China deserves credit for laying out an inclusive vision for its modern Silk Road initiative, especially at a time when others, notably the United States, are looking inwards. The ambitious plan to boost global commerce by linking China to Asia, Africa and Europe is off to an encouraging start, with world leaders and delegates from 130 nations and 60 international organisations participating in the two-day Belt and Road Forum in Beijing earlier this week. Against the backdrop of possible American economic and strategic retrenchment, the success of this project would do much to keep alive the positive effects of globalisation.
With billions of dollars of infrastructure investment on the line, there is much incentive for interested countries to give Beijing the benefit of the political doubt and support the grand plan it has laid out to bring together diverse trading nations. Developing economies badly in need of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks would do well to seize this opportunity to secure funding and ink commercial deals. Agreement among the participating leaders to base the expansion of global trade and investment flows on market rules and international norms will bolster the confidence of all players.
Adhering to such principles down the road is vital for the success of the project, especially in the light of some underlying concerns expressed by participants. Among them are worries about the transparency of public procurement processes, and the safeguarding of social and environmental standards - issues clearly on the minds of Europeans. The possible application of economic levers for geopolitical ends also creates some uneasiness. After all, there have been boycotts before in China of neighbouring economies' products over its unhappiness about certain political or national security decisions made by others.
Observers, adopting a larger perspective, have raised strategic control issues which can arise in global pacts. A major power would naturally acquire economic clout in a new economic order in which it forms the spine. The geography of trade could also ruffle certain players in specific ways, demonstrated by India, which skipped the forum in Beijing over sovereignty matters. It expressed its displeasure about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through a disputed area in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
How such knotty issues are addressed will be a test of the model's robustness. Chinese President Xi Jinping allayed some fears by giving the assurance that the Belt and Road initiative will not seek to sideline the development goals of Asean, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the African Union and the European Union. To live up to its inclusive aim, the topography of the Belt and Road initiative should be demonstrably open and easily navigable.