As US retreats to Asia-Pacific, China fills void with ambitious global plan
When President Donald Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in January, critics said it left a vacuum in the heart of the Asia-Pacific, ceding the United States’ role as leader. regional economic.
China plans to show how it fills this void on Sunday.
At a major event in Beijing, President Xi Jinping will present himself as the leader of a new economic order and praise an ambitious global trade and infrastructure development plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative. “.
Some 28 leaders from Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America – including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Myanmar State Councilor Aung San Su Kyi and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – will attend the two-part summit. days.
They hope to get a share of the hundreds of billions of dollars in pledged Chinese loans and investments dedicated to building ports and railways, power plants and pipelines around the world.
The plan, launched by Xi four years ago during a visit to Kazakhstan, was initially modeled on the ancient Silk Road, a network of trade routes that stretched from China through Asia to in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
Today, its reach has broadened to cover almost the entire world – but not the United States.
Xi announced the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on Sunday in a high-profile speech in January at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, in which he presented China as a champion of globalization and he – even as a guardian of the liberal economic order.
So far, the Belt and Road plan is more rhetoric than reality, experts say, more a repackaging of existing projects than new money on the table. Yet the message is clear, and Xi’s flagship foreign policy endeavor – which he also uses to solidify his image as a strongman at home ahead of a key Communist Party convention in the fall – doesn’t cannot be undone.
“This is another chance for Xi Jinping to strut on the world stage and restore his image,” said Tom Miller, author of “China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road”. But, he added, this also concerns Donald Trump. “The withdrawal of the TPP has left a void at the heart of economic leadership in Asia, and Xi Jinping is trying to jump into that void.”
Chinese state media called the plan “Globalization 2.0”, a new model for the world economy drawn from the East rather than the West, but also an example of “win-win” cooperation.
Still, there is no doubt that Xi is at the helm, and the plan has sparked as much suspicion as it has enthusiasm outside of China.
India is unhappy that one of the flagship projects is a $ 50 billion economic corridor to the Arabian Sea that crosses the territory of its great rival, Pakistan, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will remain at the Sunday gap.
The German, French and British leaders will not be there either, mainly because of the national elections, but also because the central nations of Europe are wary of any attempt by Beijing to undermine European unity by flooding European countries. the poorest money. The leaders are also unhappy that China is not doing more to open its own markets and encourage foreign investment.
Putin is also wary of China’s influence in Central Asia, a region Russia sees as its backyard, and embraces China’s plan with “gritted teeth,” said Frederick Starr, president of the Central Asia Institute. – Caucasus and the Silk Road Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
China’s motivations for the plan are primarily economic, as it seeks new engines of growth and seeks overseas markets to counter a slowdown at home. Construction projects can help reduce overcapacity in industries such as steel and cement, while China’s underdeveloped and struggling west could – in theory at least – benefit economically from closer ties to China. the rest of Asia.
The plan also offers the country’s large state-owned enterprises a global testing ground, according to Jan Gaspers of think-tank MERICS in Berlin.
There is also a security dimension, an attempt to stabilize China’s “near foreigner” with economic opportunities likely to counter the spread of radical Islamic ideas in Central Asia.
But it’s also impossible not to see the project through a geopolitical lens, a “Chinese effort to build a sphere of influence,” said Paul Haenle of the Beijing-based Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for World Politics.
Small countries that become dependent on Chinese money may feel pressured to support China’s position on international issues, while infrastructure under construction, such as ports, could have dual use, one day helping China to project its military power.
But will all of this work?
“I’m a little skeptical,” said Matthew Goodman, who has followed efforts to reconnect Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Not only does China have its own challenges, he said, but “the infrastructure sector is very difficult: from geography to land rights, from political, social and environmental issues to making it a proposition. ‘viable investment’.
Data from the Ministry of Commerce shows that China’s foreign direct investment to countries identified under the Belt and Road Initiative fell by 2% in 2016 and by 18% in 2017. In the together, outward investment to 53 Belt and Road countries reached $ 14.5 billion last year. , less than 9 percent of the world total.
And when the projects got under way, it didn’t go smoothly, in part because Chinese companies are used to making deals with the political elites in countries and being oblivious to the concerns of ordinary people – a blind spot may have developed in an authoritarian state.
Protests erupted in January against a Chinese-built port and industrial park in Sri Lanka. Concerns have also been expressed in the past about dams in Myanmar (also known as Burma) and Cambodia and fears about potential Chinese immigration and land grabbing in Central Asia.
Rail projects linking Thailand, Laos and Indonesia have seen delays and cost disagreements, while a flagship project in Europe, a railway to link Budapest and Belgrade, is undergoing a investigation by the European Commission for possible breaches of public procurement rules.
But China is learning from some of its missteps, experts say, with its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank hiring Western experts, studying global best practices and pledging to be “lean, clean and green.”
It is also infinitely more committed to its Belt and Road project than the United States was when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a New Silk Road plan in 2011 to revitalize the United States. Afghanistan as a link between Central Asia and South Asia.
Clinton’s idea never really saw the light of day, while the Obama administration has been criticized by pundits for responding negatively to the new Chinese bank. The Trump administration sends a delegation to attend the Belt and Road Forum, led by Matt Pottinger, special assistant to the president and senior director of the National Security Council for East Asia.
But it may also need a long-term regional plan of its own.
“This is a major challenge for the United States,” Goodman said. “If not through the TPP, we have to re-engage, find another way to play in the Asia-Pacific arena. There is so much at stake for us economically and politically. We have no strategy. economical, and we need one. “
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)