2017/25, 17 May 2017
China’s ambition to take the lead on the world stage was evident from the pomp and grandeur of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held from 14-15 May 2017. The two-day forum – replete with speeches, gala dinners, performances, and a roundtable summit – as well as its wall-to-wall coverage on all of China’s major media platform left no doubt that China was making a play for global leadership at a time when the influence and attention of the world’s other major power, the United States, was found wanting.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s keynote address on 14 May outlined his ideas for the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that was first introduced in 2013. Beyond the usual exhortations for ensuring mutual prosperity and strengthening connectivity through infrastructure, trade and people-to-people linkages, China’s power play for world leadership was evident in its co-optation of international organisation that have defined the Western-led post-World War 2 world order. The heads of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank were given status equivalent to that of heads of state throughout the entire Forum as seen in their seating arrangements. The three organisations also obtained additional funding for their activities from China. It is clear that China intends to refashion at least some of the existing world order in its own image and outlook, as true major powers do.
The success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) hinges on the support and participation of China’s closest neighbours. Southeast Asia certainly figured heavily in China’s ambitious agenda, with all ten ASEAN member states represented in the forum (seven at the leaders’ level, while Brunei, Singapore and Thailand sending ministerial-level delegations). During his keynote address, President Xi reiterated his desire to synchronise the BRI with the Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity and Vietnam’s “Two Corridors and One Economic Circle” initiative; to promote “complementarity” between China’s plans and those of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar; and highlighted the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project as a key part of the BRI. Among the 270 deliverables from the Forum included MOUs on Belt and Road cooperation with Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Timor Leste, as well as trade and economic agreements with Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam. Southeast Asia will inevitably be the key node of the BRI, but China must ensure that these economic ventures do not shrink the region’s strategic space in handling its relations with the rest of the world.
With funding of close to US$78 billion pledged for BRI projects, the Belt and Road Forum was China’s boldest attempt at power projection ever since President Xi outlined his vision for “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” at the beginning of his term as Chinese leader. Beijing is set to make this a regular event, with President Xi announcing that the next Belt and Road Forum will take place in 2019. The next two years will be important for China to show the world and Southeast Asia that its desire for win-win cooperation and mutual prosperity translate to actual benefits for the participating countries as well, and to reassure the hundreds of countries involved that economic levers will not be used to pressure them to toe China’s line. If the BRI succeeds in both aspects, China’s alternative vision for a more globalised world will set the new gold standard for international cooperation.
Mr Jason Salim is Research Officer at ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.