As Xi Jingping forges ahead with the Belt and Road initiative, he should be able to count on Southeast Asia
China’s President Xi Jingping was having the time of his life last week when he appeared in front of a thousand-odd guests including three dozen heads of state from various continents. With its “Belt and Road” initiative, China is seeking to build a new world, and in doing so it is entering uncharted territory where it still needs to learn and adjust.
The huge gathering in Beijing showed that China is no longer the “developing nation” it claims to be. It has fully emerged as one of the world’s most powerful countries in terms of economic and political clout. The ambitious Belt and Road plan, with its interwoven fiscal programmes and transportation networks, promises to better connect China with the rest of the world. Ironically, whatever else happens abroad will also come to depend on domestic developments inside the world’s second-largest economy. In this sense, China is still an untested commodity, so to speak. To be a global leader, there are multiple criteria that will have to come into play.
China has done well so far, especially given the ascension of United States President Donald Trump and its accompanying uncertainties. Xi has continued to maximise his presence on the international scene, forging a new image for China as a globally minded champion of free trade. This used to be America’s turf. Now the world has turned upside down. China has taken the pole position.
Within China, meanwhile, Xi continues to consolidate his leadership amid ongoing efforts to modernise the country in every way. He has moved quickly to contain rivalries within the ruling Communist Party’s top echelon and imposed stringent regulations on political and social affairs both within the party and beyond. On the surface, China has been modernising for more than three decades, but it remains a bastion of conservatism with strong remnants of the communist era. Xi has revived some ideological hallmarks of the past, such as nation-building, stern respect for party rules, and pursuit of the socialism model.
To be accepted as the world’s leading nation, game-changer China has to remain consistent and predictable in its international behaviour. The Belt and Road scheme will let it showcase its financial clout and build global creditability. It’s interesting to see the number of Western countries now banking on financial investments from Beijing. Chinese currency is urgently needed for
long-term infrastructure projects throughout the world, so many that Beijing must pick and choose where it spends its money, since it’s not possible to cover them all.
In more ways than one, good relations with Southeast Asia will be pivotal for China’s continued rise. If mistrust dominates those relations, as has been the case recently due to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Beijing will gain no new friends in our region, curtailing its global influence. If, on the other hand, China can increase Southeast Asia’s confidence in its plans and capabilities, it can truly spread its wings, here and into the further world. Southeast Asia could well serve as the launching pad for Beijing’s global efforts. To earn our trust, we expect to be treated with care and respect. Otherwise, the “new Silk Road” might hit roadblocks here.