality, openness, inclusiveness, and mutually beneficial cooperation. It regards the multilateral trading system as the primary channel for making international economic and trade rules and regulations and is committed to international fairness and justice and to the development rights and interests of developing countries. The BRI has afforded developing countries and emerging economies a stronger position and role in the world market and a greater say in regional and global economic governance. It thus holds great significance for global governance reform.

As a Chinese solution, the BRI has demonstrated China’s sense of responsibility as a major country. Under the Belt and Road framework, China has proposed the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund. It has also provided other influential global goods, such as the China International Import Expo (CIIE), which have helped boost economic and trade cooperation among participating BRI countries. President Xi’s personal role in mapping out, initiating, planning, and promoting the CIIE is noteworthy. Having gone from strength to strength over the past five years, it has become a gateway facilitating the creation of a new pattern of development in China, a platform for high-standard opening up, and an international public good for the world to enjoy.

A mutually beneficial version of economic globalization

Amid a rising backlash against globalization, the BRI has been committed to realizing global connectivity and interconnected development. It seeks to open the arteries of economic globalization to promote more expansive and higher standard international cooperation, with a view to sharing out the gains of economic globalization. The intention is to mold more balanced, coordinated, and inclusive patterns of global development that will deliver mutually beneficial outcomes and promote shared prosperity.

The BRI has tightened the bonds of economic and trade cooperation. China is a major trading partner of more than 140 countries and regions and a major source of investment for a growing number of nations. Trade and investment have been expanding at a constant pace over the past decade, with China’s trade in goods with participating countries totaling US$19.1 trillion, registering an average annual growth of 6.4% and outstripping the overall growth of not only Chinese foreign trade but global trade as a whole in the same period. Total bilateral investment has surpassed US$380 billion. Accounting for over US$240 billion of this figure, outbound Chinese foreign direct investment has flowed into a wide range of sectors for economic and social development. The cumulative turnover for contracted projects in participating countries has reached US$1.3 trillion. The level of trade and investment liberalization and facilitation has also risen steadily. More than 80 countries and international organizations have signed up to the Chinese-proposed Initiative on Promoting Unimpeded Trade Cooperation Along the Belt and Road. China has concluded 22 free trade agreements with 29 countries and regions, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement has formally entered into force, creating the world’s largest free trade zone in terms of population size and economic and commercial scale.

The BRI has promoted common development across the globe. By boosting infrastructure in participating countries, the BRI has brought improvements in connectivity, people’s wellbeing, and development capacities. Over the past decade, a raft of landmark projects have been completed. These include the China-Laos Railway, the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway, the Mombasa-Nairobi Railway, the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway in Cambodia, and the Lahore Metro in Pakistan. Several complete foreign assistance projects have also been implemented, including the construction of the headquarters for the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, we have also channeled energies toward improving people’s wellbeing, carrying out a number of small yet effective projects such as the sharing of Juncao technology for mushroom cultivation and hybrid rice technology, with training opportunities provided to 350,000 personnel of various professions. The rich array of cooperation projects under the BRI has helped usher in a new stage of balanced, coordinated, and inclusive global development.

A leading version of all-around opening up

In the new era which began in 2012, China has taken the BRI as the overarching design for opening up and international cooperation. In doing so, it has created a comprehensive framework for opening up with links running eastward and westward across land and over sea, established new systems for a higher-standard open economy, and built up new strengths in international economic cooperation and competition.

The BRI has helped better coordinate the opening up of coastal and inland regions. As a major move for both opening up and development, the BRI has been seamlessly integrated with major development strategies for Chinese regions, such as the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze Economic Belt, and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, facilitating opening up that is more comprehensive and better coordinated. Over the decade, the central and western regions have leveraged their strengths to integrate themselves into the process of Belt and Road development, significantly raising their level of openness and transforming themselves from rearguards to frontrunners in this process. From 2013 to 2022, the share of foreign trade of the central and western regions increased from 13.5% to 19.2%, while their share of foreign investment rose from 7.8% to 14.7%.

The layout of Chinese trade and investment in traditional and emerging markets has also been improved. The BRI has helped Chinese enterprises consolidate traditional markets while venturing into emerging ones. We have enhanced cooperation with the countries of BRICS, ASEAN, Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America, thus improving our global market layout. In 2022, China’s trade with ASEAN accounted for 15.5% of its total foreign trade, making ASEAN China’s top trading partner for three consecutive years.

China has also advanced institutional opening up. In the past, opening up was largely limited to flows of commodities and production factors. Now however, it is being oriented more toward institutions, covering rules, regulations, management, and standards. In pilot free-trade zones and ports with the right conditions, we have been piloting institutional opening up in line with high international standards. On this basis, we have accelerated comprehensive trials to align with high-standard international economic and trade rules. Over the past decade, the negative list for foreign investment access in pilot free trade zones has been significantly downsized, falling from 190 items to 27, with manufacturing items on these negative lists dropping to zero.


The Halfaya Gas Processing Plant at the Halfaya oil field in Maysan Province, Iraq, September 28, 2023. The project, built by Chinese enterprises, is helping Iraq develop oil fields in an eco-friendly way. XINHUA / PHOTO BY KHALIL DAWOOD

A practical measure for creating a new development dynamic

Belt and Road cooperation has tightened the links between China and the world. With physical connectivity as a foundation and institutional connectivity as a key support, the BRI has helped relieve choke points in the international economy, stimulate economic flows, and promote positive interplay between the Chinese and international economies. In this sense, it has provided important support for China’s drive to create a new development dynamic.

The BRI has vigorously promoted market connectivity, providing larger markets and opportunities for realizing common development among various countries. It has also created new space for China’s development. By the end of September 2023, the China Railway Express (CR Express) had served 217 cities in 25 European countries and had completed more than 78,000 trips, transporting over 50,000 types of goods, with a total value of more than US$340 billion. The CR Express has created numerous development opportunities for participating countries in areas such as industry, trade, investment, and employment. Since its official launch in 2018, the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor has also become an important fulcrum for cooperation between China and other participating countries, connecting to 465 ports in 120 countries and regions.

The BRI has helped advance industrial integration. Based on China’s complete industrial system, Belt and Road development has allowed participating countries, especially developing countries, to board the express train of China’s economic growth. It has expanded employment opportunities, boosted tax revenues, and enhanced countries’ capacity for independent development. China has established a series of economic and trade cooperation zones in collaboration with participating countries, with cumulative investment surpassing US$60 billion at the end of 2022. At the same time, participating countries have actively invested in China. Over the past decade, total investment has exceeded US$140 billion and resulted in the establishment of 67,000 new enterprises in China.

The BRI has helped drive innovation. In pursuing the BRI, participating countries are committed to innovation-driven development, to taking advantage of the opportunities presented by digital, internet, and intelligent advances, to exploring new forms of business, new technologies, and new models, and to seeking new growth drivers and development avenues to help all sides make economic progress. China has signed 47 memorandums of understanding with relevant countries on investment and cooperation in the green, digital, and blue development spaces. With the number of countries involved in Silk Road e-commerce cooperation rising to 30, this initiative has become a new platform for bilateral and multilateral economic and trade cooperation and a new highlight in Belt and Road development.

The BRI has promoted rules-based connectivity. It has not only allowed China to align with internationally recognized rules and standards but also enabled Chinese rules, technologies, and standards to go global. By the end of June 2023, China had signed 107 documents with national standardization bodies in 65 countries, including Pakistan, Italy, Russia, and Ethiopia, as well as with international and regional organizations, promoting cooperation on standards in many fields, such as civil aviation, climate change, and electric vehicles. For example, the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway, which was officially put into operation in October 2023, has become a major international calling card for Chinese railway standards.

II. Development blueprint and future direction for high-quality Belt and Road cooperation

Grasping historic opportunities and defining new paths of development

At present, changes in the world of great significance are unfolding like never before. A major shift is taking place in the international balance of power, with emerging markets and developing countries collectively rising to account for 80% of world economic growth and over 40% of the global economy. According to World Bank estimates, by 2030, Belt and Road cooperation will generate annual returns of US$1.6 trillion for the world, and Belt and Road investment is expected to lift 7.6 million people out of extreme poverty and 32 million people out of moderate poverty in participating countries. High-quality Belt and Road development will not only open new windows of opportunity for developing countries but also help resolve imbalances in global development.

Following the trend of the times to create fresh momentum for growth

At present, a new generation of information technology and advanced manufacturing technology—represented by artificial intelligence (AI), new materials, and new energy—is being rapidly integrated into various industries, giving rise to new competitiveness in global development. Relevant studies show that the digital economies of the United States, China, Germany, Japan, and South Korea were worth a total of US$31 trillion in 2022. Under the Belt and Road framework, countries can fully tap their potential and strengths, increase their capacity for independent development, and jointly create more development opportunities, thereby promoting a healthy, green, digital, and innovative Silk Road and driving more inclusive growth in the world economy.

Responding to practical needs and bolstering cooperation as a signature practice

Guided by the principles of openness and inclusiveness, China has worked with other countries to promote comprehensive, multidimensional, and network-based connectivity, coordinating both the shared and differentiated interests of participating countries to seek more points of convergence for our respective interests and make the pie of cooperation bigger. According to research by the World Bank, by 2030, Belt and Road cooperation will increase the trade of participating countries by 2.8%–9.7% and global trade by 1.7%–6.2%. Collective participation and cooperation under the BRI promises to create shared benefits for all countries concerned.

Toward a shared future with a new and inspiring vision

The BRI offers a vivid example of how to build a global community of shared future. Acting on the Global Development Initiative, China has focused on development as humanity’s greatest common interest and is committed to narrowing the development gap and promoting shared development and prosperity. Implementing the Global Security Initiative, we have fostered a new vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security, creating a security architecture featuring joint contributions and shared benefits. Carrying out the Global Civilizations Initiative, we have advocated the shared values of humanity and worked to see different civilizations fostering harmony in diversity, seeking common ground while setting differences aside, and engaging in mutual learning, so as to jointly paint an inspiring shared future for our human community.

III. Pursuing deeper and more concrete economic and trade cooperation through high-quality Belt and Road development

Having completed its first decade with great success, the BRI is beginning what promises to be yet another golden decade. China is committed to fully following through on our blueprint. We will effectively implement the eight major steps we have put forward to support the joint pursuit of high-quality cooperation and work hard to build an open world economy. In doing so, we will pursue deeper and more concrete economic and trade cooperation and make new and even greater contributions to ensuring steady and enduring progress in high-quality Belt and Road cooperation. We will focus efforts on the following areas.

Improving platforms for opening up

Fully harnessing the leading and exemplary role of platforms for opening up, we will attract and bring together more production factors and resources to promote high-standard opening up.

We will accelerate efforts to develop new bases for opening up, promoting alignment with high-standard international economic and trade rules, making steady strides in expanding institutional opening up with regard to rules, regulations, management, and standards, and deepening implementation of the strategy on upgrading pilot free trade zones. We will quicken the development of the Hainan Free Trade Port and upgrade national demonstration zones for the innovative development of trade in services. We will give full play to exhibition platforms, continuing to organize major exhibitions such as the China International Import Expo, the Canton Fair, the China International Fair for Trade in Services, the China International Fair for Investment and Trade, and the China International Consumer Products Expo. We will also make good use of regional exhibition platforms such as the China-ASEAN Expo and the China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo. We will see that our strong domestic economy helps to attract global resources and production factors and further reinforce the interplay between domestic and international markets and resources.

We will continue to develop a network of high-standard free trade zones. We will actively move forward with joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement and advance high-quality implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement. We will conclude free trade agreements and investment treaties with more countries to further enhance trade and investment liberalization and facilitation.

Carrying out practical cooperation

To enhance political mutual trust and strengthen the foundation for development, we will fully implement the economic and trade outcomes from the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, so as to cement the fundamentals of economic and trade cooperation.

We will improve the mechanisms for communication. We will promote stronger alignment of the development strategies of participating countries and international organizations and refine the bilateral and multilateral mechanisms for economic and trade cooperation, while giving full play to working mechanisms such as the Joint Commission on Economy and Trade, the Working Group on Facilitating Trade, and the Working Group on Investment Cooperation. This will help turn political consensus into concrete action.

We will further facilitate trade flows, refining the “one country, one policy” approach for major markets and supporting Chinese enterprises in participating in overseas exhibitions and business talks. We will expand imports of high-quality goods and optimize the quality and structure of exports. We will broaden cooperation concerning trade in services, promote the upgrading and expansion of special service export bases, and support the development of international cooperation zones for trade in services in localities where conditions permit.

To strengthen bilateral investment, we will guide orderly outbound investments by enterprises and build economic and trade cooperation zones in key participating countries. We will ensure that chambers of commerce and associations for Chinese enterprises operating overseas adhere to strong professional standards. All restrictions on foreign investment in the manufacturing sector will be abolished. Furthermore, we will take the initiative to align with high-standard international economic and trade rules, promote high-standard opening up of cross-border trade in services and investment, and increase access to the Chinese market for digital and other kinds of products.

We will develop first-rate projects to deepen cooperation with participating countries in energy facilities, railroads, highways, ports, airports, communications, and other forms of infrastructure to increase connectivity. We will carry out more small but effective wellbeing projects. We will also step up the development of key corridors, further enhancing the efficiency of the CR Express and moving faster to develop the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor.

Expanding cooperation in emerging sectors

We will actively implement the Initiative on International Trade and Economic Cooperation Framework for Digital Economy and Green Development and seek broader cooperation in the green, low-carbon, digital, health, and blue development sectors along with other emerging areas. To spur green development, we will roll out more environmentally friendly projects based on high standards, continue to deepen cooperation in the areas of green infrastructure, energy, and transportation, and implement the green investment principles for the Belt and Road. We will facilitate Chinese energy-saving and environmentally friendly equipment and green technology and standards in going global. These steps will help support the green and low-carbon transitions of developing countries and ensure that green becomes the defining color of Belt and Road cooperation.


Staff members perform at the exhibition booth of the Ghanaian embassy in China during a cultural exhibition of countries along the Belt and Road at the 2023 China International Fair for Trade in Services. The exhibition, which included special performances, cultural introductions, and passport stamping activities, showcased the cultural charm of BRI countries. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER JU HUANZONG

Digital cooperation will be deepened. We will establish a pilot zone for Silk Road e-commerce cooperation to further expand the global reach of Silk Road e-commerce. We will organize the Global Digital Trade Expo on an annual basis and support the development of the digital economy in BRI countries. We will deepen cooperation in fields such as smart cities, the Internet of Things, and AI, and promote new forms and modes of business such as e-commerce and mobile payments. These moves will see us sharing opportunities for digital development with countries along the routes of the BRI. We will also create new avenues for cooperation, encouraging cooperation in third-party markets and multiple markets to give full play to each party’s technological, capital, and managerial expertise and give shape to complementary advantages.

Improving the mechanisms for bilateral and multilateral cooperation

Standing firmly on the right side of history, we will follow the overarching trend of economic globalization and step up our participation in global economic governance. Remaining committed to genuine multilateralism, we will firmly uphold the authority and efficacy of the multilateral trading system with the WTO at its core and actively work to restore the normal operation of the WTO dispute settlement mechanism. We will further refine China’s proposal for its comprehensive and in-depth participation in the reform of the WTO and stand firm in safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of all developing countries, including China.

We will work to see that mechanisms such as the G20 and APEC better fulfill their respective roles and deepen our participation in mechanisms such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in an effort to ensure a diversified and stable international economic landscape and economic and trade relations.

We will bolster regional cooperation and further promote high-quality regional connectivity. We will advance Lancang-Mekong economic cooperation, China-BIMP-EAGA cooperation, the Greater Tumen Initiative, the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Program, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program, and other mechanisms. On the basis of these platforms, we will strengthen policy exchanges and practical cooperation among various parties in key areas such as trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, business environment improvement, digital trade, and industrial and supply chain cooperation.

Enhancing risk prevention and control

The more open we become, the more we must prioritize security and integrate development and security to effectively shield ourselves from harm. To proactively respond to risks and challenges, we will improve the systems for risk prevention and control, apply a holistic approach to national security, and refine the system for guarding against and controlling overseas investment risks.

We will improve risk assessment systems for key countries, strengthen dynamic monitoring and risk warning analysis for major projects, and make it a principle to avoid chaotic and dangerous places and high-risk business, so as to guarantee the safety of Chinese personnel and property overseas. We will promote the development of a Silk Road of integrity. We will enhance the level of services provided to enterprises, give full play to the role of overseas enterprises and outbound investors in acting as liaison for services, and step up monitoring and early warning. We will organize education and training on the prevention and control of overseas risks and guide enterprises in raising their awareness and ability to prevent and control risks.

We will ensure that all business operations are conducted in accordance with laws and regulations and take steps to build up Chinese investment brands. We will also improve our international communication capability. We will deepen exchanges with foreign think tanks and media and work to present China’s narratives and make its voice heard, so as to increase trust, dispel doubts, pool strength, and foster a positive atmosphere. In doing so, we will see that the international appeal of the BRI is steadily boosted.


Wang Wentao is Minister and Secretary of the CPC Leadership Group, Ministry of Commerce.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 21, 2023)