It was supposed to be China's day of celebrating massive infrastructure spending for the sake of spending (read ghost towns, only now outside China's borders) as Xi Jinping pledged $124 billion on Sunday for his new Silk Road plan to forge "a path of peace, inclusiveness and free trade" while calling for the abandonment of old models based on rivalry and diplomatic power games. However, it did not go quite as smoothly as expected.
A celebration years in the making, Xi hosted dozens of world leaders - including a piano-playing Vladimir Putin - on Sunday for the country's biggest diplomatic showcase of the year, touting his vision of a new "Silk Road" that opens trade routes across the globe. Xi used the summit to "bolster China's global leadership ambitions" as U.S. President Donald Trump promotes "America First" and questions existing global free trade deals.
After scoring 2 hat tricks in Sochi, Putin returns to Moscow where he places 1st in annual Van Cliburn competition pic.twitter.com/FQMs0PZ1W0— Don Draper (@DonDraperClone) May 14, 2017
In total, leaders from 29 countries attended the forum, including some of China's close allies and partners such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Turkey's quasi-dictator Tayyip Erdogan, as well as the heads of the United Nations, and the CapEx leeches from the IMF and World Bank.
"We should build an open platform of cooperation and uphold and grow an open world economy," China's president Xi told the opening of the two-day gathering in Beijing.
Over the past four years, China touted what it formally calls the "One Belt, One Road" initiative as a new way to boost globalization and global development, aiming to expand links between Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond underpinned by billions of dollars in infrastructure investment. In other words, another way to boost China's GDP only this time diluted among more Asian nations, who just have to take China's word that it will ultimately be for their benefit.
Xi also said the world must create conditions that promote open development and encourage the building of systems of "fair, reasonable and transparent global trade and investment rules". China's president also pledged an anchor funding boost to the new Silk Road, including an extra 100 billion yuan ($14.50 billion) into the existing Silk Road Fund, 380 billion yuan in loans from two policy banks and 60 billion yuan in aid to developing countries and international bodies in countries along the new trade routes, according to Reuters. Some however, were concerned that this was nothing more than just Chinese grandstanding: Xi did not give a time frame for the new loans, aid and funding pledged on Sunday.
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Alas, the meticulously scripted plan to showcase China's growing economic and trade dominance did not go off quite as smoothly as Xi had planned.
First, just hours before the summit opened, North Korea launched its latest ballistic missile, provoking Beijing and further testing the patience of China, its chief ally. Ironically, the United States had complained to China on Friday over the inclusion of a North Korean delegation at the event.
Then, in a sign that China's rampant, credit-fuelled growth is making some just a little uncomfortable, some Western diplomats expressed unease about both the summit and the plan as a whole, seeing it as an attempt to promote Chinese influence globally according to Reuters. They are also concerned about transparency and access for foreign firms to the scheme.
Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo said Canberra was receptive to exploring commercial opportunities China's new Silk Road presented, but any decisions would remain incumbent on national interest. Responding to criticism, Xi said that "China is willing to share its development experience with all countries" and added "we will not interfere in other countries' internal affairs. We will not export our system of society and development model, and even more will not impose our views on others."
But the biggest surprise was India, the world's fastest growing nation and the second most populous in the world, which did not even bother to send an official delegation to Beijing and instead criticised China's global initiative, warning of an "unsustainable debt burden" for countries involved.
Indian foreign ministry spokesman Gopal Baglay, asked whether New Delhi was participating in the summit, said "India could not accept a project that compromised its sovereignty."
India is incensed that one of the key Belt and Road projects passes through Kashmir and Pakistan. The nuclear-armed rivals have fought two of their three wars over the disputed region, Reuters notes. "No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity," Baglay said.
Furthermore, he also warned of the danger of debt. One of the criticisms of the Silk Road plan is that host countries may struggle to pay back loans for huge infrastructure projects being carried out and funded by Chinese companies and banks. "Connectivity initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities," Baglay said.
As well as the corridor through Pakistan, India is worried more broadly about China's economic and diplomatic expansion through Asia, and in particular across countries and waterways that it considers to be its sphere of influence.
As China proceeds to flex its economic and geopolitical muscles further in the coming years, we expect many more such similar antagonisms between China and India in the near future.
Finally, in what may be perhaps the best summary of the regional sentiment - and antagonism - over the Silk Road, is this fictional postcard, written by Chris Andrew over at Clarmond.