China embarks on belt and road publicity blitz after Malaysia says no to debt-heavy infrastructure projects

State news agency claims widespread international support for programme despite a minority of foreign media and internet users in countries along the route having a positive view of the plans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2018, 10:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 12:59pm

Chinese state media have embarked on another publicity blitz for the country’s global infrastructure drive, this time just days after the Malaysian government halted three billion-dollar Beijing-backed projects.

In a glowing feature on Sunday, state news agency Xinhua said the “Belt and Road Initiative”, a string of Chinese-backed projects across Europe, Asia, and Africa, had been well received internationally since it was launched by President Xi Jinping five years ago, describing the initiative as one that would “unify the dreams of every country and their citizens”.

“The Belt and Road Initiative originates from China, but belongs to the world,” it said. “In the past five years, it has transformed from a proposal into concrete action, turning ideas into practice, and today has become the world’s biggest international cooperation platform, and the most popular international public product.”

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Xinhua also published a commentary about the “widespread recognition of the initiative” for “illuminating the dreams of millions of people”, and a report hailing the expanded train service between China and Europe as a “team of iron and steel camels” on the belt and road.

The latest state media promotion comes hard on the heels of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s announcement last week that the controversial the US$20 billion East Coast Rail Link and two pipelines worth over US$2 billion had been cancelled to avoid adding to the Southeast Asian country’s debt.

It also comes amid rising fears over Beijing’s use of the belt and road to gain political leverage in the dozens of countries that have signed onto the trillion-US dollar drive.

Concerns of “debt-trap diplomacy” were compounded in December after Sri Lanka relinquished control over its US$1.5 billion deep-sea port to a state-owned Chinese firm when it struggled to pay back debts to China.

And in April, a nearly united front from the European Union reportedly condemned the belt and road for hampering free trade, giving an unfair advantage to Chinese companies, and pursuing “domestic political goals”.

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Beijing has consistently pushed back, denying it has used the initiative as a vehicle to gain political influence. On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected comparisons between the belt and road and the Marshall Plan, the United States’ economic aid initiative after the second world war that has been criticised for furthering American geopolitical interests.

In a meeting with Mongolian Foreign Minister Damdin Tsogtbaatar on Thursday, Wang said the belt and road was “not a geostrategic concept”, but a shared plan focused on transparent, high-quality projects that emphasised financial sustainability.

“The Belt and Road Initiative is in accordance with historical trends, is full of vitality and energy, and as a result has quickly gained support worldwide,” the Chinese foreign ministry quoted him as saying.

The latest Xinhua feature on the initiative said 88 countries and international bodies had signed agreements on belt and road cooperation. It also outlined the hundreds of shipping ports, railways, airlines, and energy deals that fall under the belt and road framework, as well as the accompanying spending from Chinese tourists and overseas students.

The report claimed that in 2017, Chinese trade with countries along the routes made up 40 per cent of global trade. But it also said that only 23.6 per cent of foreign media and internet users in belt and road countries had positive attitudes towards the plan, albeit up from 16.5 per cent in 2013.