Perhaps most noticeable in the Xinhua news reports and official joint declarations which came out of the 18 bilateral meetings was messages of support for the Global Development Initiative (GDI) announced by President Xi Jinping at the UN General Assembly in September last year. Though its announcement at the time did not generate big waves of media interest, subsequent discussions in China’s foreign policy circles have indicated that the GDI is a new priority for China. The words of support from nine heads of state last week - present in the statements in almost identical wording - is further evidence that the new initiative occupies a central place in China’s diplomacy. Noticeably, none of the European countries, including non-EU members Serbia and Monaco, announced their support for the initiative. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt, meanwhile, seemed a little more cautious in backing the initiative, offering to “begin implementing cooperation” on the GDI (“落实全球发展倡议开展合作”), rather than “support” (“支持”), as it was worded in most statements.
Unsurprisingly, energy was a major feature of a number of the bilateral meetings. Most prominently, China and Russia signed two major gas and oil-related deals, including a 30 year supply and purchase agreement for gas from Russia’s Far East Pipeline (signed by Gazprom and CNPC) and a supply and purchase agreement for crude oil to refineries in western China. According to Reuters, Gazprom will supply 10 billion cubic metres of gas per year under the Far East Pipeline deal. Gas cooperation was also a feature of heads of state meetings with the presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan called for the “acceleration of construction of the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline Line D”, which originates in Turkmenistan’s Bagtyýarlyk gas fields.
Besides getting support for the GDI and securing energy collaborations, China also made progress in consolidating the BRI’s position in Latin America. Argentina’s signing of an MOU with China on BRI cooperation during President Alberto Fernandez’s visit to Beijing marks the addition of the largest Latin American economy so far to the BRI’s “friends list” (Brazil and Mexico are still taking a wait-and-see approach). In exchange, Argentina got to seal the deal for the Atucha III nuclear power plant right ahead of Fernandez’s visit and obtained Chinese support for its sovereignty claim on the Malvinas Islands.
“Green cooperation” also cropped up in a number of bilateral meetings. Mongolia’s President called for “cooperation on ecological environment as well as prevention and control of desertification”, a shared challenge for the two countries. The China-Pakistan joint declaration, meanwhile, labelled the Gwadar Port and Free Zone - we think for the first time - a “low carbon and circular [economy] zone.”
A few other standout points from the mostly template-like Xinhua news reports and joint declarations include Kazakhstan President Tokayev’s expression of gratitude to China for support against “foreign interference”. Tokayev also welcomed Xi to visit Kazakhstan “as soon as possible.” The China-Pakistan joint declaration included a statement on the two sides’ willingness to “continue talks on extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan.”
Over the course of just three days last week, Beijing witnessed a whirlwind of Belt and Road bilateral heads of state diplomacy. While the largely copy-and-paste like official media statements do much to obscure the details of each bilateral relationship, a close read through does reveal some key trends and differences among the relationships. Zooming out, the map of visiting heads of states does much to reveal the contours of Beijing’s current network of allies.