Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The ‘One belt one road’ (OBOR) Forum has been a diplomatic success, ending on a pledge for another international summit in 2019.
Ostensibly, the Beijing Summit ended with nearly 30 world leaders signing on to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategy for a new globalisation. In fact, 68 countries appear interested in jointly developing their infrastructure on the new Silk Road trade links between China, Asia, Africa and Europe, an area that accounts for about 40 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product.
For Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “The initiative is not a member’s club, but a circle of friends with extensive participation”. During his visit to the United States in April to meet his American counterpart, President Xi Jinping said that China would welcome the United States to join the new Silk Roads to develop its infrastructure framework.
Even though “The initiative has entered into a new phase . . . with construction in full swing," according to Xi, time will tell whether the initiative will take off for there are a number of problems.
The first one is China's alliance with North Korea, whose latest missile test almost overshadowed the summit. The second was the absence of world leaders from developed nations like the United States, Japan and Australia. The third was the decision of the most important European countries, France, Germany and Great Britain, not to sign the commercial and financial statement at the end of the summit, due to the lack of transparency.
Those who did sign on agree, the final communique said, to promote “practical cooperation on roads, railways, ports, maritime and inland water transport, aviation, energy pipelines, electricity and telecommunications” to boost growth, and work on a long-term stable and sustainable financial system.
China said that it would inject at least US$ 113 billion in extra funding for the initiative, as well as promote partnerships with Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. There was no reference to the United States, but the statement said its welcome extended to “other regions”.
US President Donald Trump appointed Matthew Pottinger, senior director for Asian Affairs at the US National Security Council, as head of the US delegation to the forum to reassure the Chinese that the US would take part in OBOR projects, something that has raised some eyebrows in some liberal media in the United States.
“China has a grand plan to dominate world trade,” read one CNN headline. “China is moving so fast and thinking so big that it is willing to make short-term missteps for what it calculates to be long-term gains,” the New York Times reported. “Even financially dubious projects in corruption-ridden countries like Pakistan and Kenya make sense for military and diplomatic reasons.”
The Trump administration obviously disagrees since Matthew Pottinger replaced a lower level official at the helm of the US delegation after China announced measures to increase imports from the US last week.
Addressing the gathering, Pottinger urged China to insist from the start on transparent government procurement. “Transparency will ensure that privately owned companies can bid in a fair process, and that the cost of participating in tenders will be worth the investment,” he said.
Some US companies are already involved. US equipment manufacturers like General Electric, Caterpillar and Honeywell have said they’ve already clinched OBOR-related contracts and plan to bid for more.
The United States wants to be part of the project because increased economic interdependence between China and the region could create new barriers to US exports and investment by exporting Chinese standards,” the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, said in a report issued soon after the OBOR forum ended.
The latter raises questions about the benefits participating countries might actually gain. Hasnain Malik, an analyst with investment bank Exotix Partners in Dubai, said the initiative undoubtedly improves access to capital for countries with “historically retarded political and economic governance”.
“However, the questions for investors in host belt and road countries are: whether the infrastructure built is useful for the indigenous economy; what recurring costs are incurred in order to provide sufficient returns to Chinese capital; whether the construction phase creates opportunities for local suppliers of materials, labour and finance,” Malik said.
About 50 Chinese state-owned corporate giants have invested or participated in nearly 1,700 projects in countries along the new Silk Road routes over the past three years. Yet, so far China has not clearly defined a coherent strategy.
How will these countries be involved? Will OBOR simply remain an infrastructure project? Nobody – apart from the Chinese officials, who have been quiet – really knows, but various observers around the world see the project differently.
Almost four years after the announcement of the initiative, none of the projects envisioned by China has been completed. Even the most important Chinese project in Europe, the Budapest-Belgrade high-speed railway, is being held up by European Union regulations.
In the Western world, the Chinese government actively tries to promote stronger ties through its Confucius institutes and various student grants and exchanges. But despite its efforts, China lacks the same sway with young people as Japan or South Korea, with their unmatched cultural soft power.
For China and OBOR, this is a drawback, because without strong social ties, it is difficult to persuade people to open up to Chinese investments and opportunities.
Instead, debates have begun lately even in Europe about the need to restrict Chinese investments in the EU, on the basis of reciprocity, as foreign companies face numerous barriers in China.
Without a clear vision of the belt and road, without tangible achievements and with an inefficient soft power strategy, China doesn’t yet have the tools to become a new driver of globalisation, even if the US has lost some of its worldwide appeal under the populist and anti-globalist Trump administration.
Perhaps this is why China is looking towards the Disney model in order to replace in people’s imagination Disney characters and Mickey Mouse's ears with Chinese Wanda characters, giving globalisation a panda face.
One of China’s wealthiest businessmen, Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Dalian Wanda group, is seen as lending weight globally to Chinese soft power and OBOR.
He recently announced that he was going to build theme parks along the new Silk Roads that could rival the world’s Disneylands. The first two entertainment complexes, called Wanda City, will be built in China.
“With the four planned overseas projects, we are already the world’s key exporter of cultural and tourism projects, second only to America’s Disneyland and Universal Studio,” Wang said. The next ones will be in Paris and Delhi.
The 62-year-old billionaire, who also controls the world’s largest cinema chain, has long floated the idea of having his business empire take on Disney in the Chinese market and become a premiere entertainment park operator recognised globally.