President Xi Jinping on Monday defended his new Silk Road plan, saying it was not about creating a “China club”, while calling for balanced trade with partner countries amid a growing backlash against his global infrastructure push.
Analysts said Xi’s remarks – made at a seminar in Beijing to mark the five-year anniversary of his signature “Belt and Road Initiative” – indicated that China was adjusting its tone and strategy to address rising concerns over its global ambitions and fears of “debt trap diplomacy”.
The comments came after new Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called off a major China-backed railway project last week. The recent change in leadership in Pakistan could also see a potential pullback on agreements for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship, multibillion-dollar belt and road project.
“The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic cooperation initiative, not a geopolitical or military alliance,” Xi said at the seminar. “It is an open and inclusive process, and not about creating exclusive circles or a China club.”
The strategy aims to build a sprawling trade and infrastructure network spanning Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. Over the last five years, China has invested more than US$60 billion in countries along the route, and trade volume between them has reached 5 trillion yuan (US$734.29 billion), Xi said, adding that more than 200,000 local jobs had been created in those countries.
Xi said the overall design of the plan had been finalised and Beijing now needed to fine-tune the details and build a comprehensive system to carry it out, with a focus on high-quality projects.
“We need to pay attention to providing fuel in snowy weather, prioritising the needs of the other party and implementing projects that will benefit the local people,” he said.
Xi also called for more efforts to achieve a “trade balance” with countries along the new Silk Road, and to strengthen risk prevention efforts.
Pang Zhongying, a foreign affairs specialist at the Ocean University of China, said Beijing was seeking to change tack and address growing fears worldwide that it is using the massive infrastructure push to gain political influence.
“China is facing enormous challenges with these reactions from the international community,” Pang said. “Xi’s speech shows that [the leadership] has reflected on these developments and has made adjustments … and is trying to tone down its rhetoric.”
The escalating trade conflict with the United States and uncertainties over its belt and road projects in important countries such as Malaysia and Pakistan have also pushed China to adjust its approach to the initiative, Pang said.
Moon Heung-ho, a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Hanyang University in Seoul, said China’s increasing clout remained a big worry for other countries.
“Beijing has failed in its peripheral diplomacy, as its neighbouring countries are still worried about the implications of China’s rise,” Moon said.
“There has been some assertiveness in the belt and road projects and a lack of value-sharing and harmonisation among neighbouring countries,” he said. “China must now spend some time building trust with those countries … otherwise the strategy will be nothing more than diplomatic rhetoric.”
Senior officials in the ruling Communist Party are already following Xi’s lead. Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Ning Jizhe, vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, said China should not shy away from the challenges but should improve how it approaches belt and road projects.
“With some countries still doubtful about the belt and road and Chinese companies facing difficulties investing and operating overseas, we need to objectively and rationally view our achievements and challenges,” Ning said. “We should not avoid the challenges, nor should we exaggerate our problems … we need to constantly improve our working methods.”
Monday’s seminar was chaired by Vice-Premier Han Zheng and attended by NDRC head He Lifeng, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, city and provincial chiefs from Shanghai, Zhejiang, Chongqing and Sichuan, as well as corporate leaders such as Li Shufu, chairman of carmaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Vice-Premiers Liu He and Hu Chunhua, Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Finance Minister Xiao Jie were also at the meeting.
Additional reporting by Lee Jeong-ho