The upcoming summit on its “new Silk Road” initiative may offer China a chance to flesh out its global leadership ambitions as the West becomes increasingly inward-looking, and Beijing is pulling out the stops to make the event a success with soothing words about sharing the bounty of economic growth and promising inclusivity.
But observers say that it is too early to tell if the Silk Road forum, or the entire project for that matter, will burnish China’s credentials to superseding America on the global arena.
On Sunday (May 14), leaders from 28 countries will attend the two-day Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. The event will promote Chinese President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR), a massive bankrolled infrastructure project linking China with Africa, Asia and Europe through a network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks. The forum will also be China’s first chance since OBOR’s launch in 2013 to formally communicate its policies to participants on a large scale.
Although only one Group of Seven member – Italy – is due to attend, the forum will be China’s biggest diplomatic event of 2017. Singapore will be represented at the event by a delegation led by Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong.
Beijing’s push comes as Washington’s leadership in global trade is changing under United States President Donald Trump’s “America First” stance. In Europe, anti-globalisation sentiment has grown among voters and the continent has been rattled by Britain’s looming exit from the European Union (EU).
“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.
According to a draft communique of the summit, China says its Silk Road initiative is helping create “a new era of globalisation that is open, inclusive and beneficial to all”.
“Our joint endeavour to promote the Belt and Road Initiative provides new opportunities and impetus for international cooperation,” added the document, which is open to revisions.
The communique, which is expected to be published at the end of the summit, also backed “upholding the rules-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system with the WTO (World Trade Organization) at its core”.
The Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), too, touted the same benefits of being part of OBOR.
“I do believe, in the case of ‘One Belt, One Road’, it calls for close cooperation among all of the countries working together for global and regional connectivity to achieve (a) win-win (situation),” said AIIB president Jin Liqun last week.
Chinese state media has proclaimed China’s key role in the Silk Road project and how Beijing plans to use it to challenge the West. The official Xinhua news agency, in a commentary on the front page of the People’s Daily last month, lauded the project as the “China solution” for the world’s economic woes.
A senior Beijing-based Western diplomat said the forum was an attempt to “institutionalise” China’s otherwise amorphous OBOR scheme, while building its clout. Similarly, a senior Indonesian official said that the Chinese were “gunning for” global leadership and that the summit would be a big deal.
“The uncertainly over Trump and his ‘America First’ is leading countries to realise they need to get on good terms with China,” said a senior Asian diplomat, whose country will be represented by a top leader at the summit.
“It’s a great exercise in soft power for China and great timing.”
Despite aggressive promotion of the Silk Road summit, there is some lingering suspicion over China’s aims.
“There’s a lot of scepticism about China’s plans. Yes it is the kind of infrastructure that sounds attractive for parts of Europe, but we all know this is about China gaining influence,” said a senior EU diplomat.
One diplomatic source familiar with discussions on the forum’s communique said: “The forum is downright glorification of Xi Jinping and One Belt, One Road.”
China has taken umbrage at suggestions that the new Silk Road is about it trying to dominate the world and mould it to Beijing’s liking, saying it is good for all and anyone can join.
“Western sceptics have failed to see the fact that the Chinese don’t harbour a zero-sum mentality, but encourage win-win thinking,” Xinhua news agency said in an English-language commentary.
“As Confucius once said: ‘He who wants success should enable others to succeed.’”
Foreign business groups have also questioned whether multinational companies would be able to compete with Chinese firms through the plan in transparent bidding processes.
Mr Zhang Xingfu, an official from the Chinese Commerce Ministry’s cooperation department, played down such concerns.
“Chinese enterprises conducting investment and cooperative business in countries along the Belt and Road initiative will ... actively participate in project bidding, and cooperate and compete with international enterprises in the same industries on the same platform,” Mr Zhang said.
Experts TODAY contacted said that it would be premature to make firm conclusions whether the Silk Road forum, or the entire project for that matter, will enhance China’s standing in the world.
“That will depend on what concrete, actionable projects come out of the event. We will only be certain of that a little after the forum”, said Dr Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.
And while the draft communique for the summit may paint a rosy picture of the OBOR programme, Dr Chong warned against reading too much into it.
“As a declaratory statement that is fine, but we will have to see how this affects policy. I look forward to seeing what the final wording of the communique says and how it translates into policy,” he noted.
China expert Irene Chan told TODAY that doubts lingers over Beijing’s real intentions in the OBOR scheme.
“No matter how Beijing may sell the forum or the OBOR project itself, that there are still many countries suspicious of Chinese intentions,” said Ms Chan, an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“They don’t want to be left out, but yet they don’t fully endorse everything China suggests.”