Beijing is trying to create an inclusive narrative around its new Silk Road initiative, but fails to convince the sceptics.
When China hosted the first major summit on its New Silk Road initiative on 14-15 May, the guest list was top-notch. Bringing together high-level representatives of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, leading European countries and even the United States, over 1000 delegates from more than 100 countries followed Beijing’s invitation.
The multilateral event was designed to formally address the various hopes of and concerns by countries involved in the initiative. From Asia to Europe to Africa, states are split over what to make of the New Silk Road China announced in 2013 – while some hope to benefit from infrastructure development, such as telecommunications, rails, pipelines and ports, others are concerned about China’s strategic motives as well as financial and security risks.
China has made considerable efforts to raise such hopes and dispel the concerns. Prior to the summit, it pledged a financial boost to the initiative, including special lending schemes worth more than $50 billion and an extra $14.5 billion in addition to the already existing Silk Road fund ($40 billion).
Moreover, the Chinese government shifted, at least in its narrative, the focus of the initiative towards soft power politics. This shift has been visible in Beijing’s efforts to find the appropriate language for the initiative. The New Silk Road’s original slogan of “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) was recently changed into the “Belt and Road initiative” (BRI). While OBOR implied only a single network, BRI would better reflect the project’s numerous network cluster, so the Chinese government’s logic. It would also make it sound more like an inclusive initiative rather than a strategy, echoing Xi’s claims that “the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is not set by ideology” or “a political agenda.”
The BRI does not just stand for China’s efforts to strengthen hard and soft infrastructure anymore, but has come to include the strengthening of cultural ties with the countries along the Silk Road. Chinese media engagement with the BRI is soaring: while Beijing increasingly stresses its peaceful intentions and soft power benefits, its promotion scheme also includes video clips and explainers, and even Silk Road bedtime stories for children. The BRI “can be built to be peaceful, thriving, pioneering, innovative, and civilized”, Xi also told his audience in Beijing.
However, the gathering of only 29 national leaders at the summit raises doubts about the commitment of the altogether 65 countries that are involved in the New Silk Road. Notably, the list excludes regional powers such as India and Japan, who have been concerned about the strategic implications of China’s economic expansion and therefore did not attend the summit. But also some of the participating countries, among them Europeans, have remained cautious to fully embrace China’s mega initiative.
Contrary to what Xi states, the BRI is increasingly seen as both a geo-economic and geo-political strategy, rather than just a soft power initiative. Some sceptics see the plan largely as a strategy to bolster China's regional and even global leadership ambitions. In addition, the European Union and some of its member states are reluctant to cooperate with China on major infrastructure investment projects, in particular within Europe, that may not comply with international or EU environmental or social standards.
Europeans had similar concerns over joining China’s initiative to establish an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). However, the so far 18 EU member states that joined the AIIB perceive these two initiatives, both of which the United States and its Asian ally Japan did not join, as very different. They managed to develop the AIIB initiative into an institution with structures and principles that are similar to those of Western financial institutions. The Silk Road, on the other hand, remains a fluid initiative led and shaped by China. Contrary to the AIIB, the Chinese government appears to be looking for followers rather than partners for the Silk Road.
Moreover, the recent summit revealed profound disagreements between Europeans and Beijing on the shape of future cooperation under the Silk Road framework. China issued a joint communiqué following the summit, mentioning the participating countries’ commitment to “ensure free and inclusive trade, [and] oppose all forms of protectionism including in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.” Several states, particularly European countries including France, Germany and Britain, declined to sign the statement, uncomfortable about its omission of social and environmental sustainability as well as transparency. Earlier calls by Germany to include guarantees on free trade and fair competition in the statement fell on deaf ears.
Given Beijing’s exhaustive advertising campaign, it is remarkable that in the end only 30 countries signed the communiqué. Europeans and other countries evidently do not buy into China’s BRI narrative. Xi’s words will need to be followed by concrete actions to convince Europeans of the BRI’s benefits. With the next summit scheduled for 2019, China now has two years’ time to do so.