Editorial | China’s new Silk Road
Since the weekend, Donald Trump has been in the Middle East on the first leg of a trip his supporters at home hope will help to stabilise his erratic presidency and put a shine on America's global prestige.
Earlier, Mr Trump was in Saudi Arabia for talks with the kingdom's rulers and other Gulf leaders. Today, he is in Israel meeting Benjamin Netanyahu. Tomorrow, he will have talks with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, before heading to Europe for meetings with the Pope and a NATO summit.
The focus of Mr Trump's engagements, as is usual with Middle East forays by an American leader, is largely about security: a multibillion-dollar deal signed for the sale of weapons to the Saudis; discussions on how to defeat Islamic State; and the intractable debate over a Palestinian state; the war in Syria; and seeking ways to isolate Iran.
But beyond the martial tones of the geopolitical chess moves that Mr Trump hopes to accomplish, we do not sense in this initiative any attempt of a deeper engagement by the United States that marks itself other than a military superpower, capable of providing a security blanket. Or, put another way, this, on the face of it, is not an expression of American soft power. In that sense, it is, perhaps, a reflection of the Trump of America First, with tightly defined interests and muscular engagements.
Perchance our perception of Mr Trump's first presidential trip abroad is right, we contrast it with what took place in Beijing, the Chinese capital, last week, when President Xi Jinping hosted 29 heads of government and a similar number of ministerial and global representatives at the One Belt, One Road forum aimed at positing China as the new driver in global development.
This Chinese initiative invokes the idea of the Silk Road, the network of routes between Asia and Europe and Africa that facilitated commerce in the ancient world. The revised concept also incorporates sea lanes touching more than 60 countries, spanning Asia, eastern and central Europe, and parts of Africa. Together, they account for more than 60 per cent of the world's population, over a third of its merchandise trade, and nearly as much of its GDP.
President Xi's vision is to pull these countries into a network, with Asia as its centre, allowing for a seamless flow of capital, goods and services. China, the world's second largest economy and an emerging great power, would be its undeclared leader. China has earmarked US$124 billion to finance Road and Belt development initiatives and is looking for other countries and institutions to add to that.
The scale of the idea makes it difficult to accomplish as envisioned. Mr Xi, however, has a better chance of pulling it off than four months ago when Mr Trump came to office and pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade pact between the US and a number of Asian-Pacific countries, excluding China. A vacuum exists.
"In a world of growing interdependence and challenge, no country can tackle the challenges, also the world's problems, on its own," Mr Xi said at the forum.
That great paradox here is that it's the Chinese, late to the game, who, as America retreats, are positing themselves as the new globalists.