LAST week, China hosted a large-scale international conference to discuss the vision of its leader, President Xi Jinping, of connecting Asia, Europe and Africa through a network of roads, ports, bridges, tunnels, pipelines and other projects that will involve 68 countries in three continents and about two-thirds of the world’s population, with cumulative total investment estimated in the trillions of dollars.
China is certainly thinking big, at a time when the US is shrinking its footprint around the world.
It is important to keep in mind that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is not the result of multilateral consultation. It springs from the mind of one man – Xi Jinping. And countries jumping on the bandwagon are indicating that they accept Chinese leadership, not just now but indefinitely, since these projects don’t have an end date.
Indeed, while the Belt and Road Initiative is being presented as a win-win economic package, its implications are largely political, elevating China to the pinnacle of global leadership.
Within China, the meeting last week, attended by representatives from 130 countries and including 30 heads of state or government as well as international organizations, strengthens the Chinese leader’s hand as he prepares for a crucial party meeting later this year when the country’s leadership for the next five years will be determined.
Coming as it did after Xi had made a big splash in Davos four months ago with his ringing declaration in support of free trade, in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade group, the forum further elevates China’s position as a visionary leader.
The Chinese leader is moving with the greatest of ease into the vacuum created by the absence of American leadership.
In his opening address, Xi termed his initiative a “project of the century” that would “benefit people across the world.” Indeed, China has referred to the Belt-and-Road as a “public good” that it is offering to the rest of the world as a responsible power.
The Chinese foreign ministry said in the aftermath of the forum that “large countries, boasting relatively more resources and more capabilities, shall naturally assume more responsibilities and make more contributions” and the initiative shows that “China never shirks its responsibility.”
Even the US, which boycotted the China-launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, decided to take part after President Xi extended an invitation to President Trump when the two men met last month. The US, at the last minute, sent Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council. Japan, too, sent a senior official. India conspicuously stayed away because a major “Belt” project— the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—passes through India-claimed but Pakistan-occupied part of Kashmir.
The total amount promised by China in its overall initiative has been put at more than S$1 trillion. However, one well-informed writer, Wang Xiangwei, former editor in chief of the South China Morning Post and now its editorial adviser, is warning of “dangers and risks which are not usually discussed and debated publicly” but “could impede China’s efforts to assert its global leadership on trade and investment.”
“One chief danger,” Wang wrote, “is overconfidence.” He added that the China’s “suppression of doubts and dissent” could lead to risks and to uncertainties being underestimated.
Launched in 2013 as “One Belt, One Road,” the initiative involves the revival of the ancient Silk Road, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, as well as a “maritime Silk Road” that links China by sea with Europe by way of various Asian and African countries.
Impressive as the concept is, China is magnifying its impact even more by including projects completed in the past as among its components, such as an oil pipeline in Kazakhstan.
While geographically America isn’t linked to the “Belt and Road,” the Chinese have said that all countries can take part in its projects. American companies aren’t about to turn down opportunities to do business, such as infrastructure development, in various parts of the world.
The initiative makes economic sense from China’s point of view since it provides alternative options than US Treasury bonds for investing China’s vast foreign currency reserves. It also opens up new markets for Chinese companies.
But despite generally favorable publicity for the forum, not everyone was happy. The European Union has asked China to match its calls for free trade by meeting pledges to open up its economy. In particular, it called on China for reciprocity and give to EU companies the same access to the Chinese market that Chinese companies have to the European market.