Chinese President Xi Jinping tabled a tweaked version of what is sometimes called globalisation with Chinese characteristics at the second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum in Beijing last week. In response to criticism that his signature initiative was prone to corruption, pollution and saddling poor nations with unsustainable debt, Mr Xi held out an assurance that the world's most ambitious infrastructure project would henceforth be clean, green and transparent. The BRI has notched up remarkable numbers in the two years since the first forum in 2017, when 70 nations were counted as partners. In March, Italy became the first G-7 member, and 13th nation of the 28-member European Union, to join the US$1.5 trillion project. With Switzerland signing up last week, 126 nations are now on board. If successfully completed, the BRI projects could lift global GDP by 3 per cent, more than can be achieved by free-trade agreements, says the World Bank.
BRI's growing dimensions, however, precipitate worries that are unlikely to abate despite Mr Xi's promises. Japan has reluctantly embraced some aspects even as it continues to vigorously pursue its own investments in Asia. Not so the United States and India, which are mistrustful of Mr Xi's worldview. The Pentagon, for instance, sees a possibility that its Mediterranean fleet will lose access to Israel's Haifa port once China assumes management control. For other nations, the difficulty lies in reconciling their participation in the digital silk road - Beijing's term for Internet, telecoms and outer space joint ventures - at a time when China is tightening censorship and control. Many recoil from Sri Lanka's BRI experience. Its Hambantota port passed into Chinese hands in December 2017 when Colombo could not service debts of more than US$8 billion owed to Chinese firms involved in its construction. Since then, Pakistan and Myanmar have scaled down their BRI projects while Malaysia renegotiated its East Coast Railway Link last month.