By Keith Bradsher* – The New York Times
DAVOS, Switzerland — President Trump used the World Economic Forum meeting to woo investors and business leaders by reassuring them that “America first does not mean America alone.” But it was clear in Davos, Switzerland, this past week that geopolitical momentum lay with Beijing, not Washington.
At one end of town, President Michel Temer of Brazil welcomed an unexpected offer from Beijing for Latin American nations to work closely with a Chinese initiative, known as the Belt and Road, intended to spread its economic and diplomatic influence abroad.
At the other end of town, a senior Chinese diplomat helped introduce the prime minister of Pakistan at a breakfast meeting. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi used his talk to praise the rapidly expanding Chinese investments in his country, including to build power stations and a large port.
One of the best-attended speeches at the forum was that of Liu He, a member of China’s ruling Politburo, who promoted the Belt and Road initiative, also known as One Belt, One Road. Participants here said the Chinese initiative was already rivaling more established, traditionally American-led, international institutions.
“The China One Belt, One Road is going to be the new W.T.O. — like it or not,” said Joe Kaeser, chief executive of Siemens, the German industrial giant, referring to the World Trade Organization.
Belt and Road takes its name from the idea that Beijing is spreading its influence along the ancient Silk Road that once linked imperial China to the Roman Empire and to the medieval Europe of Marco Polo. But that was not the only push to extend its presence abroad that Beijing was trying to showcase.
On Friday, the Chinese government used a policy document issued in Beijing to call for a “Polar Silk Road” that would link China to Europe and the Atlantic via a shipping route past the melting Arctic ice cap.
Belt and Road has been a centerpiece of the foreign policy of President Xi Jinping, and his promises of a “China Dream” of restoring his nation to past greatness. Unveiled in Kazakhstan in 2013, Belt and Road started as a plan to revive economic, investment and diplomatic links across Central Asia.
The plan gradually extended to include the Mideast, Europe and eastern Africa, with Beijing promising hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in highways, rail lines, ports, power stations and other infrastructure, much of it through loans from Chinese state-owned banks.
Critics have been skeptical, arguing that projects bankrolled through the initiative will bury the recipients in debt and cause environmental damage. The initiative has also been criticized as an easy line of financing for authoritarian regimes. China says its projects will be environmentally and financially sound, and that it does not seek a say in how other countries are governed.
The foreign minister of Uruguay, Rodolfo Nin Novoa, right, met with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, last week in Montevideo, Uruguay. Credit Andres Stapff/Reuters
While Davos was underway, China was making other efforts to stretch the geographical ambitions of its Belt and Road initiative even further. At a summit meeting for Latin American and Caribbean foreign ministers in Santiago, Chile, Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China called for close cooperation and participation by the region’s countries, although he stopped short of formally including them in the initiative.
In Davos, President Temer of Brazil said that he was not concerned about the rising influence in South America of China, which has increased investments in his country and extended enormous loans to Venezuela and Ecuador.
Venezuela has already proved unable to repay its creditors, which include Moscow and Beijing. The Russian government has used Venezuela’s overdue debts as a bargaining chip to win the right for Russian warships to visit Venezuelan ports.
Mr. Temer said the debts should be seen as a financial issue, not a geopolitical one. “The major concern they have is to recover the loans they gave Venezuela, they want their payment,” he said in an interview. “This was actually quite explained in the meetings we have.”
He also said that he was not worried by the strong Chinese interest in acquiring stakes in Brazil’s electrical distribution and other industries. “The U.S. invests as well in Brazil,” he said.
National leaders seemed to vie with one another in Davos in calling for closer cooperation with China. Mr. Abbasi of Pakistan dismissed recent controversy in his country over whether China’s giant construction projects were compromising Pakistan’s sovereignty, its environment or its financial stability.
“There is no major challenge we have not been able to resolve, and the sovereignty issues are very clear,” he said at a breakfast for business executives and the news media. He added that on financial and environmental issues relating to Belt and Road projects, “So far, I can tell you we are winning on both counts.”
Chinese officials used Davos as another opportunity to speak out against protectionism, in what analysts have described as an effort to take advantage of global concerns about the Trump administration and its warnings that it would pursue a more aggressive trade policy.
Beijing’s rhetoric comes despite China’s steep tariffs on a broad range of manufactured goods, including shoes and cars. China’s average tariffs on imports are actually triple those of the United States and double those of the European Union.
However, China has zero tariffs on many raw materials that it has in only limited quantities at home, like iron ore. As a result, its stance has been particularly welcomed by countries like Chile that produce a lot of raw materials but relatively few factory goods.
“In this, we see a very big difference with the United States,” Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz of Chile said, calling China’s “vision of openness and its rejection of protectionism very welcome.”
Follow Keith Bradsher on Twitter: @KeithBradsher.
Ernesto Londoño contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.
*Keith Bradsher is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times, having reopened the Shanghai bureau on Nov. 14, 2016. He has previously served as the Hong Kong bureau chief and the Detroit bureau chief for The Times.