In Western capitals, critics have raised consternation at the sight of Beijing dispatching a half-trillion dollars to countries that have signed up for its Belt and Road Initiative, accusing China of offering immense loans for the construction of questionable projects in countries that will struggle to pay them back. It is, they charge, “debt-trap diplomacy.”
But in China’s capital this week, the arrival of leaders from 37 of those countries for a three-day Belt and Road summit sent a very different message: Beijing has made itself home to a new private-members club and they want in, seduced by the prospect of better access to Chinese financing and technical expertise in building bridges, high-speed rail and deep-sea ports.
The fact that it’s a club led by Beijing, rather than by Washington, underscores how rapidly China’s global standing is shifting, as parts of the international community look to Chinese President Xi Jinping for investment, ideas and, in some quarters, leadership.
Belt and Road “is considered as the new engine of global economic growth,” Cambodia’s strongman leader Hun Sen told Chinese state media.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi this week called Belt and Road complementary to his country’s development ambitions.
Even Christine Lagarde, the chief of the International Monetary Fund, also in Beijing for the summit, said this week that China’s Belt and Road spending on infrastructure “is certainly welcome. And we as an institution have certainly encouraged that.”
Others on the guest list for the three-day summit in Beijing include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar.
The globe-spanning, heavy-spending Belt and Road Initiative defies easy description, not least because it has been a forum for grand but unclear pronouncements.
On the opening day of the second Belt and Road summit Thursday, Yi Gang, governor of the People’s Bank of China, said his country is interested in “shared benefit through discussion and collaboration.”
State media have produced reports studded with big numbers and complicated maps overlaid with new routes for the transport of goods. The initiative now reaches 4.4 billion people, China says.
Its expansion hasn’t been without setbacks. Worries that China will use unpaid debt to gain economic and political sway have prompted questions about partnership with Beijing. Officials in Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia and Sri Lanka have all cancelled some Chinese-backed projects.
But many of those countries are still keen to remain close to China – and Belt and Road skeptics, it seems, have been outnumbered by converts. The United States, Canada and others have yet to sign up. But in recent months, China has extended its initiative into the heart of Europe, with Italy, Luxembourg and Switzerland each signing on. Italy is the first G7 country to join. Nearly a fifth of Fortune 500 companies have sent representatives to the summit.
Even Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who last year cancelled US$22-billion worth of Chinese projects on fears of “borrowing too much money,” came to Beijing this week. “China is a close friend and an important partner to Malaysia,” his office said in a statement. Pakistan remains a close partner of China, too.
If lesser developed countries in Belt and Road can “improve their infrastructure, can have more successful industrialization – then that also means the world market will get larger,” said Wang Yong, an economist at the Institute of New Structural Economics at Peking University. That’s good for everyone, he said, adding that China is learning from mistakes, such as the extension of too much credit to countries that may struggle to make repayment.
On Thursday, China’s Finance Minister Liu Kun pledged new analytical tools to “prevent and resolve debt risks” for Belt and Road projects.
Mr. Yi, the central bank governor, said China will help to protect from exchange-rate risks by using local currencies for some Belt and Road investments.
Chinese financial institutions have already provided US$440-billion in funding to Belt and Road projects, he said, in addition to raising $64-billion in overseas yuan-dominated funds and providing $100-billion in yuan-dominated equity financing.
But corporate interests far from China see other reasons for linking arms with Beijing, particularly as protectionism in the United States raises fears Washington can no longer be trusted as a guarantor for global trade.
“Globalization is transforming,” said Ahmed Mounir Essedine, chairman of the Development Committee for Relations with China at the Egyptian Businessmen’s Association. He sees the advent of a “new era” defined by regional alliances such as Belt and Road, which can free the flow of goods between members.
“China may have made this initiative. But the economies of all of these countries will benefit from such co-operation,” he said.
In Cambodia, Chinese money has already brought “very positive” improvements in infrastructure, said Virak Ou, the president of Future Forum, a public-policy think tank in Phnom Penh. “New bridges and roads, more electricity and cheaper electricity.”
Still, he likened Cambodia’s acceptance of Chinese investment to the giddiness of a person with a new credit card.
“There will come a time when you have to pay it back,” he said. And “the main question looking at the long term is how are we going to be able to cope with all of this influx of so much money all at once.”
China is an emerging superpower that countries ignore at their peril – particularly ones such as Cambodia, which have historically felt ignored by Western countries. While China pushes forward its broad Belt and Road initiatives, Mr. Ou sees Western powers as acting in a reactionary fashion.
“In that way, the West is basically handing international leadership to China,” he said.
With reporting by Aya Sharaby and Alexandra Li