China Struggles to Ease Concerns About Silk Road Project as Summit Looms

April 4, 2019 Updated: April 4, 2019

BEIJING/BRUSSELS—China is struggling to ease worries about Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature plan to build a new Silk Road as it readies for a major summit in late April, especially among Western nations wary about debt, transparency, and Chinese influence.

While China gained a major victory by convincing Italy to become the first G-7 nation to formally sign on to the plan in March during Xi’s visit to Rome, others in the West have been less keen to jump on board, though many have kept an open mind.

The One Belt, One Road (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road) initiative is aimed at building a vast network of infrastructure connecting China to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and beyond, much like the ancient Silk Road.

Following the first OBOR summit two years ago, in a luxuriously appointed convention center in the hills north of Beijing, the second one is scheduled for the same location in late April. China is billing it as the country’s most important diplomatic event of the year.

The country’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, said on March 30 that almost 40 foreign leaders would come.

The United States, locked in a trade war with China, has been a particular critic of the OBOR, calling it an “infrastructure vanity project” when Italy signed on.

Jonathan Cohen, acting permanent representative of the United States at the United Nations, last month denounced China’s attempt to get the OBOR language into a resolution on Afghanistan, saying it had “known problems with corruption, debt distress, environmental damage, and lack of transparency.”

In 2017, the United States sent Matt Pottinger, White House National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs, to the summit. This time, Washington said it will not dispatch high-level officials due to its concerns about the project.

Journalists take pictures outside the venue of a summit at the One Belt, One Road Forum in Beijing on May 15, 2017. (Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images)

Lower-level staffers, possibly from the U.S. embassy in Beijing, might go to the summit to observe and take notes, sources familiar with the matter said, though a final decision has yet to be made.

It has not disclosed a full list of the leaders who plan to attend the event. But some of Beijing’s closest friends have confirmed they will go, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

EU Wariness

The European Union, China’s largest trading partner, has also been in a bind about how to respond.

Europe’s top leaders told Xi on March 26 that they wanted a fairer trading relationship with China, signaling an openness to engage with the project if it meant more access to the Chinese market.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at the EU summit in March, grumbled about Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s decision to join the project.

Conte is due to attend the summit. Rome says signing onto the OBOR will bring much-needed investment and boost trade and has pointed to the fact that a dozen EU countries have already signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with China, including Hungary, Poland, Greece, and Portugal.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (R) shakes hand with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony in Rome on March 23, 2019. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Safeguarding Interests

The EU proposed its own infrastructure scheme in 2018, but has denied trying to counter China’s ambitions.

“For China, it is a question of power projection. China is corrupting what should be a level playing field by offering loans that send country debts soaring and create a culture of economic dependency on Beijing,” one EU official said.

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, a Merkel confidant, will attend the summit, along with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, with Altmaier saying they wanted to “safeguard European interests in co-operation with China there.”

Several EU officials said the European Commission was still looking at who to send as a replacement for Vice President Jyrki Katainen, who attended 2017’s OBOR summit and has cited a calendar clash with the EU-Japan summit for not being able to go this time.

China has pushed to show that the OBOR remains popular, despite cooling enthusiasm from governments including in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and the Maldives, where new administrations are wary of deals struck with China by their predecessors.

By Ben Blanchard and Robin Emmott

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