23 April 2019
The twin silk roads could have an impact on more than half the world's population. Map: The Wall Street Journal
The twin silk roads could have an impact on more than half the world's population. Map: The Wall Street Journal

Silk Road initiative shows China’s desire for leadership role

While still savoring its triumph over the United States in the launching of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China is pushing ahead with another initiative that President Xi Jinping introduced in 2013: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

These twin projects are breathtaking in scope and could potentially affect more than half the world’s population.

In a keynote address on Saturday at this year’s Boao Forum for Asia, President Xi voiced China’s willingness to shoulder “greater responsibilities for regional and world peace and development” and expanded on his twin proposals, which are referred to by Chinese officials as the “Belt and Road.”

In September 2013, the Chinese leader, while visiting Kazakhstan, proposed the construction of a Silk Road Economic Belt to strengthen economic ties between China and the countries of Central Asia and Europe.

The proposed economic belt along the old Silk Road, Mr. Xi said, would reach from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. A transportation network would link East Asia, West Asia and South Asia.

The following month, while addressing the Indonesian parliament, the Chinese leader for the first time spoke of a new “maritime silk road” to enhance the partnership between China and the countries of Southeast Asia and to promote maritime cooperation.

It would run from the southern Chinese coast through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean before reaching the east coast of Africa and then moving into the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, ending in Europe, like the land route.

In his Boao Forum speech, the president said the “Belt and Road” – like AIIB – are open initiatives and are not meant to replace existing mechanisms for regional cooperation.

Seeking to dispel suspicion that China would dominate associated projects, Mr. Xi reassured his listeners by saying: “In promoting this initiative, China will follow the principle of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.

“The programs of development will be open and inclusive, not exclusive. They will be a real chorus comprising all countries along the routes, not a solo for China itself.”

The same day, the Chinese government released an “action plan” on the proposed Belt and Road initiative, explaining that it is meant to “connect Asian, European and African countries more closely” and promote mutually beneficial cooperation “to a new high and in new forms”.

The Belt and Road initiative is meant to integrate the economies of countries adjoining China and along both the land and maritime routes.

The key word is connectivity in all forms, linking not only infrastructure but also finance and telecommunications.

The ambitious proposals in the action plan call for hardware in the form of port infrastructure, railway links and aviation infrastructure as well as transcontinental submarine optical cables, regional power grids and an Information Silk Road.

This will not be financed by Beijing alone although, in February, China announced the setting up of a US$40 billion Silk Road Fund. Presumably, the AIIB may also be called upon to fund infrastructure projects.

While calling for regional integration, the plan also provides for greater economic integration within China, with the upgrading of 15 ports and the expansion of the Shanghai and Guangzhou airports into logistical hubs.

The action plan also provides for lower nontariff barriers, people-to-people exchanges and development of cross-border e-commerce.

Indeed, some parts of the action plan read as though what is being proposed is a gigantic free trade area extending across three continents.

Separately, Wu Jianmin, a retired senior diplomat, published an article explaining the Belt and Road initiative.

“The ‘One Belt and One Road’ initiative concerns 65 countries and 4.4 billion people,” Mr. Wu wrote. “This is China’s most important strategic initiative.”

Mr. Wu wrote: “China is not looking for unilateral gains but working for the common prosperity, for China’s development is inseparable from the world; and the world’s stability and prosperity are inseparable from China.

“We all long for a more peaceful and prosperous world in the 21st century. China is ready to work with all other countries to make our planet a better place to live.”

These are noble sentiments. They reflect China’s newfound desire to play a leadership role in the world.

If China succeeds in pulling off this gigantic initiative and bring about strong economic growth for much of the world, it will have truly proved itself to be a new superpower.

Truly, the age of Deng Xiaoping, when he called for Chinese to “hide our capabilities and bide our time, never try to take the lead”, is over.

A new era has dawned, and China feels that its time has come.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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