May 16, 2017 6:00 am JST

Belt and Road conference is Xi's time to shine

Power play within Chinese party is key even if investment falls through

TETSUSHI TAKAHASHI, Head of Nikkei's China Headquarters

Staff snap pictures after the Belt and Road Forum. © AP

BEIJING -- China's first international conference on its Belt and Road initiative was a prime stage for President Xi Jinping to parade the Asian powerhouse's influence on his own turf, delivering a major political win, if a dubious one for the project itself.

The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, held here Sunday and Monday, brought together heads of state or government from 29 nations to discuss infrastructure development efforts aimed at expanding China's influence in Asia. In early September, leaders from the BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- will hold their annual summit in Xiamen, Fujian Province. These diplomatic gatherings on "friendly ground," as Chinese media call them, are shaping up to be a cornerstone of this country's foreign policy in 2017.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke plainly of China's foreign policy goals in a speech last December: The central purpose of diplomacy in 2017 is to "to create a favorable external environment for the opening" of the Communist Party's National Congress in the fall, he said. That twice-a-decade gathering will kick off Xi's second term as the party's general secretary and bring fresh faces into other top leadership positions.

Next step

The party has already proclaimed Xi as its "core" -- a title connoting an exceptionally strong leader. The president now seems to be angling for a greater leadership role on the global stage to further bolster his reputation. Bringing world leaders to him is an essential part of that strategy.

Creating a sphere of influence untouched by American power is the top priority for Xi. Therein lies the true importance of Belt and Road, which aims to resurrect the Silk Road of old in the form of overland and maritime trade routes between China and Europe.

"What we have to fear most" is Chinese control of sea lanes, a Japanese national security official said. "China is trying to build influence in the Indian Ocean, which is the farthest removed from the U.S."

India is unlikely to cooperate in this regard: The South Asian country sent no delegation to the Belt and Road Forum. But Washington itself could pick up the slack. President Donald Trump, until recently a China hawk, has softened his stance on Beijing of late, aiming to put pressure on North Korea as Pyongyang carries on with nuclear weapons and missile tests. This makes Beijing's gathering of 29 world leaders all the more significant.

Path to victory

Washington and Beijing on Thursday announced the first steps in a "100-day plan" to rectify their trade imbalance. China agreed to resume imports of American beef, while the U.S. agreed to send a delegation to the Belt and Road Forum and recognize the initiative's importance.

But for all the political theater the forum entailed, there is reason to doubt Beijing's commitment to its stated goals for the initiative: promoting free trade and investing in infrastructure along its new trade routes. China's direct investment abroad rose by a whopping 40% in 2016. But investment in Belt and Road nations slipped 2%.

Even if the forum leads to an upswing in that figure, is it not clear how long Beijing's excitement over the effort will last once the National Congress wraps up. If China can somehow convince the U.S. to join its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and bring Trump for a visit before the fall comes, Beijing would be well on the way to its ultimate goal.

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