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China pitches ‘One Belt, One Road’ by telling other countries they have nothing to fear

Chinese President Xi Jinping, centre, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a welcome ceremony for leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sunday, May 14, 2017.

Wang Zhao/Pool Photo via The Associated Press

Have no fear, China's top political leader urged Sunday: in a world of sectarian strife, poverty and rising isolationism, Beijing has an answer that can bring new wealth by tearing down old barriers.

China's One Belt, One Road initiative is "a project of the century," President Xi Jinping said Sunday in a major speech at the outset of a two-day conference that gathered together presidents, cabinet ministers and investors from 130 countries. Among them was Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Canada's parliamentary secretary to the Minister of International Trade, who came, she said, as part of Ottawa's new push for "deepening ties" across the Pacific.

She joined what Chinese state media declared "the most prestigious international assembly China has ever inaugurated," a moment for the world's second-largest economy to sketch its vision of future global growth inspired by the China model, and funded with Chinese money.

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Mr. Xi on Sunday sought first to allay fears that his plans will privilege China's economic and political interests at the expense of others, promising the creation of "a big family of harmonious co-existence."

"We are ready to share practices of development with other countries," he said. "But we have no intention to interfere in other countries' internal affairs, export our own social system and model of development, or impose our will on others."

He then opened wide China's wallet, promising an additional $170-billion in funds for bank loans, foreign aid and government-run investments to support One Belt, One Road countries.

China has already spent nearly $70-billion between 2014 and 2016 in those countries – 65 of them in a constellation with China at its heart that reaches across the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Western countries have been keen observers of the Chinese effort, which constitutes a bold attempt to elevate Beijing's standing at a time of increased skepticism over globalization, particularly in Europe and the U.S.

On Sunday, the U.S. sought to ensure its corporate interests were not excluded from the Chinese bid to reinvigorate ancient Asian trading routes by building new roads, rail lines and electrical infrastructure.

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"American companies have much to offer here," Matt Pottinger, special assistant to President Donald Trump, said in Beijing Sunday.

Ottawa's delegate to the forum similarly called attention to the experience of Canadian firms in infrastructure construction. "We think it's an opportunity for Canadian business," said Ms. Goldsmith-Jones in an interview.

"We think it's important to be present," she said, adding, "we see this as participating and learning and deepening our ties."

But though the Chinese forum was well attended by illiberal heads of state – chief among them Russia's Vladimir Putin, Hungary's Viktor Orban and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan – democratic countries struggled to strike a balance between showing interest in China's One Belt, One Road ambitions without demonstrating too much enthusiasm.

Even most developed democracies, however, attended in hopes of better grasping Mr. Xi's "signature initiative and a symbol of efforts to reshape the global agenda," said Jeremy Paltiel, a scholar in Asian foreign policy at Carleton University.

He called One Belt, One Road "a competitive push for state-centric market capitalism along the Chinese model vying for primacy against a neo-liberal corporate capital model."

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One of the questions for foreign leaders is how much sway China will gain over countries that participate.

"It's the same challenge that all countries – including Canada – face when engaging with China: how to maximize the economic benefits without giving Beijing too much political leverage," said Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for northeast Asia with International Crisis Group.

It's no accident, he pointed out, that China commonly refers to One Belt, One Road as a kind of "new Silk Road," a reference to historic times when Beijing treated neighbours as subordinates.

The Silk Road "formed part of a tributary system with China at its centre, the Middle Kingdom," Mr. Kovrig said.

"Other leaders remained largely independent, but came to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor. There are echoes of that history in the scenes of all these dignitaries coming to the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square."

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For nearly a century, China's Capital Steel built an empire on the outskirts of Beijing, but the smokestacks were snuffed out for the 2008 Olympics. Soon it will become a sport and winter training site leading up to the 2022 Olympics.
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