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China hosts world leaders at Belt and Road summit in Beijing in blow to US

Some 5,000 attendees from across the globe have traveled to China to partake in the second summit of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which will kick off in capital Beijing on Friday.

Speaking at the opening of the three-day summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping outlined plans to expand the initiative into broader economic and social co-operation between signatory countries.

“We need to promote a global partnership for connectivity,” said the president. “As we work closely together we will transcend geographical distance and embark on a path of win-win co operation.”

The trade infrastructure project, announced by Xi in 2013, envisions the construction of railways, roads and ports across the globe to connect China by land and sea to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. So far, China has poured billions into investments from Africa to the South Pacific.

Some Western governments, including the US, have accused Beijing of trying to spread its influence around the world by way of “debt trap diplomacy,” claiming that China forces debtor countries to participate in the project.

On Friday, Xi once again dismissed the accusations, saying that there would be improved transparency and “zero tolerance” for corruption in BRI projects.

“We want to sow the seeds of cooperation, harvest the fruits of development bring grater happiness to our people and make or world a better place for all,” Xi said.

“Building high-quality, sustainable, risk-resistant, reasonably priced, and inclusive infrastructure will help countries to fully utilize their resource endowments.”

China has repeatedly said it is not seeking to trap anyone with debt and that it only has good intentions.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last week that BRI “is not a geopolitical tool but a platform for cooperation.”

He also pointed out in his speech that environmental protection must underpin the scheme “to protect the common home we live in”.

“We must adhere to the concept of openness, greenness, and cleanliness,” he said.

The forum will review the progress so far and set the direction for the next five years, with a central focus on the “quality” of projects. 

BRI helps counter US unilateralism: Putin

Attending the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin also praised the initiative saying the BRI would help boost the economies of Eurasia.

He explained that the sweeping infrastructure project was a way of countering the “rise of protectionism,” and “unilateralism,” in a clear reference to US President Donald Trump’s trade wars with China, Canada and a number of European countries. Putin said the US administration’s policies were aimed at slowing world economic growth.

The Trump administration initiated a trade war with China last year, when he first imposed unusually heavy tariffs on imports from the Asian country.

Washington has long criticized China’s huge trade surplus with the United States and has demanded Beijing reduce it.

The US is also demanding extensive changes to Chinese practices that the White House has branded as unfair, including the alleged theft of US technology and intellectual property. Washington also accuses Beijing of setting up myriad barriers for foreign companies to work in the Chinese market. China rejects the allegations.

Beijing has offered to increase its purchases of US products but is widely expected to resist calls for far-reaching changes to its industrial policies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (top C) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (top R) arrive for the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April 26, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

But disagreement between the two leading economic powers deepens with both sides imposing tariffs on each other’s goods and led to a trade war that has rattled world’s economy.

Italian PM in Beijing defying US pressure

Amongst leaders from 37 countries and dozens of officials, who attended the summit, was Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Xi in Rome last month.

Defying Washington and Brussels, Italy joined the project last month in an effort to pull itself out of an onerous public debt and recession it fell into at the end of last year. 

This however, infuriated Washington which said Rome’s participation in the BRI would add “legitimacy” to the project.

Pakistan’s Imran Khan addresses the summit

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan also attended the gathering. Islamabad, a close China ally, is the biggest recipient of Belt and Road investment.

Addressing the opening session, Khan commended the significance of the initiative, saying Islamabad “is proud to have partnered with China in this transformative endeavor. We have been among BRI’s earliest and most enthusiastic proponents.” 

The United States was expected to send only lower-level officials, according to a spokesman for the US Embassy in Beijing.

“We continue to have serious concerns that China’s infrastructure diplomacy activities ignore or weaken international standards and best practices related to development, labor protections, and environmental protection,” the spokesman added.

So far, 126 countries and 29 international organizations have joined the project by signing cooperation agreements with Beijing.

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