Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation in Beijing, capital of China, May 14, 2017. (Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng)
By H. L. Bentley
BEIJING, May 14 (Xinhua) -- In his opening address to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of the need for harmonious coexistence.
The issue, he said, that presses him most about the modern world is that there is a "deficit" in peace, development and governance which he describes as "a daunting challenge" for humanity.
At important junctures such as this, it serves us well to reflect on how we got here before we think about how to move forward. It is no secret that Western prosperity was built on conflict, plunder, slavery, and war. The result? Conflict, disagreement, and a sense of entitlement.
The prosperity of developed nations, which is celebrated as a characteristic of their "advancement," was built on militarism and colonization. The greed and self-serving agendas of many of today's developed nations have left them as broken societies, fighting among themselves over the most trivial of things.
They are, to paraphrase a Chinese proverb, a group of dragons without a leader. They were, for brief interludes, the greatest dragons of their time, but only because, like Tolkien's Smaug, they descended upon their target countries -- continents, even -- in flames, reaping vast hoards of treasure to use for their own lavish self-interest.
Today, another dragon is rising. A dragon that, according to Wang Yiwei, professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, has no interest in driving out the peoples or cultures of the nations it interacts with. This dragon comes to lead, not to conquer.
China stands ready to drive the development of Asia, Europe and Africa, with an agenda based on a spirit almost as old as the myths of dragons themselves: the spirit of the ancient Silk Road.
Peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit is what Xi associates with this ancient trade route. This is not only the right path for our shared future, but is the only option we have at this time.
"We find ourselves in a world fraught with challenges. Global growth requires new drivers, development needs to be more inclusive and balanced, and the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be narrowed," Xi told the forum.
Conflict has emerged on so many levels in modern times. Countries are literally torn apart by violence, terrorism and poverty. Those once great nations like the United States, Britain and France, the former guiding lights of freedom, equality and brotherhood, are more divided than ever. On one side stand those ready to open their hearts and minds to a better future, while on the other huddle those who would close their borders and lock themselves in a dark room, blaming everyone for their ills except themselves.
In some developed countries people are arguing about how much money a politician spends on their interior decoration, while in the developing world many people are united by the desire for a roof over their head.
As people in England complain about hose-pipe bans in the summer and Donald Trump's golf courses turn brown at the edges, in Africa only 5 percent of agricultural land is irrigated.
Once we have access to a little bit of prosperity, we argue about it. People who have everything, have everything to argue about. People who have nothing suffer in silence. The needy are united in their need.
The sad fact is that many of the world's poorest nations have been raped and robbed by former colonial powers who left them destitute while enriching themselves. These colonialists are often the very countries that have the audacity to speak in such lofty tones about "the China threat."
The developmental model of the past was neither sustainable nor fair. This is why a new approach is needed, one which, in the words of Xi, requires "partnerships of dialogue with no confrontation, and of friendship rather than alliance."
What China proposes is not "or," it is "and." It is not about I win or you win. It is not about us or them. Are you with me or against me? It is about you and me. It is about China and Vietnam. It is about Vietnam and Thailand, Thailand and Laos, the Maldives and Uzbekistan, joining hands and working together; a human chain for cooperation that stretches from ocean to ocean across some of the most troubled regions on the planet.
Xi said, "The pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative is not meant to reinvent the wheel. Rather, it aims to complement the development strategies of the countries involved by leveraging their comparative strengths."
When we talk about growth and prosperity in under-developed and developing nations, we are not talking about a new car, ten computers for every classroom or free health care for all. We are talking about a road, a classroom or a doctor.
Since it was first proposed in 2013, Xi told today's opening session, the Belt and Road has brought better infrastructure, increased trade, a degree of financial stability, and people from many lands working together to build railways, friendship, ports, and trust.
It has only been four years since Xi began his journey to building a better world, a mere Olympiad, but China is an intergenerational thinker. China's plans and initiatives do not span months or a single presidential term. When China looks to the future, China looks years, decades, centuries ahead. For more than a millennium the Silk Road was the world's most important trading corridor. With good will, trust and benefits for all, who knows what the next millennium may hold?
In the short term, China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) includes a commitment to import 10 trillion U.S. dollars worth of goods and to invest more than 500 billion dollars overseas, much of this under the Belt and Road framework.
There is a Taoist scripture that says: Tao gave birth to the one, the one gave birth successively to two things, three things, up to 10,000 -- one belt, one road, one human race, one future.
The reason that the Belt and Road will succeed is not just that it is a grand plan for a future of shared destiny. It is a grand plan to bring basic standards of living to people who have, by any standards, nothing. It is about super highways and high-speed railways, but it is also about a toilet, a vaccination, an old-age pension and the security of a square meal at the end of a day of hard work.
"As we often say in China," Xi said, "'The beginning is the most difficult part.' A solid first step has been taken... We should build on the sound momentum generated to steer the Belt and Road Initiative toward greater success."
A grand plan must, and will, work in stages, with each nation contributing what they can when they can. Without predefined rules, the Belt and Road is about learning by doing, about seeking consensus project by project, said Zha Daojiong of Peking University.
We may not know what a prosperity built on sharing and cooperation will bring, but we know what the alternative brought. We know that we should give it a chance. It may not be our only shot at creating "a big family of harmonious coexistence," but it is the most viable option we have right now.
"Exchange will replace estrangement, mutual learning will replace clashes, and coexistence will replace a sense of superiority," said Xi -- a shared vision for our shared future.