A Big Turnout for Belt & Road Forum in Stockholm

The 2nd Belt and Road Forum in Stockholm, held on Wednesday, May 22, the China Cultural Center, was an exceptional event and powerful demonstration of the great interest for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and cooperation with China in Sweden, a country whose political elites and mainstream media are still skeptical and oblivious to the BRI. The international nature of this full-day event was almost unprecedented in terms of the discussion of the BRI in this country. A sizeable portion of the foreign diplomatic corps in Stockholm turned out to discuss the outcome of the Second Belt and Road Forum for Economic Cooperation (BRF2) which took place in late April in Beijing. 33 diplomats including 13 ambassadors from four continents joined business representatives, academicians as well as one Swedish parliamentarian, a city councilman, and 4 journalists, forming an audience of over 100 persons.

The event was organized by the Belt and Road Executive Group for Sweden (BRIX), in collaboration with the China-Sweden Business Council. Ulf Sandmark, the Chairman of the BRIX, gave the opening speech of the morning session, pointing out that the BRI is not just railways or trade routes but ‘development corridors’. The BRI is definitely not any sinister military logistics system either, he said. Sandmark emphasized that “the BRI represented an opportunity for Sweden to get back to such fundamentals as respect for sovereignty, science and development of the productive powers of labor”. Joining the BRI could bring the nation of Sweden together again, Sandmark said, stressing that “it is Sweden’s greatest chance to avoid a rapid economic and social collapse”. Sweden can also make great contribution to eliminating poverty and underdevelopment if it brings its excellent industrial and technological capacity to the BRI nations.

The keynote speaker was the Chinese Ambassador to Sweden Mr Gui Congyou who reported about the massive turnout and success of the BRF2 in Beijing and the rapid growth of trade between China, the BRI countries and also Sweden. “The BRI is not a ‘debt trap’”, Ambassador Gui said. “On the contrary, many countries are stepping out of the ‘underdevelopment trap’ by participating in the BRI. Mr. Gui gave a thorough report on the progress of the BRI globally since its announcement by President Xi Jinping in 2013. Concerning Sweden, he stressed that Sweden actually has a surplus in trade against China unlike most other nations, and that this country is leading in many innovative fields of technology and industry that can benefit China and other BRI countries. At the conclusion of his speech, he again invited Sweden to join the BRI: “Building a ‘One Belt, One Road’ will definitely provide Sweden with a bigger stage to play its own advantages and open up more development space.”

Ambassador of Pakistan Mr. Hussain Dayo was next speaker, giving an enthusiastic report of the transformation Pakistan is undergoing thanks to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which is in the forefront of the BRI corridors. He then showed a short film on the CPEC showing its progress and impact. A highway is linking China with the Indian Ocean harbor Gwadar, which is expanded from a fishing village to a modern deep seaport. It provides an important backdoor into China and also into the landlocked Central Asia. The roads and railways being built accelerates growth and stability in many regions in Pakistan, especially in the Western parts (Baluchistan Province) close to Afghanistan. The opening of the first coal mines and the construction of first-class coal power plants, have provided much needed power for the export-oriented textile industry.

Ambassador of Portugal, Mr. Henrique Silveira Borges thanked China for standing by his nation in the severe financial crisis 2008. “This we will never forget”, he said and reported about the MOU signed last December when Portugal joined the BRI in the presence of the President of China, Xi Jinping. Portugal has signed agreements to expand its important harbor Sines which will connect the Maritime Silk Road with the Belt of the Euro-Asian rail corridor linking Portugal to China.

A perspective of the attitude in Nordic countries towards the BRI and how it is shaped on the governmental and media level was provided by Thore Vestby, former member of the Norwegian parliament and Co-founder of Ichi Fund. He debunked many of the myths spread in the media in Norway and Sweden. He provided a description of where these come from, not from facts and research, but from a geopolitical mindset in the dominant forces in the West. He explained the great advantages Norway gained from agreeing with China on non-interference in internal affairs, ending the 7-year diplomatic and trade “freeze” China imposed on Norway after the latter awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident in 2010.

Hussein Askary, board member of the BRIX, together with Lars Aspling, a member of BRIX and Swedish entrepreneur, took turns to provide the main overview of BRI to the Forum. Aspling started with outlining the historically unprecedented industrialization process that has taken place in China in the past 30 years, without which it is very difficult to understand the BRI and China’s goals behind it. Askary presented the impact of the BRI in Africa´s transformation and joint Chinese – European cooperation projects. “There is a new Africa emerging now, and in the future will be the greatest workshop and market in the world with a 3-billion population in 2050”, Askary emphasized. Europe and Sweden are invited to participated in that great process of the industrialization of Africa, he concluded. Aspling, concluded the session by reviewing the BRI´s connections to Europe and Sweden, urging the Swedish government to embrace the BRI.

In the intensive but very constructive discussion period, Architect Greger Ahlberg brought the question of beauty as a basis for building a new world in the context of the BRI. Ambassador explained that, while China’s primary goal was to fight poverty, it is keen on preserving the beautiful culture and philosophy it has inherited through the centuries.

Many of the questions were focused on why the Swedish and many European governments are skeptical to the BRI, and how these issues can be resolved by presenting factual information and increased dialog. The last question was posed by moderator Hussein Askary to the Malaysian Ambassador, who was in the audience, to hype in the Western media about the “backlash against the BRI” using Malaysia’s recent renegotiation of some of the infrastructure projects with China as the proof. The Ambassador, Mrs. Nur Ashikin Mohd Taib, explained in very clear terms that Malaysia maintains very strong economic ties with China and is keen on strengthening them. She informed the audience that many of the key China-Malaysia projects, like the East Coast Railway project, are going ahead. She noted that Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir ben Mohammed was one of the key guests of the BRF2 in Beijing in April.

Opening the afternoon session, Stephen Brawer, Vice-Chairman of the BRIX, brought into the discussion the importance of culture in a historical sense as a learning method, highlighting the case of Shakespear’s tragedies like Hamlet. He contrasted the recent statements of President Xi in the Conference on Asian Culture’s Dialog of Civilizations to the geopolitical mindset of the British Empire and current American neo-conservative forces. British Geopolitics sabotaged earlier visions of transcontinental land-bridges, leading to WWI. In his presentation “A Community of Shared Future for Mankind – Towards a Dialog of Cultures rather than a Clash of Civilizations”, Brawer pointed to the visions of both G.W. Leibniz and the later representatives of the American Revolution, who were intent on building cultural and physical bridges with China and Asia. He referenced the case of Governor William Gilpin, who envisioned the global transcontinental railway network in the 1880s. This policy in the end of the 19th Century was blocked by WWI orchestrated by the British geopoliticians. The current BRI might follow the same fate unless the current dangerous geopolitical games are stopped and replaced by a true dialog of civilizations.

The last speakers were led by professor Mike Danilovic, from the University of Halmstad and Shanghai Dianji University, speaking about the BRI as a business opportunity for Swedish SMEs, explaining the differences in the mentality and business models between Chinese and Swedish/European companies. He gave the audience an enlightening and entertaining reading derived from his 7 years of work between China and Sweden. He was followed by researcher Jasmine Lihua Liu, from the same university, speaking about “Exploring Chinese Business Culture” and the kinds of pitfalls that can emerge from lack of understanding of the difference in culture, social customs and national character. An MBA student from Halmstad University, Suci Ariyanti, gave her perspective, as an Indonesian youth, on the differences she found between Chinese/Asian culture and that of Sweden. She emphasized that we are all one humanity, with clear differences, but universal goals and aspirations.

Another intensive discussion period followed, where the perspective for future actions was laid out. For sure this Forum will raise the question of a Swedish BRI-membership to the boiling point Swedish institutions and media. The BRIX association and partners organized this seminar under the title “The Second Belt & Road Forum in Stockholm”, following up on the May 28th, 2018, Belt & Road seminar organized by the Schiller Institute with other associations. The BRIX was formed by individuals among the speakers and guests of that 2018 seminar, who all want to promote Sweden’s participation in the Bet and Road Initiative.

Videos of all speeches and the discussion panels are posted on BRIX YouTube Channel.