Only 23 world leaders attended the forum on 18 October, down from 37 in 2019

China's President Xi Jinping with other world leaders at the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on October 18

Beijing played host to the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on October 18. The meeting, which attracted leaders and officials from 23 countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America, took place in the wake of trouble for China President Xi Jinping’s flagship infrastructure initiative. Why the outcome of the meeting may be good news for India.

What Is The Belt and Road Initiative?

It's a highly ambitious project aimed at building infrastructure and connectivity across Asia, Europe and Africa in an effort to reconstruct 21st century versions of a terrestrial and maritime silk road. Many observers saw the project as an effort by China to export its surplus capacity in construction and other fields to foreign nations while also linking their markets to China’s economy.

“China’s overall ambition for the BRI is staggering. To date, 147 countries—accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population and 40% of global GDP—have signed on to projects or indicated an interest in doing so," wrote the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank.

The forum began in 2017 as a meeting of major leaders who had signed on to Beijing’s scheme, and was intended to showcase the achievements of the BRI. The presence of high-level leaders also provided China with favourable optics.

Has It Gained Or Declined In Popularity Since?

In 2017 around 27 world leaders visited Beijing for the first edition of the forum. In 2019 that number stood at 37. However, only 23 world leaders participated in the third forum on 18 October.

What Does This Trend Suggest?

Experts say that the drop in attendance at the third forum points to the declining popularity of the BRI. High-profile failures, allegations of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ and China’s increasingly negative international reputation may have scared some leaders away.

This is especially true in Europe, where a number of Eastern European countries were once seen as enthusiastic participants in the BRI. Italy, a member of the G7, is also expected to leave the BRI. Hungary, an EU member state, attended the summit. Other high profile attendees included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed, and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

What Can India Take Away From This?

For India, declining attendance at the BRI Forum may be a sign that China’s flagship infrastructure initiative is faltering. This comes after many initiatives under the BRI, particularly the development of Gwadar Port in Pakistan, stalled.

India has refused to attend all three editions of the forum so far. It has also opposed key BRI projects such as the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as it involves territories in Kashmir that India claims.