A plethora of heads of state, over 1000 delegates and a carefully choreographed two-day gathering against the backdrop of an incredibly blue sky, untroubled by the usual pollution of Beijing. The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, which took place in the Chinese capital some two weeks ago, turned out to be a highly interesting and potentially very impactful meeting.

 

Both in terms of numbers and substance, what was clear was the intention of Beijing to give new momentum to the promotion of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, a grand project that aims to weave much of Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East much more closely together though the construction of a network of new trade routes, as well as to manage the unavoidable rise of China’s international influence, if the project succeeds.

One Belt, One Road’ initiative, a grand project that aims to weave much of Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East much more closely together though the construction of a network of new trade routes.

In light of the scepticism, awkwardness, if not antipathy, that this project has been met with by some important international players, the speech of the Chinese president Xi Jinping was carefully crafted to include a number references to the ‘win-win’ character of the project. “Harmonious coexistence”, “cooperation”, “common prosperity” and “common future” were just some of these references, aimed at both the international and the domestic audience. Vis-à-vis the former, Beijing wanted to manage the geopolitical, geo-economic and developmental impact of the project and to ensure its viability in economic and political terms; concerning the latter, the Chinese leadership had its eye set to the critical 19th Congress of the Communist Party to be held later this year.

In addition to promoting the project, it became equally clear that the Belt and Road Forum enabled President Xi to present China once more as an expansive – but not expansionist – global reforming power, which nonetheless intends to safeguard globalisation, unfettered world trade, and an open multipolar world order. As in the context of last January’s World Economic Forum in Davos where the Chinese president’s speech followed a similar logic, here too, the paradox of a communist China appearing as the stalwart defender of globalisation, multilateralism and trade openness should only be superficially seen as such. It is simply the latest manifestation of Beijing’s ‘opening up’ policy and coincides with the retreat by the US and the UK from their traditional position as leaders of the global liberal order, due to the election of Trump and Brexit respectively.

Beijing is cognisant of the strategic void that is created by the lack of sophisticated leadership and wilful withdrawal from the international system’s de facto position of leadership, abetted by London’s reluctance to stand up to this reversal or roles due to its own dependence on the US during the Brexit negotiations with the EU. This has been abundantly clear during the recent EU-China Summit in Brussels, which came in the immediate aftermath of the announcement that the US is withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Climate accord and that is therefore reneging on the commitments made under it. Joining a dismayed EU by this turn of events, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stressed his country’s commitment to the climate agreement, while underlying that “it is important for us to advance globalisation and make it more inclusive, equitable and beneficial to all”. Within this framework, further concrete measures to boost investment and connectivity aided by the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative were agreed upon by both sides.

Evidently, China taking advantage of the breach in multilateralism posed by Mr Trump and carrying the torch for the kind of international policies opposed by him will not be an easy endeavour. Despite their individual pronouncements, the inability of Beijing and Brussels to produce a common communiqué following the Summit declaring their support to the Paris climate accord due to serious disputes over trade acted as a potent reminder of this.

Possibly as grand as the construction of the Great Wall of China a few centuries ago, which acted as a powerful symbol of China’s determination to close and protect the country from exogenous influences, this project is a Chinese statement.

Likewise, whether China will succeed in this effort and whether the “One Belt, One Road ” project can prove to be the game-changer envisioned by Beijing remains an interesting yet entirely open question. There are still many obstacles to be dealt with, many centrifugal forces to be managed and many risks not to be taken lightly.

However, for China itself, this project constitutes something more than a high-risk gamble at trade connectivity. Possibly as grand as the construction of the Great Wall of China a few centuries ago, which acted as a powerful symbol of China’s determination to close and protect the country from exogenous influences, this project is a Chinese statement, a call if you’d like, in the opposite direction. A global call in the direction of overcoming walls and barriers, of rejecting protectionism and promoting extroversion, ultimately an emphatic call in favour of a more open China in a rapidly changing world.