At the opening of a huge new trade show in Shanghai on Monday, the inaugural China International Import Expo, Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to convince increasingly skeptical observers that China wants to “help friends from around the world to seize opportunities.” Xi is aiming to boost China’s trade involvement across the globe, even as the United States under President Donald Trump retreats into protectionism.
Yet the notion that Beijing is a force for global prosperity is running into a wall of doubt as Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative—a trillion-dollar global infrastructure behemoth that launched in 2013 as “One Belt, One Road”—ignites controversies and political crises in country after country. The Belt and Road is Xi’s vehicle for converting China’s spectacular economic growth into global influence, a soft power strategy for the age of global capitalism. The project is so important to Xi that last year, as he consolidated his position as the most powerful leader in Beijing in decades, he had the Belt and Road enshrined in China’s constitution.
But even as China’s disbursements run up into the hundreds of billions of dollars, and the number of countries signing up to receive Chinese investment jumps to more than 70, the bridges, tunnels, ports and other development projects are becoming politically radioactive in countries big and small. China’s apparent largesse, it turns out, is saddling countries with enormous debt that some cannot pay back, and for projects that are often of dubious benefit, except for China and corrupt local politicians who sign what are frequently opaque agreements.