Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the venue of G20 summit conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 30, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via The Yomiuri Shimbun
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the venue of G20 summit conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 30, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via The Yomiuri Shimbun

The talking point of the recent summit of the Group of Twenty leading economies in Buenos Aires was that, on its sidelines, US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping reached an agreement to pause the trade war between the world’s two biggest economies.

Such a trade truce was struck only because the two leaders, notably Xi, significantly tempered their stance and rhetoric. The Chinese president’s softened stand was evidenced by his long list of concessions. It was also somewhat manifested in his decision to exclude the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) from his remarks at the G20 summit.

The omission of China’s flagship policy – and indeed, Xi’s pet project – from his speech was extraordinary, if not unprecedented.

In a speech in Kazakhstan in September 2013, less than a year after he came to power, Xi proposed to build what he then called a “Silk Road Economic Belt with Central Asian Countries.” The project was later globally expanded and rebranded with its current name.

To make his proposal, or what he calls “a project of the century,” a global endeavor, Xi lavishly hosted the first Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation in Beijing in May 2017. According to Chinese state-run media, 29 heads of state or government and more than 1,500 delegates from more than 130 countries and 70 international organizations attended the two-day event.

At its 19th National Congress – aka Xi Jinping’s congress – five months later, the ruling Communist Party of China amended its constitution to enshrine the massive trade, investment and infrastructure program – alongside “Xi Jinping Thought” – in it.

It’s why, over the past few years, the trillion-dollar BRI has been omnipresent in Xi’s key speeches at home and abroad. It was always present in his addresses at international forums – such as the G20 summits in 2016 and 2017, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits in 20162017 and 2018, and at the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the United Nations Office in Geneva in 2017.

It also featured in his keynote addresses at big events held in China this year – such as the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) in April, the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in September and the China International Import Expo (CIIE) last month.

In fact, in an effort to persuade other countries and the international community at large to accept it, the Chinese leader has always used such occasions to advertise it. As such, he has always painted his grand plan in a very positive and bright manner.

For instance, in his remarks at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, in 2016, Xi revealed that he “proposed the initiative … to share China’s development opportunities with countries along the Belt and Road and achieve common prosperity.”

In his keynote speech at the inaugural BRF in May last year, Xi sounded even more visionary and altruistic, stating that a “deficit in peace, development and governance poses a daunting challenge to mankind. This is the issue that has always been on my mind.” And that’s why he came up with the BRI.

Addressing the FOCAC in September this year, he made a similar statement, maintaining: “To respond to the call of the times, China takes it its mission to make new and even greater contribution to mankind” and “is ready to jointly promote the [BRI] with international partners.”

China’s state-run media were also very optimistic, if not triumphalist, about the initiative.

In a commentary in May 2017, Xinhua said Xi, who “is known as the helmsman of the world’s second-largest economy and chief of the largest political party as well as an ardent champion of globalization,” now “appears to be reaffirming another international title as the architect of a grand plan” – that is, the BRI. The BRF held in Beijing at that time “is a perfect illustration of China’s rising international status and also, Xi’s growing influence.” the official news agency proudly claimed.

In another piece in July last year, titled “From Hangzhou to Hamburg: Xi offers Chinese wisdom to G20,” the state-run agency boasted that having built “highways, railroads and ports, and every possible transport to connect every possible place in the country, bringing a large number of people out of poverty” in past decades, “now, China is taking this solution to the global stage, building ‘a community of shared future,’ headlined by the Belt and Road Initiative.” Hamburg, Germany, hosted the G20 summit last year.

But after five years, for all the efforts that Xi as well as his tightly controlled country’s propaganda machines have made to sell the BRI, not everybody or every country has bought into it

But after five years, for all the efforts that Xi as well as his tightly controlled country’s propaganda machines have made to sell the BRI, not everybody or every country has bought into it.

While it may help some countries, as pointed out by the Financial Times, “there is growing evidence that the [BRI’s] infrastructure projects are falling short of Beijing’s ideals and stirring controversy in the countries they were intended to assist.”

Indeed, some regard it as a strategic tool for Beijing to extend its sphere of influence while others note that, for all Beijing’s “official rhetoric about the BRI being open and global, it is a China-centric effort.” Most important, instead of empowering participating countries, some others believe, the scheme puts some of them under huge debt or what is now well known as the debt trap.

Such charges have been so widespread that Xi had to use his remarks at the APEC summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, last month to reject them.

“It is not designed to serve any hidden geopolitical agenda, it is not targeted against anyone and it does not exclude anyone. It is not an exclusive club that is closed to non-members, nor is it a ‘trap’ as some people have labeled it,” the Chinese president retorted. “Rather, the BRI is a major and transparent initiative with which China shares opportunities and pursues common development with the rest of the world.”

Apparently, it was the first time that Xi had used such an international speech not to praise, but rather to defend, his grandiose initiative.

However, speaking shortly after the Chinese leader, US Vice-President Mike Pence, who deputized for Trump at the annual APEC gathering, slammed Chinese loans and Beijing-funded projects under the BRI, though he didn’t mention China or its program by name. Pence charged that “the terms of those loans are often opaque,” such projects “are often unsustainable and of poor quality” and “too often they … lead to staggering debt.”

That wasn’t the first time the No 2 in the US administration had publicly denounced China’s BRI. In a very broad and fierce attack against the Asian behemoth two months ago, Pence accused China of using “so-called ‘debt diplomacy’ to expand its influence” and “offering hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure loans to governments from Asia to Africa to Europe and even Latin America” with “opaque” terms and with “the benefits invariably [flowing] overwhelmingly to Beijing.”

Yet while Pence’s remarks at the Washington-based Hudson Institute on October 4 were more explicit and critical of China than his APEC remarks, the latter was more consequential, as he was addressing business and political leaders from the Asia-Pacific region.

In addition to condemning Chinese loans and Beijing-funded projects, he called on “all the nations across this wider region and the world … not [to] accept [such] foreign debt that could compromise [their] sovereignty,” urging them to protect their interests and preserve their independence. Such a call was audibly applauded by those present.

What’s more, he purposely contrasted his own country’s policy with China’s, stating: “We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt. We don’t coerce or compromise your independence.… We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road.”

In fact, the Republican former governor of Indiana became the highest US official publicly to denounce Xi Jinping’s infrastructure program at the same international platform shared by the Chinese leader.

Beijing’s unfair trade practices, intellectual-property theft and forced technology transfer are the main reasons behind the Trump administration’s tariff war against China. Yet the Asian giant’s intentions and ambitions in other areas have contributed to America’s anger and fears and, consequently, made Washington further harden its stance vis-à-vis China.

Judging by Pence’s strong criticisms, Washington is clearly displeased with Xi’s global infrastructure program. In many ways, this is understandable because, through its BRI, China is seeking to compete with the US for clout and power globally, even in the countries and regions that are traditionally America’s spheres of influence.

On this reading, it can be said that the non-appearance of the BRI in Xi’s G20 remarks in the Argentine capital was not accidental. Rather, it was a deliberate move aimed at reducing Washington’s apprehensions at a crucial time and place when and where Xi desperately sought an end – or at least a truce – to the damaging trade war between the two powers.

It is also probable that Xi intentionally chose not to mention his central foreign policy because he was aware of other G20 members’ unease with it. Most of the 20 leading economies – including the advanced economies that make up the Group of Seven, and the European Union as a whole – haven’t signed up to the initiative.

Three months ago, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed  a resolution on EU-China relations that was very critical of a wide range of China’s domestic and foreign policies under Xi, including the BRI.

The adopted resolution warned that the infrastructure projects under China’s massive program “could create large debts” for European countries involved, pointing out that “some BRI-related infrastructure projects have already placed third governments in a state of over-indebtedness.” It also confirmed that 27 EU ambassadors to Beijing, with Hungary apparently the only exception, had “compiled a report that sharply criticizes the BRI project.”

Not long after that, the European Commission unveiled a new “Connectivity Strategy” linking Europe and Asia, which was widely seen as the EU’s answer to China’s BRI.

Before flying to Argentina for the G20 summit and that much-talked-about meeting with Trump, Xi traveled to Spain. A key objective of his trip was to persuade Madrid to join the BRI.

Though the China Daily, another of Beijing’s key mouthpieces, reported that Spain was eyeing a bigger role in the BRI and Xi talked about the need to “synergize the Belt and Road Initiative and Spain’s ‘Strategic Vision for Spain in Asia’ and the ‘Mediterranean Corridor’” before his two-day visit, the EU member reportedly didn’t sign up to China’s initiative.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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