Mixed Reactions from Rising Powers to China’s Ambitious Belt and Road Forum
The first ever Belt and Road Forum showcasing China’s immensely ambitious global infrastructure vision, which many other countries view as having underlying strategic impulses as well, concluded on May 15 in Beijing. It drew the largest number of foreign dignitaries since the 2008 Olympics Games, with 28 heads of state and at least another 30 representatives from more countries. The United States and Japan which had been equivocating, ultimately sent delegations. The Belt and Road Forum (which the Economist, tongue in cheek, noted has the unfortunate acronym BARF), was an impressive diplomatic show, but the extent to which it accomplished much beyond optics, is being questioned. President Xi Jinping has already announced that a second Forum will be hosted in 2019.
Commentators in the host nation saw the Forum as a major step to accelerate and facilitate the implementation of the colossal Belt and Road scheme, something they promote as first and foremost as economic in nature.
- According to Liu Xingguo and Shen Guiping of the state backed China Daily, China has made cooperation with the economies along the Belt and Road a top priority. They argue that Chinese manufacturing investments abroad are insufficient and that Chinese enterprises should increase their participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. They note the huge opportunities for China and other participants, noting that many of the latter are at the beginning stages of industrialization and are unable to satisfy domestic demand, while China has the investment capacity.
- Yu Hongjun, former vice minister of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, explained in the nationalist Global Times that the Belt and Road Initiative is China’s effort to further expand and mobilize economic globalization while moving China closer to the center of the international stage. He highlighted the possibility of integrating the ASEAN nations as well. The Global Times also referred to Li Yafang, president of the Beijing Review, who emphasized President Xi’s speech at National University of Singapore in November 2015 where he underlined the importance of China’s neighbors as core participants of the Belt and Road Initiative and the ones who stand to benefit most.
Sending a strong signal of displeasure with China’s inclusion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (which runs through Pakistani occupied Kashmir territory that India disputes) in the Belt and Road Initiative, New Delhi chose to be conspicuously absent from the Forum. The decision of Narendra Modi government’s to skip the meeting was received with widespread support from commentators and the media, though many sought answers about how India might or might not engage with other elements of the Initiative moving forward.
- Commenting in The Hindu, a left leaning national daily, Suhasini Haider explained that India had been expressing reservations to China about CPEC ever since it was announced in 2015, but that China was largely insensitive. She notes that China’s apparent last minute gesture to assuage Indian concerns with the Chinese Ambassador to India laying out a four point plan to improve bilateral relations in a speech to a military think thank ten days before the Forum, came too late to make any difference. Looking ahead, she points out that India will officially join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a member next month. SCO has endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative and Haider wonders whether Xi will have anything to offer India to allay its fears.
- The Pioneer, a right of center newspaper supportive of the Bharatiaya Janata Party (BJP) in power, carried an opinion piece by well-known analyst Ashok Malik of the Observer Research Foundation who did not mince words: “The end-goal of OBOR is to establish Chinese mastery over oceans and connectivity routes across Asia and between Asia and Europe.” He went to caution that even without the offending CPEC, the very foundational principles of OBOR offers a strategic challenge to Indiaand called the argument of some analysts in favor of working with China minus CPEC as a “ridiculous” idea.
- Another commentator in The Pioneer Ravish Bhatia, urged Indians to take a more realist approach to the Initiative, invoking the classic Indian political treatise Arthashastra from 2,000 years ago. Indeed, Bhatia was encouraged to find “a hint of confidence” in the Indian government’s position referring to remarks made by Arun Jaitley, currently in charge of both Defense and Finance Ministries. Jaitley had commented that, “I have no hesitation in saying we have some serious reservations about it, because of sovereignty issues.” At the same time, Bhatia pointed to the Chinese Ambassador’s courting of India and his new four point agenda, and writes that “Though India is justified in proceeding cautiously, it needs to come up with an alternative.”
- The Indian Express, a left of center national daily featured an opinion piece from on of India’s leading strategic analysts, C. Rajamohan. Rajamohan declared that the Belt and Road Initiative was “a wake-up call for India: geography is tied to economics and strategy.” As he put it, “President Xi appears to have shaken India out of its geopolitical stupor.” Rajamohan goes on to enumerate a series of steps that India needs to take to improve its own connectivity in the region to carve out a better position for itself.
While the Japanese government is wary of the China-led Belt and Road Initiative, it sent a delegation to the Forum. This was most likely as insurance given President Donald Trump’s rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership and his apparent softening toward Beijing in recent days. Tokyo seems to have chosen engagement due to some concerns about becoming isolated.
- Koya Jikibi of Nikkei Asian Review, a center-right business paper, saw the Belt and Road Initiative assymbolic of China’s attempt to establish itself as the regional hegemon– a plan Japan is opposed to. He stressed that Japanese President Shinzo Abe chose not attend the Belt and Road Forum. However, many key targets of President Abe’s diplomacy were in attendance, including Putin and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, which raised the stakes for Japan. This seems to explain why the Secretary General of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party headed up the Japanese delegation.
- The Japan Timeseditorialized that the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative is an assertion of China’s leading role in Asia and as a bid to fill the vacuum left by President Trump’s America First policies. The editorial argued that while skeptics of China’s initiative see OBOR as driven by China’s stagnating economy, the project would not only increase demand for Chinese companies, but would also enhance Chinese leadership – a double-win for China. It pointed out that Japan and the US are worried about the long-term design and content of the OBOR plan, and cited that the harshest critics go so as far to accuse China of “neo-imperialism.”
The South Korean government sees the Chinese invitation to the Forum as marking the beginning of a new era of “summit diplomacy.” One article noted how Lee Hae-chan, special envoy to China, emphasized that Chinese President Xi’s attitude in a phone conversation with new Korean president Moon Jae-in was positive and upbeat, something that Seoul hopes to maintain through participation in the Forum.
- Sarah Kim of the conservative Korea Joongang Daily shared the optimistic expectations of the South Korean delegation, and considered these meetings an opportunity to improve South Korea-China relations. According to her though, despite the new hope, Chinese disappointment with Korean policies regarding the U.S. are still visible.
- Rachel Lee of the Korea Times regarded the Belt and Road Forum as an opportunity to mend frayed ties between Seoul and Beijing over the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), to which China is fiercely opposed. She pointed out that China initially excluded South Korea but then extended an invitation in the hope that South Korea might reverse its position under the new government.
- The liberal Korea Times argued that Korea should stay involved in China’s “One Belt and One Road” project that will encompass 68 countries and account for 40 percent of the world’s combined gross domestic product. It described western criticism as mostly “sour grapes,” but conceded that it is legitimate for the U.S. to feel that China is going to reestablish itself as a colonial superpower. Moreover, as a democratic and western allied country, the newspaper felt South Korea should consider taking western concerns regarding deals with authoritarian countries like Russia and Turkey seriously. Regardless, the Korea Times considers this opportunity is too big for South Korea to pass up, as it would connect Koreans with nations that are landlocked via China and establish the country as a terminus for goods shipped from the Americas and Oceania.
President Vladimir Putin enjoyed special treatment in Beijing, given the honor of being the second speaker at the opening ceremony, right after Xi Jinping. The Russian government seized the summit as a rare opportunity to highlight the benefits of Russia as an international partner.
- Vita Spivak, the coordinator of the “Russia in Asia-Pacific Region” program at the Carnegie Moscow Center expressed her views in the state-owned paper Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH). Spivak and Russian officials viewed the summit as yet another stepping stone in solidifying the Sino-Russian strategic friendship. Russia’s gains were seen as mostly political: President Putin was able to emphasize on an international stage the Greater Eurasia project and promote Russia as an equal partner of the Belt-Road Initiative. In terms of economic gains, Russia’s main success was the promotion of the China-Russia Regional Cooperation Development Investment Fund to promote cooperation between China’s Northeast and Russia’s Far East. However, the commentator emphasized the difficulties involved in attracting Chinese investors to Russia, and the fierce competition for their attention.
- Geopolitical analyst Pepe Escobar in the government backed RT noted how Putin was able to promote a possible symbiosis between the One Belt One Road/ Belt and Road Initiative and the Russia driven Eurasian Economic Union(comprising Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia). Russia could take advantage of cooperating with a wide range of countries and building a larger Eurasian partnership. He echoed President Putin on the prospects of creating an alliance from the Atlantic to the Pacific (in which Russia would be a key member), thanks to investments by Moscow to improve transportation links.
Given Brazil’s political crisis and deep recession, the Brazilian press did not report on the government’s role at the Belt and Road Summit or position regarding China’s motivations and goals. Rather, press reports focused on the scope of this project for deepening global economic cooperation and integration. O Globo covered the opening ceremony of the Forum and noted its historic ambitions as well as comments from foreign leaders. The report did not include comments from the Brazilian government, but quoted the Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, speech at the summit. O Globo noted Bachelet’s observation that “in this moment of worldwide protectionism and weak global growth, it is the right time to find new horizons for development.” She noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision is of the largest economic project in the world today, providing everyone with a path forward.
- The Carta Maior editorial stated that the Beijing meeting could become a game changer in the global political economy and represented the only global framework for development introduced in this century by any global power. The editorial concludes that China and its BRI represent the new motor of global development.
- BBC Brazil offered up an analysis of the five most important infrastructure projects associated with the BRI and quoted the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, who noted that China’s $900 billion plan to connect the world will “shake up the world.”