Duterte joins China summit on new Silk Road

BEIJING, China – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday, May 14, is set to join a summit that aims to promote China's massive global trade infrastructure project, highlighting Beijing's ambitions to spearhead a new era of globalization as Washington shifts toward inward-looking policies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will host leaders from 29 nations in Beijing for a two-day forum on his signature foreign policy program, a revival of the Silk Road dubbed the One Belt, One Road Initiative. (READ: What to expect from Duterte at China's Belt and Road Forum)

Kicking off the forum is a welcome dinner at around 6 pm on Sunday, which Duterte is scheduled to attend. 

The Philippine leader arrived in China at 11:20 pm on Saturday, May 13, along with his long-time partner Honeylet Avanceña and a delegation that includes all his economic managers and other key Cabinet members. 

This is Duterte's second trip to Beijing as Philippine president, after his state visit to China in October 2016.

The Chinese-bankrolled One Belt, One Road Initiative, unveiled in 2013, seeks to link the country with Africa, Asia, and Europe through an enormous network of ports, railways, roads, and industrial parks. (READ: FAST FACTS: China's Belt and Road Forum

The initiative spans some 65 countries representing 60% of the world population and around a third of global gross domestic product. The China Development Bank has earmarked $890 billion for some 900 projects.

Belt and Road is seen as a practical solution to relieve China's industrial overcapacity. But it could also serve Beijing's geopolitical ambitions.

"In my view, Belt and Road is intended to create greater economic interdependence between China and its neighbors, which Beijing hopes will translate into increased political influence," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Xi Jinping wants China to become the dominant regional power in an essentially Sino-centric order," Glaser told Agence France-Presse.

The Chinese government describes the initiative as a partnership.

"What we need is not a hero that acts alone, but partners of cooperation that stick together," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said recently.

One-way street? 

Chinese state-run media has worked hard to explain the project to the world.

The English-language newspaper China Daily has bombarded social media with quirky videos, including an American father telling his daughter bedtime stories about Xi's programme and children singing, "We'll share the goodness now, the Belt and Road is how." 

But few Western leaders are attending the event. The prime ministers of Italy, Spain, and Greece are expected, while Washington is sending a senior White House adviser.

Xi is championing globalization at a time when the concept's traditional leader, the United States, is focused on "America First" under US President Donald Trump. The two countries, however, sealed a deal Friday, May 12, for China to export cooked poultry to America and resume US beef imports.

Europe, meanwhile, is mired in Britain's looming EU exit.

"The structure of the global economy is changing… In this situation we want to be completely open and outward looking," said Zhang Xueliang, economics professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.

At the same time, the European Union has pressed China to practise what it preaches and further open its own market.

"Hopefully (Belt and Road) is not a one-way street but a two-way," said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European chamber of commerce in Beijing.

Indian concerns

Other leaders attending the summit include Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and a delegation from North Korea are also coming.

But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not confirm his attendance.

India has voiced displeasure at the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a Belt and Road project aimed at linking northwestern China to the Arabian Sea.

The route cuts through Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, disputed territory that India claims is illegally occupied.

Human Rights Watch raised concerns on Saturday about the treatment of people along the new Silk Road route in Central Asian nations with poor track records in infrastructure projects.

The US-based organization said Chinese authorities have "heightened surveillance and repression to prevent potential unrest that could impede" Belt and Road plans in the western Xinjiang region. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com