China invites the world to join its “project of the century”, but many remain resistant to Xi Jinping’s charm offensive.
T he belt is what binds us all, and the road is where we must walk."
Such glowing praise of China’s One Belt, One Road development plan could have come straight from the mouth of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Yet these words came not from Mr. Xi, but from Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the UN’s World Tourism Organisation. The president’s vision is winning supporters.
Mr. Xi, speaking at last weekend’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) summit, shared his own analogy. “Swan geese are able to fly far and safely through winds and storms because they move in flocks and help each other as a team,” he told the conference. “The message is: the best way to meet challenges and achieve better development is through cooperation.”
Many see OBOR as Mr. Xi’s effort to place himself at the head of the flock. Some leaders are lining up behind him, but while many are keen for an injection of Chinese money, fewer are ready to accept Chinese leadership.
Building bridges, not walls
China billed the summit in Beijing as its diplomatic event of the year. The two-day conference, which boasted Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif among the attendees, revealed eye-catching figures including the Chinese government’s pledge to invest $124 billion into the scheme and provide $78 billion of financing for OBOR projects.
Throughout the conference, Mr. Xi delivered a carefully crafted message, portraying OBOR not as China’s push for global leadership, but as a development project to spur global prosperity.
“In advancing the Belt and Road, we will not re-tread the old path of games between foes. Instead we will create a new model of cooperation and mutual benefit," Mr Xi said in his opening speech.
Winning friends, but not influencing people
There were nonetheless hints of China’s ambition. “As some Western countries move backwards by erecting 'walls', China is contriving to build bridges, both literal and metaphorical,” proclaimed the state-run Xinhua news agency on Saturday, a suggestion that China is watching US isolationism with opportunistic eyes.
Beijing would therefore have been pleased with some of the rhetoric heard over the weekend, especially from some of America’s close trading partners. The UK’s Chancellor Philip Hammond described the UK as a “natural partner” for the Belt and Road Initiative, while Mexico’s Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo touted China as a possible alternative trading partner in the face of US protectionism.
Mr. Xi certainly looked keen to begin exercising a leadership role, offering to help tackle the economic and security problems faced by Greece and Turkey, issues the EU has struggled to deal with.
Enthusiasm for Chinese money, however, does not equate to enthusiasm for Chinese leadership. “Many participant countries would ask China for monetary and expertise support in developing infrastructure, but won't really formally endorse China's global leadership,” Yu Jie, head of China Foresight at LSE IDEAS, told The World Weekly.
Not everyone seems desperate for China’s money either. Europe is important from China's perspective, explains Tim Summers, senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Asia Programme. “Both the belt and road are clearly intended to enhance connectivity not just across Eurasia but between China and Europe,” Dr. Summers told TWW.
However, the EU, which holds reservations over OBOR, can put the brakes on China’s plans, demonstrated by its ongoing investigation into the Belgrade-Budapest high-speed rail funded by Beijing.
Some are openly hostile, in particular India, which refrained from sending a delegate to the summit over fears Chinese support is abeting Pakistan in the disputed region of Kashmir. "No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Indian foreign ministry spokesman Gopal Baglay told reporters.
Some analysts have expressed concerns that OBOR projects will be overly tailored to China’s needs, favouring projects designed to export Chinese overcapacity in industries such as steel and make use of surplus savings. If these projects do not generate the expected returns for the host countries, it could leave them burdened with debt.
Worries are also surfacing about the baggage that might accompany Chinese funding. A document acquired by leading Pakistani daily Dawn lays out Beijing’s plans for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which includes installing 24-hour surveillance in major cities and the dissemination of Chinese culture. Such designs could give fuel to those who frame OBOR as 21st-century Chinese colonialism.
If handled correctly, some observers argue, there is no reason why OBOR cannot be as mutually beneficial as Mr. Xi claims. Building infrastructure in other countries with Beijing’s financial support “should benefit trade and economic development in those places, while of course bringing new business opportunities to Chinese companies,” Dr. Summers told TWW.
For the moment, however, many remain sceptical of China’s grand designs, as numerous countries only sent lower-level ministers or no delegations at all.