Dr Gerard Lyons recently attended a Silks Forum on behalf of the 48 Group.
Here is his report
To the 48 Group Club
The Paris Silk Road Forum
In mid December, I represented the 48 Group Club at the annual meeting of the Silk Road Forum, which this year took place in Paris. This is the Forum that was established in 2014 to support the Belt Road Initiative that had been established by President Xi in 2013.
The first Silk Road Forum was held in Istanbul in December 2014, the second in Madrid in October 2015, third in Warsaw in June 2016. This was the fourth in Paris. The Forum is now to be held every two years outside of China.
Also, in May last year, in Beijing, President Xi hosted the inaugural Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. There his speech was, “Work Together to Build the Silk Road Economic Belt and The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” That Beijing event was attended by 29 global leaders, reflecting the importance with which the Belt Road is viewed.
While the Silk Road Forum in Paris was not attended by any global leaders it contained an impressive array of policy makers, business people, economists and scholars from across the globe, albeit dominated by China. The opening ceremony was addressed by Hu Chunhua, the Vice Premier of China’s State Council. While France did not provide any current leading politician, former Premier Raffarin gave welcoming comments.
The theme in Paris was, ‘The Belt and Road Initiative: Promoting Global Sustainable Development’. It gave an insight into what the Chinese authorities see as some of the current key themes: the BRI in the context of an open world economy; green and low-carbon development; the new round of technology development; and inclusive development.
Unfortunately the Silk Road Forum did not escape the turmoil engulfing Paris as a result of the demonstrations by the yellow vests, the ‘gilets jaunes’, and had to cancel its second day planned for Saturday. Instead, it was like conference speed dating, with fifty speakers crammed into one day on the Friday, followed by a dinner that began late in the evening. Despite the shortening of the event, the agenda was completed and the positive message clear.
At its core the Belt Road is the world’s largest ever infrastructure boost, spreading out from China as it connects – commercially and culturally – over land and sea, with countries representing two-thirds of the world’s population. Its initial impact has been on building roads, ports, railways and power plants in countless countries but it is far more than that. China is developing economic, social and political ties across the globe.
The Silk Road’s spirit, we were told, is of, “peace, cooperation, openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning, mutual benefit and win-win results.” In his speech at the Forum, Li Wei, President of China’s State Council Development Research Centre, was more to the point. The US’s protectionist approach is not what the world needs he told us, but promoting sustainable development through shared goals and an open world economy is the way ahead.
In recent months the Belt Road has attracted some criticised as a modern day form of colonialism because China’s cheap finance binds countries to them. That, however, was not the message in Paris. Speakers from Peru to Pakistan and Kenya to Kazakhstan were positive. We heard about the Athens port of Piraeus. While Brussels was lending money to the Greeks to repay German and French banks, China provided cheap finance to develop the port. Greece is benefiting.
Of the issues discussed in Paris two critical ones stood out and these were the environment and technology. A key message was that decisions made now can have profound implications, locking in energy and technology systems for decades. China is keen to support environmentally friendly development along the Belt Road. They need to show it. One of the handful of speakers from the UK was Lord Turner, who made clear the Belt Road would be critical to whether the world achieves its 2050 carbon target: do not fund any coal projects was his explicit message.
For technology, a key growth driver, another leading UK speaker, Cambridge Professor Peter Nolan, pointed out the West dominates.The US accounts for a massive 76% of R&D software spend among the top 2,500 global firms. Despite this, the message from others was of China’s transformation and its aim to be a game changer for technology development along the Belt Road. Europe, while doing much in some areas of technology involving the Belt Road, will clearly need to invest heavily to keep up in this area.
Last month I was in Shanghai, speaking at the first Import Expo where President Xi gave what one can only be described as the speech one normally associates with a US President or a British Prime Minister. He talked of boosting free trade and a multilateral trading system based on innovation and inclusivity. The Belt Road’s intentions are being developed in the same positive vein.