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China’s Illusory Global Leadership

ATLANTA – Even as China’s economy slows and its government backslides on reform, President Xi Jinping is trying hard to portray his country as a global power ready to assume a broader international role. It is proving to be a tough sell.

Xi’s efforts to boost China’s international clout are not in doubt. His meetings with Asian leaders in Manila last November rounded out a year of high-profile travel, in which he has touted China – which has provided billions of dollars in foreign assistance and investments around the world in recent years – as a leading global benefactor. In the Middle East, Chinese firms are building a subway in Iran’s capital and a high-speed railway in Saudi Arabia. Last June, Egypt entered into an agreement with China for 15 projects worth about $10 billion. In Latin America, Chinese officials have forecast $250 billion in new infrastructure deals.

Most far-reaching is China’s “one belt, one road” initiative, which aims to recreate the ancient maritime and overland Silk Roads, connecting China to the rest of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The $40 billion Silk Road Fund and the $50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, launched last year, promise to finance much of the construction, with the AIIB being viewed by many as a challenge to the World Bank.

At last September’s United Nations meeting, after promising to add $10 billion by 2030 to what began as a $2 billion investment fund for the least developed countries, Xi reiterated China’s view that it is now on par with the United States in terms of providing international aid and investment. Indeed, by emphasizing that China would put “justice before interests,” Xi may even have attempted to claim the moral high ground.