China is using a forum to promote infrastructure-building across a swath of the globe in a bid to reshape the geopolitical world order.
Opening a two-day meeting with leaders from 29 countries and officials from dozens more on hand, President Xi Jinping said Sunday his plan to knit Asia, Europe and Africa more closely through infrastructure will require going beyond economic and financial arrangements. To ensure success, he said, countries should give up old alliances and create a new international security framework.
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Mr. Xi portrayed China as a committed free trader and pledged more than $100 billion in new financing and assistance for projects and countries involved in an updated revival of ancient Silk Road trading routes.
This Silk Road reboot, known as "One Belt, One Road," -- which envisions constructing networks of ports, railways, pipelines and industrial parks -- is Mr. Xi's grandest foreign-policy initiative. Mr. Xi said over the last three years China has invested more than $50 billion in Silk Road countries, and Chinese officials have branded the venture as a new form of globalization, one that is more inclusive and fairer than previous tides of world commerce.
On hand to endorse Mr. Xi's vision were the presidents of Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and Indonesia as well as leaders from Greece and Hungary to Chile and Argentina.
Skepticism abounds about China's intentions. Some governments are concerned that Beijing is using an economic initiative to further strategic interests and that Chinese companies will dominate their markets. Public protests have flared against China's infrastructure forays into some Asian countries, including Sri Lanka and Kyrgyzstan. U.S. and European business groups have amped up criticism about China keeping swaths of its market closed while promoting access abroad.
The U.S. sent a National Security Council director -- rather than a senior Cabinet-level official -- who used brief remarks at the forum to urge China to uphold transparency and norms on international bidding. India, which has seen China ramp up projects in several neighboring countries, stayed away, citing Silk Road infrastructure projects in rival Pakistan that run through areas Delhi claims as its territory.
In the three-plus years since Mr. Xi first unveiled the Silk Road initiative, he and other Chinese officials have couched the effort as a cooperative one with other countries. They have largely steered clear of adding security dimensions, before Mr. Xi's speech Sunday.
"We should foster a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation, we should forge partnerships of dialogue with no confrontation and of friendship rather than alliance," said Mr. Xi in the nationally televised speech.
He called for each country to respect each other's sovereignty, "social systems and each other's core interests." Beijing has used those phrases in the past to demand other countries acquiesce to China's interests, in its territorial claims in the South China Sea, for example.
Some of that language is included in a communiqué that Mr. Xi is asking visiting leaders to sign onto when the forum ends Monday. Some Asian diplomats said Beijing has faced pushback over some phrases. Potential changes, marked in a draft reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, included an expression of "support" for the Silk Road initiative, in addition to merely expressing "welcome."
Still, U.S. President Donald Trump's talk of protectionist trade tariffs and withdrawal from an Asia-Pacific trade group, plus the European Union's grappling with Britain's exit and other political strains, have created space for Beijing to portray itself as a champion of globalization.
China is energetically filling the vacuum. Its two-year-old Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank inducted seven new members this weekend, including Bahrain, Greece and Bolivia, bringing the total to 77.
On the sidelines of the forum, China signed a free-trade protocol with Georgia and a memorandum of understanding on transportation infrastructure with Malaysia. In his speech, Mr. Xi said China would set up 50 joint science and technology laboratories and offer 5,000 foreign scientists, engineers and managers research trips and training.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, at a panel discussion on the forum's sidelines, praised China for "stepping up" to keep globalization moving forward.
"Even if you don't agree with China's vision, at least they have one," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, chairman of Mumbai-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, who also attended the forum. Now that the U.S. is absorbed with domestic politics, he said, China is "the world's only remaining thought leader."
Putting Mr. Xi at the center of a major global initiative, with world leaders around him, was also intended to give him a political boost at home. The Communist Party holds a pivotal congress later this year to reapportion leadership positions, and although Mr. Xi is all but certain to receive another five-year term, party insiders have said he is looking for leverage to maneuver allies into key posts.
In Sunday's speech, Mr. Xi frequently harked back to the ancient caravan and maritime routes dating back two millennia that he said carried ideas as well as goods between civilizations.
Some Asian diplomats said by putting the forum in Beijing, rather than in the ancient Silk Road terminus of Xi'an, invoked an image of China's imperial past, with smaller states "paying tribute to the emperor."
--Josh Chin contributed to this article.
Write to Chun Han Wong at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 14, 2017 10:10 ET (14:10 GMT)