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World

China's President Outlines Plans For A New Silk Road

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On Sunday, China's president, Xi Jinping, outlined plans for a new Silk Road. This is an ambitious plan that would see billions of dollars invested in highways, ports and railways connecting some 65 countries on four different continents. And let's talk about this with NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this was a big, splashy event that China was really excited about. But it sounds like one of China's guests, I guess we could say, almost stole the limelight here.

KUHN: Almost. China was criticized for inviting North Korea to the summit. And sure enough, on the day of the summit, the North launched a missile that it claimed was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. So the U.N. Security Council is going to meet about this on Tuesday. But this was China's big event. They were not about to be upstaged. It was President Xi Jinping's chance to outline his signature policy to nearly 30 assembled heads of state.

So let me tell you, David, about Xi's big speech. He actually talked about the Silk Road, which connected Europe and Asia centuries ago. And he conjured up images of camel caravans, carrying cargoes of goods and ideas among ancient empires.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) This part of history shows that civilization thrives with openness, and nations prosper through exchange.

KUHN: Xi Jinping announced over $100 billion in infrastructure financing, but more than that, he described China as a provider of public goods and a bringer of prosperity, security and environmental protection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

XI: (Through interpreter) We should intensify counterterrorism efforts, address both the symptoms and root causes, and strive to eradicate poverty, backwardness and social injustice.

KUHN: Some countries have protested Chinese-invested projects because they left them with heavy debts, environmental damage and few local jobs. Xiao Huang (ph), a Southeast Asia expert at Xiamen University, cites the example of Myanmar, whose government has shelved plans for a massive dam on the Irrawaddy River. He says, the Belt and Road project is intended to address such problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

XIAO HUANG: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: "China's cooperation has mostly been government-to-government," he says. China did not fully consider local people's feelings about the projects. China is now in the process of adjusting these policies.

Xi Jinping also tried to address concerns that the new Silk Road represents a new international order with China in the driver's seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

XI: (Through interpreter) But we have no intention to interfere in other countries' internal affairs, export our own social system and the model of development or impose our own will on others.

KUHN: Xiao Huang says the Belt and Road Initiative is also a geopolitical strategy. He says that, especially during the Obama administration, China felt hemmed-in on its eastern flank by the U.S. and its allies, such as Japan and the Philippines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

XIAO: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: "So if China could find a way out to the West," he says, "then it could relieve this pressure coming from the East." Xiao cautions, though, that the Belt and Road plan is still just a vision that could take decades to achieve. He doubts that China has the intention, or the ability, to put itself at the center of any new world order.

GREENE: Anthony Kuhn reporting there, and Anthony is still on the line. Anthony, is the United States excited about this project?

KUHN: It was very skeptical initially, David, both about China's geopolitical intentions and also just about the quality of the projects themselves. But since then, a lot of other countries have jumped on China's Silk Road bandwagon. And the U.S. has warmed a bit to the project. So over the weekend, White House Asia adviser Matt Pottinger actually led a delegation to this forum and said that U.S. companies might just do business selling to these projects.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Anthony, thanks.

KUHN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.