India didn’t show up. North Korea did, to the annoyance of the United States. And Pyongyang threatened to steal the show by firing a ballistic missile that landed less than 100 km from Russia. Despite the distractions, China stuck to the script at the first major summit dedicated to its new “Silk Road” initiative to open land and sea corridors across Asia and beyond, pushing President Xi Jinping’s free trade message hard. The huge “Belt and Road” project, unveiled in 2013 and championed by Xi, is as amorphous as it is ambitious, and the May 14-15 forum attended by 29 leaders and other top officials from around the world was designed to overcome the doubters.
It succeeded partially, but Xi’s prominence at the Beijing meeting, and state media’s ringing endorsement of a concept that jars strikingly with U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, pointed to how seriously China took it. In closing remarks, made before journalists who were not permitted to ask questions, Xi vowed to host another Belt and Road forum in 2019. “There is still a long way to go as the Belt and Road is a long term undertaking,” he said. “It is important for all parties to work more closely together if we are to make the blueprint a reality and keep delivering tangible results.”
In the buildup to the country’s biggest diplomatic event of the year, authorities were sensitive to criticism that the Silk Road mostly benefited Chinese companies and risked creating unmanageable levels of debt in host countries. Official media featured smiling foreigners saying how much Belt and Road had changed their lives, and addressed the reservations of some Western nations head-on. On the night before the summit opened, the official Xinhua news agency, in an English language commentary, denounced the “naysayers (who) circle like buzzards”.
“Pessimism sells more newspapers and draws more clicks than stories of success,” it said. The host nation pulled out the stops to ensure the summit went smoothly. It closed some bars and restaurants in central Beijing on the pretext of ensuring security, and unblocked foreign websites like Google at meeting venues, inaccessible to ordinary Chinese. When male reporters turned up to the summit on Sunday, those not wearing a suit were asked to form a separate line before being handed second-hand jackets to make them more presentable.
INCLUSION AND IRRITATION
At the gathering, China pledged $124 billion in funding for the Belt and Road. In the closing communique, it also hinted at its ambition to take on a global leadership role at a time when protectionist forces were gathering steam in other regions. “It is our hope through the Belt and Road development, we will unleash new economic forces for global growth, build new platforms for global development, and rebalance economic globalisation so mankind will move closer to a community of common destiny,” Xi said at the close of the event. Long-running diplomatic disputes did manage to muscle in on the narrative of inclusion for all, however.
India, whose population is expected to surpass that of China in the coming years, pointedly avoided the summit, complaining that a Silk Road project that crosses Pakistan impinges on its sovereignty by passing through the disputed region of Kashmir. And when China confirmed North Korea was attending, the U.S. embassy in Beijing submitted a complaint to China’s foreign ministry saying its presence sent the wrong message as the world tried to pressure Pyongyang over its weapons programme. North Korea’s response may have irked its hosts, however. On Sunday it fired a ballistic missile in defiance of international calls to curb its weapons programme.
Amid Chinese proclamations that all were welcome to join the Belt and Road initiative, one leader enjoyed a place of honour. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke right after Xi’s keynote speech on Sunday and sat next to him at Monday’s leaders’ event. The closing communique and a separate list of 270 concrete results from the summit covered everything from vague references to human rights and democracy – not subjects China gets much praise for internationally – to an oceanic observation station with Cambodia and free trade deal with Georgia. Palestinian delegate Adnan Samara told Reuters that for him the Belt and Road meant not only economic solutions for his homeland, but political ones too.
“We need the interference of China – we need justice, we need peace. I believe China can play a big role in this,” he said. “China is powerful, they are growing. They can interfere in many problems. They know our problem.” While some projects under the Belt and Road banner are clearly defined, others remain vague, and although investment in infrastructure across Asia is vast, calculating the precise value of the initiative is difficult.
“After this speech, I think the vision is much clearer now,” Poland’s Radek Pyffel, an Alternate Director of the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, told Reuters, referring to Xi’s opening speech. “But maybe we will see some other definition of the Silk Road in the future. It’s still very general, it’s the umbrella for many other projects and initiatives.”