Attendance at B&R summit shows inclusivity

By Jeremy Garlick Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/11 18:58:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When the 29 heads of state and government arrive in Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, which takes place on May 14 and 15, the first thing they will notice is which of their peers have decided not to attend.

The most obvious absentee, of course, will be Donald Trump. But then, who would expect the US president to attend a Chinese-organized summit dealing with a Chinese-led initiative? To do so would be an admission that the US has already handed over the baton of global leadership to its rival. This is certainly not yet the case, since China has yet become a rival to the US for world hegemony, if it should even want to attain such a position.

The leaders of Germany, France and Britain will not be present, either. However, all have very good excuses: The new French president will have been in office only two weeks and will be busy with affairs of the state, while Angela Merkel and Theresa May will be occupied with election campaigns. Nevertheless, all three countries will be sending high-level representatives as stand-ins.

The Japanese and Indian heads of state will also be absent, but again, this is no great surprise. Both countries are Belt and Road sceptics so far, and much persuasion will be needed to make them change their minds.

So, who is going to be at the meeting? The attendees can be divided into several groups, all of which signify the importance of the forum.

First, there are the leaders of seven Southeast Asian nations: Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. The fact that the heads of these ASEAN member states will be present is highly important. It is indicative of their intention to cooperate with China on developing the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which is a key component of the Belt and Road initiative.

The presence of the leaders of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia also reveals that these nations, along with China, do not perceive the issue of the South China Sea as a serious impediment to cooperation.

The second significant group of leaders is the Europeans. Although some of them are missing, there are enough of them (10 in all) to make a considerable impact on the outcome of the event. The leaders of Spain, Italy, Greece and Switzerland are attending, as well as the Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Serbian and Belarusian heads of state.

All these countries are important for the Belt and Road initiative, with Russia being absolutely central to the whole enterprise. Central and Eastern Europe constitutes a key endpoint for the Silk Road Economic Belt, while the ports of Greece and Italy complete the Maritime Silk Road's winding route through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.

In addition, Spain is now connected to China by the world's longest railway line, all 13,000 kilometers of it. Switzerland, as President Xi Jinping's January visit to the Western European nation demonstrated, is seen as a crucial partner in terms of science and innovation.

There is no doubt that Central Asia is at the core of the Silk Road Economic Belt. Thus, the presence of the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is far from being merely symbolic as China seeks to increase Eurasian connectivity and improve energy security.

Similarly, South Asia is vital to the Maritime Silk Road, which is why the prime ministers of Pakistan and Sri Lanka will be at the forum. China is constructing ports in both countries, which makes them key partners.

Then, there is East Africa. Both Kenya and Ethiopia, in which Chinese companies are constructing roads, railways and other infrastructure projects, will be represented at the forum by their heads of state.

The presidents of Chile and Argentina are also coming. The fact of Latin America's inclusion in the forum proves that no country needs to feel excluded from the initiative even if it focuses geographically on Eurasia and East Africa.

This applies also to the Pacific Islands, represented at the conference by the prime minister of Fiji. The last two countries, Turkey and Mongolia, are important links on land between China and Europe, particularly in terms of transportation and energy pipelines.

Aside from all these heads of state, also attending will be Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Jim Yong-kim, the president of the World Bank Group, and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde. This leaves little doubt about the status of the forum in the eyes of the world, even if some major global figures will unfortunately, either by choice or by chance, be absent.

The author is a lecturer in international relations, Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies, University of Economics in Prague.


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