China’s Xi lays out $900bn Silk Road vision amid claims of empire-building

China’s Xi lays out $900bn Silk Road vision amid claims of empire-building

Global leaders attend ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure summit to praise plan Xi Jinping says will bring a new ‘golden age’ of globalisation

PHOTO: A Chinese flag flies over Tashkurgan, a tranquil frontier town on China’s border with Pakistan, which is bracing for change as President Xi Jinping kicks off what some call the most ambitious development plan in history, the ‘Belt and Road initiative. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian.

Chinese president Xi Jinping has kicked off a two-day showcase of what some call the most ambitious development project ever by comparing his country to a peace-loving explorer set on transforming the world with treasure-laden galleys not warships, guns or swords.

Speaking at the start of a high-profile summit about China’s “Belt and Road initiative”, Xi hailed his multi-billion dollar infrastructure crusade as a means of building a modern-day version of the ancient Silk Road and a new “golden age” of globalisation.

“The glory of the ancient Silk Road shows that geographical dispersion is not insurmountable,” he told the 29 heads of state who have gathered in Beijing for the event, including Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan.

However, as Xi took to the stage his signature foreign policy initiative faced a backlash with India launching a scathing attack on the $900bn Chinese plan and announcing it would boycott proceedings. According to the the Times of India, New Delhi believed the scheme was “little more than a colonial enterprise [that would leave] debt and broken communities in its wake”.

Xi told a different story on Sunday, painting what he called his “project of the century” as a bold and inclusive attempt to kickstart a new era of globalisation.

In a 45-minute address, the Communist party chief vowed to throw his weight behind a global construction spree stretching all the way from Asia, across Europe and Africa, to the Americas.

“The Belt and Road initiative is rooted in the ancient Silk Road … but it is also open to all other countries,” the Chinese leader said, promising to pump $125bn into the scheme.

Just as Chinese traders and explorers such as Zheng He, a Ming dynasty navigator, went out into the world in peace, so too would China now seek to engage with other countries. “These pioneers won their place in history not as conquerors with warships guns or swords but are remembered as friendly emissaries leading caravans of camels and sailing treasure-loaded ships,” Xi said.

“This part of history shows that civilisation thrives with openness and that nations prosper from exchange.”

PHOTO: Russian president Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov enjoy a business breakfast at the summit on Sunday. Photograph: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS

Tom Miller, the author of a new book about the Belt and Road, said that in many countries the attitude to Xi’s infrastructure extravaganza was: “The more money the better”. And on Sunday morning, a cast of global leaders who are hoping to benefit from Beijing’s munificence lined up to heap praise on Xi Jinping.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, hailed what he called a unique, historic, extraordinary and momentous project. “Many of us in the developing world – especially we in Africa – continue to view China as a successful economic model and a reliable ally in the fight against poverty and in our quest for prosperity,” he said, describing the Belt and Road as the greatest economic collaboration of the 21st century.

One of the most resounding endorsements came from Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of key ally Pakistan, who told the audience he had come to offer his “deepest tributes” to Xi’s “seminal initiative”. “We stand at the cusp of a geo-economic revolution. In fact, this is the dawn of a truly new era of synergetic intercontinental cooperation,” Sharif said.

Malaysia’s prime Minister, Najib Razak, tweeted his approval from the audience for the “visionary and exciting” initiative while Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, predicted it would “pave the way for a more inclusive, equal, just, prosperous and peaceful society with development for all”. “Chile is ready to become a bridge country between Asia and Latin America,” Bachelet said.

However, there are also deep-rooted doubts, with some suspecting Beijing is using its “win-win” project as a ploy to lure less powerful nations into its economic orbit and boost its geopolitical power. Privately, western diplomats voice concerns about China’s true intentions and how much involvement non-Chinese companies will be allowed to have in Belt and Road projects. Only one G7 leader, the Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, is in Beijing for Xi’s summit.

In a statement released on Saturday, India, the plan’s most vocal critic, cautioned China against pursuing projects that would create an “unsustainable debt burden for communities”, damage the environment or infringe upon other countries’ sovereignty. Such initiatives “must be based on universally recognised international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality”, it said.

Beijing hit back at critics, with its official news agency attacking the “naysayers” and “fear mongers” it claimed were hovering over Xi’s plan like buzzards. The Belt and Road initiative was “not and will never be neocolonialism by stealth”, Xinhua argued in a commentary.

“China harbours no intention to control or threaten any other nation. China needs no puppet states,” it added, describing the summit as a chance not “to assert a new hegemony, but an opportunity to bring an old one to an end”.

Peter Cai, a fellow from Australia’s Lowy Institute, said the two-day forum was Xi’s latest attempt to burnish his credentials as a responsible world leader in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world. “The two strongest champions of globalisation as I see it – the US and the UK – are both retreating [genuinely] or symbolically from their commitment to globalisation … I see this as presenting a good strategic opportunity for China to promote itself as the new champion of globalisation.”

Cai said a Chinese construction blitz was good news for Asia, which suffers from a chronic deficit of infrastructure, but argued it was too early to tell whether Xi’s lofty dreams would be fulfilled. “Some projects are happening overseas but we are talking about multi-year infrastructure projects – some are just starting,” he said. “At this stage it is too early to pass judgment.”

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen

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  • Leslie Chin  On 05/19/2017 at 7:31 am

    As America shuts itself off from the rest of the world China is rushing in to fill the vacuum. China is trying to re-establish the ancient Silk Route from Xian to Rome by building a railway from China to Europe across Central Asia following the old Silk Route linking the cities of Central Asia and Europe. With this project China hopes to establish spheres of influence over its neighbors while opening up markets for its goods in the West. China will also take a lead in the TPP which has been abandoned by the US.

    China has no ambition to rule the world. The Chinese had an opportunity to colonise countries around the Indian Ocean and East Africa during the voyages of the Treasure Fleet led by Admiral Cheng Ho or Zheng He in the 15th century which were authorised by the Ming Emperor Yung Lo. It is even postulated that the Chinese reached the Americas pre-dating Columbus by several decades. Cheng Ho sought no slaves or treasure — to do so would have implied that China needed what other lands possessed. The Middle Kingdom, China, needed nothing from anybody and had nothing to learn from anyone. They were therefore not traders or conquerors; they brought only gifts and a show of force, and expected tributes in return. However after Yung Lo died China reverted to an isolationist policy and the Treasure Fleet was burned and the records destroyed.

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