Unease mounts over China’s beltway

opinion May 16, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

The Beijing Road and Belt conference’s focus on Central Asia leaves other parts of region wondering if they’ll be left behind

The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing on Sunday and Monday earned due credit, but it would be better if China intended to expand its purported “sense of belonging” to countries along the vast network of road and maritime trading routes.

While President Xi Jinping foresaw the project connecting much of the world when he initiated it in 2013, the countries to be traversed aren’t merely waiting for China to pour money into it. They also want to have some say in how the project proceeds. This week’s forum drew 29 heads of state and government leaders, representatives of 61 international organisations and delegates from 110 countries, as well as the secretary-general of the United Nations and the presidents of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Clearly the international community wants a stake in the ambitious One Belt One Road initiative.

Yet China’s grand geopolitical strategy to reshape the international landscape would be more palatable if Beijing showed greater affinity for multilateralism and the fostering of mutual interests. The Belt and Road scheme could provide crucial economic respite for nations across the region and inspire communal cooperation that would benefit all. While many regional leaders regard the initiative as little more than a series of giant infrastructure projects aimed at extending China’s power, Beijing has always touted the plan as a means to economic security.

In his opening speech at the forum on Sunday, Xi called Belt and Road “the project of the century”, one that will benefit people around the world. He foresees a network of peace, prosperity and innovation that will connect different civilisations. “Spanning thousands of miles and years, the ancient silk routes embodied the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit,” Xi told the 1,500 attendees. Countries along the route have seen increased connectivity in policies, infrastructure, trade and finance, as well as strengthened bonds among their peoples, he said.

What was ignored at the conference, however, was a mechanism for the affected countries to participate proportionally. The conference highlighted only the Silk Road project, which will connect China with countries to the west, extending as far as Europe. Xi spoke of the China-Pakistan and China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridors and the New Eurasian Continental Bridge. The role of China’s public and private sectors and its financial wherewithal were in the spotlight. Beijing has pledged $14.5 billion to a Silk Road Fund, in addition to what it’s already invested.

Countries outside this western sphere, including those in East and Southeast Asia, had reason for concern. Once the economic corridors in central Asia are completed, China will have alternative channels for transporting goods to and from the Middle East and Africa. With the need to cooperate with Asian nations elsewhere reduced, there is a possibility that China could become more aggressive in its push to control contended territories in the East and South China seas.

On the other hand, the leaders of Vietnam and the Philippines were among those invited to the Beijing conference, surely a good sign. But they and their counterparts in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, as well as key financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, will be hoping for further assurance.