Silk Road Headlines_7th September, 2018
On this day five years ago, at 10:30 am on September 7, 2013, President Xi Jinping entered the conference hall of Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan and addressed the students assembled there. In his speech, which was titled ‘Promote people-to-people friendship and create a better future’, Xi proposed to build a transport corridor between the Pacific and the Baltic Sea. He called this project the Silk Road Economic Belt. The event attracted little attention at the time, but in the subsequent years BRI, as Xi’s plan is now known, expanded in scope and became one of the most-debated aspects of China’s foreign policy.
Currently, international attention is often focused on the loans that China provides to developing countries to enable the large infrastructure works that are at the heart of BRI. Many commentators, especially in the West, have asked whether such countries can bear the resulting debts, and whether China might now or at a later time use them as an instrument to expand its power. As Philip Bowring writes, these ‘criticisms are becoming more specific. Mahathir Mohamad, lately reinstalled as prime minister of Malaysia … warned of the dangers of a “new colonialism.” His experience and age, and that he was on an official visit to China, gave special weight to his words’ [Rethinking Belt-And-Road Debt].
Should political leaders in non-Western countries reject BRI due to concerns that China deliberately creates and exploits large-scale indebtedness, then this would weaken the legitimacy not only of BRI but also of China’s role as a global power. China’s leadership seems to be aware of this risk. On August 27, Xi Jinping gave a speech at a seminar to commemorate the fifth anniversary of BRI. This time the event took place not in a foreign country but in Beijing, and was attended by China’s political and business leaders. Apparently aiming to make BRI projects more attractive and less financially risky, Xi talked about the need for ‘high quality development’ and he ‘ordered authorities to regulate investment activities and pay high attention to forestalling risks overseas’ [Xi pledges to bring benefits to people through Belt and Road Initiative]. Although resistance to BRI has increased, China is learning and adjusting.