BEIJING: China hosts on Sunday a summit showcasing its ambitious drive to revive ancient Silk Road trade routes and lead a new era of globalization, just as Washington turns inward in favor of “America First” policies.
Leaders from 28 nations, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will attend the two-day meeting at Yanqi Lake, located in a Beijing suburb near the Great Wall.
But Western powers seem less enthusiastic about the project, with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni the only leader coming from the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
The forum will promote President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR), a massive Chinese-bankrolled infrastructure project to link the country with Africa, Asia and Europe through a network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks.
China’s push comes as Washington’s leadership in global trade is changing under US President Donald Trump’s nationalist “America First” stance.
In Europe, anti-globalization sentiment has grown among voters and the continent has been rattled by Britain’s looming exit from the European Union.
“There is a pressing need in today’s world to have a shared, open and inclusive cooperation platform… to jointly tackle global challenges,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters ahead of the summit.
“What we need is not a hero that acts alone, but partners of cooperation that stick together,” he said.
OBOR spans some 65 countries representing 60 percent of the global population and around a third of global GDP. The China Development Bank alone has earmarked $890 billion for some 900 projects.
Analysts are skeptical that the Asian giant can take the lead in global commerce, while also cautioning that an integrated world trade system where China’s ruling Communist party sets the rules could come with serious risks and hidden costs.
The European Union’s ambassador to Beijing, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, recalled that EU companies have repeatedly complained about unequal market access in China.
“We hope China will implement domestically what it is preaching internationally,” Schweisgut told reporters on Tuesday.
“The Chinese market, when it comes to investment, is not as opened as the European market to Chinese companies.”
But Europe’s large absence is a “missed opportunity” indicative of a “very inward-looking, very Eurocentric” outlook on the rise as leaders have less to gain politically at home from engagement with China, said Jean-Pierre Lehmann of Switzerland’s IMD business school.
“China’s a reality and it’s not going to go away. We can make things better by engaging with China instead of needlessly containing it,” he said.
For China, OBOR is a practical solution to relieve domestic overcapacity that plagues its industrial sectors such as steel.
It is also a way to expand its strategic global influence – a key concern for Xi, who frequently trumpets the goal of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
China’s propaganda machine is working hard to promote OBOR, with the official Xinhua news agency boasting that it has published 30,000 stories related to the program in the past three years.
“After the elapse of 1,300 years… powerful and prosperous China is emerging from the depth of history and returning to the center of the world arena,” Xinhua has declared.