Editorial The Economist, 15.05.2017 (J.P.)
The many motivations behind Xi Jinping’s key foreign policy
Over the weekend Xi Jinping welcomed 28 heads of state and government to Beijing for a coming-out party, which continues today, to celebrate the “belt and road” initiative, his most ambitious foreign policy. Launched in 2013 as “one belt, one road”, it involves China underwriting billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in countries along the old Silk Road linking it with Europe. The ambition is immense. China is spending roughly $150bn a year in the 68 countries that have signed up to the scheme. The summit meeting (called a forum) has attracted the largest number of foreign dignitaries to Beijing since the Olympic Games in 2008. Yet few European leaders are showing up. For the most part they have ignored the implications of China’s initiative. What are those implications and is the West right to be sanguine?
The project is the clearest expression so far of Mr Xi’s determination to break with Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “hide our capabilities and bide our time; never try to take the lead”. The Belt and Road Forum (with its unfortunate acronym, BARF) is the second set-piece event this year at which Mr Xi will lay out China’s claim to global leadership. (The first was a speech against protectionism made at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January). In 2014, Wang Yi, the foreign minister, said the initiative was Mr Xi’s most important foreign policy. Its ultimate aim is to make Eurasia (dominated by China) an economic and trading area to rival the transatlantic one (dominated by America).
Behind this broad strategic imperative lie a plethora of secondary motivations—and it is the number and variety of these that prompts scepticism about the coherence and practicality of the project. By investing in infrastructure, Mr Xi hopes to find a more profitable home for China’s vast foreign-exchange reserves, most of which are in low-interest-bearing American government securities. He also hopes to create new markets for Chinese companies, such as high-speed rail firms, and to export some of his country’s vast excess capacity in cement, steel and other metals. By investing in volatile countries in central Asia, he reckons he can create a more stable neighbourhood for China’s own restive western provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet. And by encouraging more Chinese projects around the South China Sea, the initiative could bolster China’s claims in that area (the “road” in “belt and road” refers to sea lanes). The trouble is that some of these ambitions contradict others: is a dodgy project in central Asia a better place to invest than American government securities? And with different motivations go conflicting interests. There is infighting between the most important Chinese institutions involved, including the ministry of commerce, the foreign ministry, the planning commission and China’s provinces. To make matters worse, China is finding it hard to identify profitable projects in many belt-and-road countries (Chinese businessmen in central Asia call it “One Road, One Trap”). To cap it all, China is facing a backlash against some of its plans, with elected governments in Sri Lanka and Myanmar repudiating or seeking to renegotiate projects approved by their authoritarian predecessors.
As a result the forum—on the face of it a celebration of the initiative—will in reality find Mr Xi seeking to contain a backlash against it. That may seem to justify Europeans in their decision to stay away. But the suspicion that the project will fail could be misguided. Mr Xi needs the initiative because he has invested so much in it. China needs it because it provides an answer of sorts to some of its economic problems. And Asia needs it because of an unslakeable thirst for infrastructure. The belt and road initiative has plenty of problems but Mr Xi is determined to push ahead with it.