By Ben Blanchard and Brenda Goh
BEIJING (Reuters) – China sought to put a gentler face on its massive plan to recreate the old Silk Road at a summit that ended on Saturday, saying it must do more to explain the programme and boost sustainability even as state media hit back at critics.
President Xi Jinping has made the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as it is formally called, one of the cornerstones of his administration. But it has run into opposition in some countries over fears that opaque financing arrangements lead to unsustainable debt and that it is more about promoting Chinese influence than bringing development.
China has at times reacted angrily to such doubts, tending to characterise critics as harbouring anti-Chinese prejudice and wishing to contain the country’s rise, while overlooking what Beijing says are genuine good intentions.
The Belt and Road scheme seeks to build a modern version of the Silk Road to link China with Asia, Europe and beyond through large-scale infrastructure projects.
On Friday, Xi told foreign leaders – including close allies such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan – that the initiative must be green and sustainable, adding that the plan would deliver “high-quality” growth for all.
Meeting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Xi said Belt and Road was about promoting mutually beneficial, win-win international cooperation, not a “you lose, I win” scheme, according to a read-out from China’s Foreign Ministry.
“We must explain this point to the world, to win even greater understanding and support,” the ministry paraphrased Xi as saying.
China has been keen to show that Belt and Road is even winning acceptance in Western nations, especially after Italy became the first G7 country to sign on last month. Britain’s finance minister, France’s foreign minister and Germany’s economy minister all made the trek to Beijing for the event.
Those countries reminded China of the need for high standards and transparency.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the summit that the success of Belt and Road projects “will depend on our determination to keep our commitments”.
“Commitment to openness, commitment to transparency, commitment to fair competition and, of course, commitment to environmental sustainability as well,” he said.
British Chancellor Philip Hammond said that for Belt and Road to be successful it had to deliver “the highest international standards of transparency, of governance, but also of environmental integrity”.
“President Xi made a speech this morning in which he committed China to all of those things and set out his vision for the next stage of Belt and Road and we will be looking very carefully at how that is operationalised,” he said on Friday.
Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of another good Chinese friend, Myanmar, said Belt and Road had to take into account realities on the ground.
“The projects must not only be economically feasible but also socially and environmentally responsible and, most importantly, they must win the confidence and support of local communities,” she told the summit.
This year’s summit was more low-key than the first one two years ago.
Xi did not offer details of any new funding for the initiative, though he did announce deals worth more than $64 billion signed during the meeting.
State media also reined back a propaganda offensive that in 2017 featured songs in awkward-sounding English on their social media feeds praising Belt and Road.
China’s fearsome propaganda machine was never going to be entirely absent, however.
For example, China’s embassy in Thailand put out a video with a Chinese-speaking, animated durian showing how Belt and Road was good for the pungent-smelling fruit, regarded as a delicacy in Southeast Asia and increasingly popular in China, as better roads meant it could be exported faster and cheaper.
“Thanks to the Belt and Road initiative, our journey has become smoother,” the durian explains.
Beijing has been unable to win over Washington though, with no senior U.S. government officials appearing at the summit.
The U.S. embassy in Beijing reiterated “serious concerns that China’s infrastructure diplomacy activities ignore or weaken international standards and best practices related to development, labour protections, and environmental protection”.
The Global Times, a widely-read tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in a Friday editorial that the United States and other critics “have lost their abilities to use logic and common sense, and even rational thinking” when it comes to Belt and Road.
“Lying, being far-fetched, and holding such opinions will not have any real influence,” it said. “BRI is a groundbreaking international endeavour for the 21st century.”
While China has sought to sketch a clearer vision for Belt and Road, it has increasingly taken a defensive tone in saying what it isn’t.
On the eve of the summit, on Wednesday, the People’s Daily WeChat account ran a question-and-answer piece to “verbally fight back with the facts” against critics.
“Is the Belt and Road China creating a debt trap?” reads one of the questions.
“The causes of a country’s debt are complex. Some have problems with the fundamentals of their economy, some are old accounts left over from history,” part of the answer reads.
“The Belt and Road Initiative is only six years old. It’s utterly unjustifiable to simply blame the long-standing debt problems of these countries on China!”
China put its best foot forward as host for the summit, offering foreign journalists uncensored internet access at the venues, and at least some senior officials happily chatted with the media on its sidelines, though Xi himself took no questions at a closing news conference on Saturday.
In another softer side to Belt and Road, a list of 283 deliverables reached at the summit listed more than just traditional areas like railways and ports.
China will set up both Silk Road museum and library alliances, the lengthy document reveals.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Brenda Goh; Additional reporting by Yilei Sun and Tom Daly; Editing by Alex Richardson)