US to Attend China’s Belt and Road Forum

In a move that is likely to give a boost to China’s Belt and Road Forum, the United States has announced that it will participate in meetings on the initiative beginning this weekend in Beijing.

The decision to attend is part of a 100-day plan and new deal between Washington and Beijing that was initially hammered out when President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping met early last month in Florida.

The interagency delegation from Washington will be led by Matthew Pottinger, a top adviser to the Trump administration and National Security Council senior director for East Asia. China is pleased with the decision.

“We welcome all countries to attend. And we welcome the United States’ attendance as the world’s largest economy in the relevant activities of the Belt and Road initiative,” said Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao.

Fact and fiction

China has long been playing up the global benefits of its ambitious trade project, but analysts note that the plan is opaque and vague. Besides, the economic benefits for developed nations such as the United States are still unclear.

For many, the project still seems largely China-centric. It boasts six economic corridors, all of which are to enhance links with China through connectivity and trade infrastructure. Those include connections between China and Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

“It’s about making China great again — in Trumpian terms — and making China great on the international stage,” said Tom Miller, author of China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road.

Domestically, China’s leaders present the project as part of their attempt at the grand rejuvenation of the Chinese people. Internationally, Beijing is trying to convince the world that it is a cooperative win-win plan that will equally benefit all participants.

So far the response has been mixed, but Beijing hopes that its forum on Sunday and Monday, which will include heads of state from 29 countries and official delegations from several other countries, will bring more clarity.

For starters, there is no official map of the grand plan, and the scope of the project continues to balloon. Beijing is entirely in the driver’s seat and the direction of the initiative is fuzzy at best, analysts said.

“What actually gets built will depend on what deals Chinese companies make with other countries abroad or on the deals that Chinese government makes with other governments abroad, and no one knows exactly what those are going to be,” Miller said.

Bumps on China road

There are also the geopolitical implications of the project.

Many developing countries along the route will obviously welcome and be eager and open to receive Chinese investment, infrastructure and development, said Paul Haenle, director of the Beijing-based Tsinghua-Carnegie Center for Global Policy.

In addition to communicating with developing countries, China needs to proactively engage with developed nations such as the United States and others as well.

China “should explain fully what the objectives are for the initiatives,” Hanele says. “And if it doesn’t do a very good job, I think then China risks these nations projecting their worst fears onto the Belt and Road initiative.”

While China-backed infrastructure projects could bring many benefits to developing countries, they could also make them reliant on Beijing’s largesse.

“The more power that China gains economically, [the more] it will have a geopolitical impact,” Miller said. “And in that sense, you can say that it does equate to a double win for China.”

Critical eye

Having developed countries such as the United States, Germany and Britain participate in the meeting could help make it more transparent.

Other developed European countries and the United States are right to look at Chinese behavior that is opaque and poorly defined with a critical eye, Haenle said.

He added Washington’s decision to attend and not shun the gathering, as it did during China’s formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) two years ago, is a better approach.

The United States would do well “to ask about what the rules will be and what the purpose is behind this, but at the end of the day, the U.S. should not have a hostile attitude,” Haenle said.

Friday’s last-minute announcement has raised questions about whether the United States may reverse former President Barack Obama’s decision to stay away from the AIIB and join. The bank is hosting a special press conference on Saturday to announce new members.

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