BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Belt and Road initiative must be green and sustainable, President Xi Jinping said at the opening of a summit on his grand plan on Friday, adding that the massive infrastructure and trade plan should result in “high-quality” growth for everyone.
Chinese President Xi Jinping leaves after his speech at the opening ceremony for the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Florence Lo
Xi’s plan to rebuild the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond has become mired in controversy as some partner nations have bemoaned the high cost of infrastructure projects.
China has not said exactly how much money will be needed in total, but some independent estimates suggest it will run into several trillion dollars.
Beijing has repeatedly said it is not seeking to trap anyone with debt and only has good intentions, and has been looking to use this week’s summit in Beijing to recalibrate the policy and address those concerns.
Xi said in a keynote 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.
“Operate in the sun and fight corruption together with zero tolerance,” Xi added.
“Building high-quality, sustainable, risk-resistant, reasonably priced, and inclusive infrastructure will help countries to fully utilize their resource endowments.”
Unlike the first summit in 2017, where Xi said Chinese banks will lend 380 billion yuan ($56.43 billion) to support Belt and Road cooperation, he did not give a figure for new financing support. However, Xi will give another speech on Saturday.
Western governments have tended to view it as a means to spread Chinese influence abroad, saddling poor countries with unsustainable debt.
While most of the Belt and Road projects are continuing as planned, some have been caught up by changes in government in countries such as Malaysia and the Maldives.
Those that have been shelved for financial reasons include a power plant in Pakistan and an airport in Sierra Leone, and Beijing has in recent months had to rebuff critics by saying that not one country has been burdened with so-called “debt traps”.
Since 2017, the finance ministries of 28 countries have called on governments, financial institutions and companies from Belt and Road countries to work together to build a long-term, stable and sustainable financing system to manage risks, China’s finance ministry said in a report released on Thursday.
Debt sustainability has to be taken into account when mobilizing funds, the finance ministry said in the report, which outlined a framework for use in analyzing debt sustainability of low-income Belt and Road nations and managing debt risks.
Xi launched the Belt and Road initiative in 2013, and according to data from Refinitiv, the total value of projects in the scheme stands at $3.67 trillion, spanning countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceania and South America.
The Belt and Road initiative will also open up development opportunities for China just as China itself is further opening up its markets to the world, Xi said.
“In accordance with the need for further opening up, (we’ll) improve laws and regulations, regulate government behavior at all levels in administrative licensing, market supervision and other areas, and clean up and abolish unreasonable regulations, subsidies and practices that impede fair competition and distort the market,” he said.
Xi promised to significantly shorten the negative list for foreign investments, and allow foreign companies to take a majority stake or set up wholly-owned companies in more sectors.
Tariffs will be lower and non-tariff barriers will be eliminated, Xi added.
China also aims to import more services and goods, and is willing to import competitive agricultural products and services to achieve trade balance.
“China will strengthen macroeconomic policy coordination with major economies in the world and strive to create positive spillover effects to promote a strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth for the world economy,” said Xi.
Visiting leaders include Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as well as Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, a close China ally and among the biggest recipients of Belt and Road investment, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, which recently became the first G7 country to sign on to the initiative.
Khan told the summit that in a world of uncertainty, the initiative offered “a model of collaboration, partnership, connectivity and shared prosperity”.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen directly addressed critics who have described Belt and Road as a debt trap by pointing to the successful example of a Chinese-funded highway between Phnom Penh and the port city of Sihanoukville.
“Cambodia has not only been able to plan this project for the benefit of the people but also achieve financial engineering that does not increase public debt to the state,” he said, in comments translated into English.
The United States, which has not joined the Belt and Road, is expected to send only lower-level officials, and nobody from Washington.
“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,” a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said.
Reporting by Brenda Goh and Cate Cadell; Additional reporting by Tony Munroe, Stella Qiu, Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun, and Tom Daly; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore