China Prepares New Era Of ‘Belt And Road’ Amid Pandemic Pressures

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After declaring victories over extreme poverty and the coronavirus, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has laid out a new path for China's economic rise at home and abroad that could force Beijing to adapt to new difficulties caused by the pandemic.

The future direction came as the Chinese Communist Party's legislature, the National People's Congress, convened in Beijing on March 5 for a more-than-week-long gathering to unveil a new economic blueprint -- known as the country's 14th five-year plan -- and chart a broad course for China to claim its place as a modern nation and true global power.

The annual summit of Chinese lawmakers laid out broad guidelines that would shape the country's growth model over the next 15 years.

Preoccupied with growing China's tech industry amid a deepening rivalry with the United States, it also provided a platform for Xi to tout the merits of his autocratic style and tightening grip on power at home.

While the stagecraft of the conclave focused on China's domestic goals, they remain deeply intertwined with Beijing's global ambitions, particularly the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- a blanket term for the multibillion-dollar centerpiece of Xi's foreign policy that builds influence through infrastructure, investment, and closer political ties.

"The message is a continuation and doubling-down of what we've been seeing for years, which is that China is growing stronger and it feels confident to elbow its way in even more around the world," Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi echoed this during an expansive March 8 press conference on the sidelines of the congress in Beijing, where he said there would be no pause for BRI and that it had and would continue to evolve amid the constraints and opportunities caused by the pandemic.

"[BRI] isn't so much a specific project as it is a broad vision," Pantucci said, "and visions can be reshaped as needed, which is what we're seeing now."

An Evolving Vision

Despite the display of strength and unity coming out of Beijing over the country's success in curbing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping its economy growing amid the pressures of the pandemic, Beijing finds itself facing new global pressure.

The BRI has suffered setbacks recently due to concerns in host countries over mounting debts, with many governments -- from Africa to Central Asia -- asking China for debt forgiveness and restructuring. Beijing is also looking to rebuild its credibility, which was hurt over its early handling of COVID-19 in the central city of Wuhan, and navigate growing pressure from Western countries that have begun to push back against Chinese tech and political policies.

Source: Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.