China decries protectionism, but some raise concerns

Guests listen to Chinese President Xi Jinping's speech during a welcome banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People on May 14, 2017.
Guests listen to Chinese President Xi Jinping's speech during a welcome banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People on May 14, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) – President Xi Jinping criticised protectionism on Monday (May 15)  at a summit positioning China as a champion of globalisation, and secured a free trade commitment from almost 30 other world leaders as the meeting wound up.

Xi addressed the leaders on the second day of the forum on his new Silk Road plan, a huge infrastructure project intended to revive ancient land and sea trade routes from Asia to Europe and Africa.

“Globalisation is encountering some headwinds,” Xi told leaders from countries ranging from Spain to Turkey, Russia and Pakistan at a convention centre near the Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing.

“We need to seek results through greater openness and cooperation, avoid fragmentation, refrain from setting inhibitive thresholds for cooperation or pursuing exclusive arrangements, and reject protectionism.”

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He compared countries to “swan and geese” that can “fly long and safely through winds and storms because they move in tandem and help each other as a team”.

The international gathering was called to promote Xi’s signature foreign policy project, the One Belt, One Road initiative as the new Silk Road project is known.

He later announced that the two-day summit reached “broad consensus” on the project and that China would host another forum in 2019.

Participants in a joint communique declared: “We reaffirm our shared commitment to build open economy, ensure free and inclusive trade, (and) oppose all forms of protectionism, including in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative”, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Xi pledged on Sunday to pump an extra US$124 billion  (S$173.5 billion) into the China-bankrolled project, which involves a huge network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks. The China Development Bank had already earmarked US$890 billion for some 900 projects.

The initiative spans 65 countries representing 60 per cent of the world population and around a third of global gross domestic product.

China has defended globalisation at a time when the United States is retreating into “America First” policies on trade and foreign relations under President Donald Trump.

While some see Beijing’s project as a geopolitical powerplay, Xi has insisted that the Belt and Road is open to everybody.

“In a world of growth, interdependence and challenges, no country can tackle the challenges or solve the world’s problems on its own,” he said as he sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin and other leaders praised Xi’s project.

“Today any signals that would give hope for stability are in demand. In that sense, the Chinese initiative is very timely and very useful,” Putin told reporters.

CONCERNS RAISED 

But in a setback to Xi’s effort to gain full support, three European Union countries – Germany, Estonia and Hungary – indicated they would not sign one of the summit documents on trade.

A diplomat who requested anonymity told AFP the EU countries believe the text did not sufficiently address European concerns on transparency of public procurement and social and environmental standards.

China only presented the document to negotiators last week, telling them it could no longer be reworked, according to the official.

On Sunday German Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries called for transparency to ensure that the calls for investment bids are “non-discriminatory”.

“I think there is still room for improvement in this area,” Zypries said.

But other Europeans praised Xi’s project.

“In these times, when the temptation is great to respond to the crisis of globalisation by increasing isolation, and by raising walls, this initiative highlights a vision of connectivity, cooperation and dialogue across Europe and Asia but also other parts of the world,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Sunday.

British finance minister Philip Hammond said London was “ready to work with all Belt and Road partner countries to make a success of this initiative”.

Europeans were not the only ones voicing concerns.

India skipped the summit as it voiced displeasure at the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a Belt and Road project aimed at linking northwestern China to the Arabian Sea.

The route cuts through Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, disputed territory that India claims is illegally occupied.