China got 30 countries to take a stand on climate change and protectionism—mostly tiny ones

Thank you, Fiji.
Thank you, Fiji.
Image: Roman Pilipey/Pool Photo via AP
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The “China stands for globalization” narrative just got a boost.

When the G20 issued a joint statement in March after its latest meeting, it mentioned neither trade protectionism nor climate change, despite a push from some members to do so. This week a group of nations gathering for China’s “new Silk Road” summit did include those matters in a joint communiqué.

Signed by 30 heads of state on May 15, the communiqué pledges to support China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, oppose all forms of protectionism, and support the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“We reaffirm our shared commitment to build open economy, ensure free and inclusive trade, oppose all forms of protectionism including in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative,” the statement reads.

China is increasingly trying to step into the vacuum in global leadership on issues like trade and climate change. OBOR, a massive infrastructure spending spree that China says covers more than 60 countries at present, looks set to be an important tool for that. China’s move into the pro-globalization sphere was most evident earlier this year, at the World Economic Forum, when Chinese president Xi Jinping rebuked his US counterpart Donald Trump for wanting to curb free trade and implement more “America first” policies.

It was also the Trump administration that pressured the G20 members to drop mentions of protectionism and climate change in their latest joint statement.

Trump argues the US has been treated unfairly in global trade, and he’s threatened to pull his country out of both various trade deals and the Paris Agreement, which aims to curb global warming.

But it’s worth noting that among the 30 signees to the OBOR statement are many countries with authoritarian regimes, including Cambodia, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan. Also, many countries in the group are under China’s economic sway. And some of the nations, such as Fiji, could hardly be considered major players on the world stage. What’s more the OBOR group is not one based on any kind of formal membership, unlike the G20, so the statement carries less weight.

Another caveat is about protectionism. Even as China pushes for more free trade, it generally wants its own state-owned enterprises to lead OBOR-related projects, which include major infrastructure projects like roads, ports, and rail lines. That’s led to hesitation from countries like Germany, which along with France and Britain sent only low-level officials to the OBOR summit and didn’t sign the communiqué. The EU ambassador to China, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, told Reuters:

“[OBOR] is in our view something that should also be based on open platforms with sustainability in terms of financing, market-based principles, like open and transparent tender procedures. All of these are very important principles to make it succeed.”

Thirty nations did sign the OBOR communique. But only 20 of those were nations that China considers part of its Belt and Road initiative. The other 44 declined.