The Belt and Road Initiative: China's answer to globalisation?
In May China held an international forum in Beijing to explain its Belt and Road Initiative. Pepe Escobar reports.
PRESIDENT Xi Jinping used the New Silk Road international forum in Beijing on 14-15 May to establish China as the flagship of a new, benign trade-focused world order. This was, said Xi, a 'new model of win-win and cooperation' that will prevail over gunboat diplomacy.
At the start of the conference, China's state news agency Xinhua made clear that the initiative - officially first called One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and now Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - was not 'neocolonialism by stealth'.
'China needs no puppet states,' Xinhua said, while essentially repeating what Xi delivered in his keynote address.
'China is willing to share its development experience with the rest of the world,' said Xi, 'but we will not intervene in other nations' internal affairs, export our social system and development model, nor force others to accept them.'
The forum communique - a summary of the main points developed in Xi's keynote speech - reported that the nations represented in Beijing had pledged to promote 'practical cooperation on roads, railways, ports, maritime and inland water transport, aviation, energy pipeline, electricity and telecommunications'.
Big business too was represented and, reportedly, is enthusiastic. Alibaba's Jack Ma, so committed to advancing an electronic World Trade Platform, spoke to Chinese media at the forum and hailed the BRI's 'inclusion of young people, women, smaller enterprises and developing countries'.
On the final day of the forum, Beijing even engineered a sort of New Silk Road United Nations, in the form of a Leaders Roundtable, with the microphones open equally to all. The event was a nifty illustration of how Xi wants the world to see this initiative.
'The primary intention and the highest goal of the "Belt and Road Initiative" is to allow each member to jointly address global economic challenges, find new growth opportunities and drivers, achieve a win-win situation and keep moving towards a community with joint destiny,' said Xi.
Xi went on to offer exhortations for Ming Dynasty navigation master Admiral Zheng He - as a 'friendly emissary' - before delivering a metaphor for the new world trade order that he had just outlined.
'Wild swan geese,' he said of the large, rare and wild bird found in Asia but not in Europe, 'are able to fly far and safely through winds and storms because they move in flocks and help each other as a team.'
Ride a wild swan
The New Silk Roads are bound to find turbulence ahead. At the forum, the German Minister for Economics and Energy, Brigitte Zypries, threatened not to sign the final communique if it did not contain firm guarantees for free tenders - as in no favouritism for Chinese companies - related to further BRI projects.
But, in terms of railroad building/expansion/exploitation, can anyone compete with China?
Freight train convoys now regularly depart from eastern and central China, traversing the Central Asian steppes and clocking thousands of kilometres in 17 days before arriving in London, Madrid, Duisburg or Lyon. They depart loaded with household goods, clothes and spare parts and return with chemical products, wines and baby products.
That's twice as fast as seaborne trade, even though a freight train carries less than 100 containers compared with up to 20,000 in a cargo ship. What really matters though is that this is only the first stage of a future high-speed rail network from eastern China to Europe via Central Asia.
Public-private partnerships will also be part of the expansion. For instance, the first branch of the Iron Silk Road, a railway from Chongqing to Duisburg, was actually instigated six years ago not by Beijing policy but by Silicon Valley giant Hewlett-Packard to ship millions of notebook computers to Europe by train.
But now China's policy is advancing fast across Europe. At the forum, Eastern Europe was heavily represented and the region has been helped by a fund set up three years ago to initially invest 10 billion euros.
Last year, China Everbright bought Tirana's airport in Albania. China Exim Bank is financing highway construction in Macedonia and Montenegro. In 2014, China Road and Bridge Corporation built a bridge over the Danube in Belgrade, the so-called 'bridge of Sino-Serbian friendship' that was mostly financed by China Exim Bank.
Then there's the high-speed rail line between Athens and Budapest, via Macedonia and Belgrade. The crucial Budapest-Belgrade stretch - still held up by EU red tape - should finally be operational this year.
Geo-economics, once again, is pushing geopolitics. By investing in a corridor from the Aegean Sea to central Europe, Beijing will be actively boosting trade out of the famous Greek port of Pireus that actually has been under Chinese control since 2010.
And now the battle for soft power
Zhou Wenzhong, secretary-general of China's high-level regional affairs forum, the Boao Forum for Asia, bills the New Silk Roads as 'China's answer to globalisation'. But is it actually more than that? Is it actually the new world vision? And one that is composed of so many multiple and constantly moving parts that to date it has been difficult to define?
Xi used the Beijing forum to try to clarify the concept but the reality is, on-the-ground conditions and circumstances will define the different strategies in the future. These will include, for each project, nation-by-nation policy and financing coordinations that have the power to move the initiative beyond an infrastructure boom.
The forum has already made it clear how significant players are jostling for position. There is already a looming tussle between Hong Kong and London as to who will be the privileged source of financing. While Hong Kong remains the number one offshore yuan trade settlement centre in the world, Britain's Chancellor, Philip Hammond, emphasised that London remains the world's financial centre, unmatched to deliver on the New Silk Roads' 'internationally bankable' needs.
The flight of the swan geese is already on. The next big question is how emphatically the New Silk Roads will rewrite the rules of the global trade game without upsetting ultra-sensitive players such as India. But that's where soft power chips in.
Beijing's swan geese will now work to seduce the Global South into an irresistible partnership that transcends mere commerce.
Pepe Escobar is correspondent-at-large at Asia Times (www.atimes.com), from which this article is reproduced.
*Third World Resurgence No. 319/320, Mar/Apr 2017, pp 10-11