Chinese President Xi Jinping says his plan to recreate the old Silk Road is designed to increase and enhance international trade cooperation, as he bid to reassure critics of the $1 trillion infrastructure project.
Xi also told attendees at his Belt and Road Forum on April 26 that Beijing would eliminate anticompetitive subsidies to Chinese firms, a practice that has angered many foreign trading partners, including the United States and the European Union.
“We will overhaul and abolish unjustified regulations, subsidies, and practices that impede fair competition and distort the market,” Xi said.
“We will treat all companies, enterprises, and business entities equally and foster an enabling business environment based on market operation and governed by law,” he said.
The massive Belt and Road initiative seeks to create new rail, road, port, and energy infrastructure that links China with Europe, Africa, and other parts of Asia.
The high-profile meeting brings together dozens of heads of states, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose country became the first G7 member to sign up to the initiative.
Also among the 37 leaders attending are Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, and Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.
Kazakhstan’s delegation is led by former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who resigned from office on March 19 but continues to hold the title “leader of the nation.”
EU members Germany and France are sending ministers while the United States has not dispatched any officials from Washington.
The United States and many EU countries have criticized China’s project and its lending for regional infrastructure efforts, warning that it has saddled some developing countries with debts they cannot afford to repay.
In his opening remarks at the summit on April 26, China’s President Xi sought to ease those concerns, pledging to prevent debt risks and saying the massive infrastructure project “is not an exclusive club.”
Xi said that “we also need to ensure the commercial and fiscal sustainability of all projects so that they will achieve the intended goals as planned.”
He also sought to reassure critics who have complained about what has been called a lack of transparency involved in deals between Chinese companies and some local governments, raising corruption concerns.
“Everything should be done in a transparent way and we should have zero tolerance for corruption,” Xi said.
“Green” development will also be promoted, he said, amid concerns that infrastructure projects are causing long-lasting environmental harm in the region.
“We must adhere to the concept of openness, greenness, and cleanliness,” he said.
Putin, the second speaker at the forum, said that China’s infrastructure initiative meshes perfectly with the goals of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union — which also includes Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
In remarks seen as an attempt to alleviate concerns about potential tension as China’s economic ties expand – particularly in former Soviet republics of Central Asia – Putin said relations between China and Russia are developing in all spheres at a “very considerable” speed.
Putin also called China’s infrastructure initiative “immensely timely and successful.”
“It is taking on a global nature and is starting to lay down the principles of building international relations and the norms of economic ties that are relevant today,” Putin said.
Nazarbaev spoke third at the event on April 26, a position reflecting his significance to China’s infrastructure initiative despite stepping down from Kazakhstan’s presidency last month.
“The historic cycle again brings the center of the world’s gravitation to the East,” Nazarbaev said. “We see today that Asia has become a region of the 21st century, as 28 percent of the world’s GDP is concentrated here. That figure will be growing steadily. Already, this trend of civilization is offering new horizons for cooperation.”
Pakistan’s prime minister on April 26 praised what he called “substantial progress” in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — a key element of China’s initiative.
Imran Khan told the forum that Pakistan’s electricity supplies had increased “massively” under the project and that his country was looking forward to its next phase — which is meant to focus on “social uplift,” poverty alleviation, and the development of agriculture and industry.
Khan said Pakistan wants to sign an expanded free trade agreement with China, describing relations between Islamabad and Beijing as “strong, resilient, unbreakable.”
China has pledged more than $60 billion in loans and investments to help build roads, ports, electricity plants, and industrial parks in financially troubled Pakistan.
Critics have cited several negative developments that have occurred as a result of initiative projects, such as the Sri Lankan government being forced to hand over a deep-sea port to China for 99 years after it was unable to repay loans.
Xi reiterated that China would not engage in the competitive devaluation of its yuan currency — another issue Washington and others in the West have warned against.
Since Xi launched the initiative in 2013, China has invested $90 billion in projects while Chinese banks have provided at least $200 billion in loans to foreign governments.