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China’s Xi aims to soothe ruffled feathers over the Belt and Road initiative

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News Desk |

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday sought to bat away concerns about his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, saying his global infrastructure project will have “zero tolerance” for corruption while vowing to prevent debt risks. In a speech to kick off a summit on his BRI, Xi offered soothing remarks to the US over subsidies, the yuan and trade as the two sides head into fresh high-level talks next week.

Xi’s signature foreign policy aims to reinvent the ancient Silk Road to connect Asia to Europe and Africa through massive investments in maritime, road and rail projects. It offers to bring much-needed modern infrastructure to developing countries, but critics say it mainly favours Chinese companies while saddling nations with debt and causing environmental damage.

Pakistan needs an international bailout whilst being cited as partly due to the Chinese debt, Government officials from the country dismiss the relationship between the two.

The opacity of deals between Chinese companies and local governments has also raised alarm. “Everything should be done in a transparent way and we should have zero tolerance for corruption,” Xi said at the gathering of 37 world leaders which ends Saturday. China has also rejected accusations that Belt and Road is a “debt trap” and a geopolitical tool for Beijing’s ambitions of becoming a global superpower.

Read more: Belt and Road Initiative attracting car manufacturers in Pakistan

“The Belt and Road is not an exclusive club,” Xi said. In a nod to the concerns over loans, he added: “We also need to ensure the commercial and fiscal sustainability of all projects so that they will achieve the intended goals as planned.” His comments came a day after Finance Minister Liu Kun said China would present the forum a debt sustainability framework to “prevent debt risks” — a move welcomed by International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde.

Xi’s signature foreign policy aims to reinvent the ancient Silk Road to connect Asia to Europe and Africa through massive investments in maritime, road and rail projects.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who said his country was an “enthusiastic” supporter of Belt and Road, called for the creation of an office for anti-corruption cooperation. The two countries are building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multi-billion-dollar project linking the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang to the Arabian sea port of Gwadar.

Amid warnings that some of the massive projects are causing environmental damage in Asia, Xi said China will also promote “green” development. Eric Olander, managing editor of the non-partisan China Africa Project website, said there is no data to back up claims that BRI worsens debt problems, but US criticism has had an impact.

Read more: China struggles with Belt and Road pushback

“I think the president wants to change that narrative so he can rebrand and reposition BRI away from the debt issue and more towards China’s development story that he wants to tell,” Olander told AFP. Leaders from 37 countries are in Beijing for the three-day forum, with officials from scores of other nations in attendance. Imran Khan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose country became the first G7 member to sign up to Belt and Road, are among the headliners.

The two countries are building the CPEC, a multi-billion-dollar project linking the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang to the Arabian sea port of Gwadar.

EU powers Germany and France have sent ministers to the summit. Putin called for a global response against protectionism, unilateral sanctions and “trade wars” — veiled criticisms of the United States. The United States, which sent a senior White House official to the first BRI summit in 2017, has not dispatched any officials. Washington has dismissed BRI as a “vanity project” and rebuked Rome for signing up to the scheme.

With US negotiators heading to China for a new round of trade talks next week, Xi repeated a pledge to increase imports and vowed to abolish “unjustified” subsidies to Chinese firms — both key US demands. Since Xi launched BRI in 2013, China has invested $90 billion in projects while banks have provided upwards of $300 billion in loans, according to Chinese officials.

Read more: Middle Eastern black swans dot China’s Belt and Road

But examples of debt trouble abound. Sri Lanka turned over a deep-sea port to China for 99 years after it was unable to repay loans. Pakistan needs an international bailout whilst being cited as partly due to the Chinese debt, Government officials from the country dismiss the relationship between the two.

Pushing back has proved a successful election issue in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Malaysia, as the Chinese project was used to whip up fears about eroding sovereignty. After his electoral victory last May, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad cancelled some planned works and renegotiated a rail project cutting 30 percent off the price tag. But Mahathir said at the summit that “the Belt and Road idea is great” and he “fully” supports it and has recently set up new projects with china.

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