Xi Jinping, China’s president, has urged more nations to sign up to the country’s vast Belt and Road infrastructure project, amid concerns that it is setting debt traps for poorer countries and bolstering Beijing’s political influence abroad.
Beijing said that 115 governments had signed up to Belt and Road, which was announced in 2013 and will see trade routes linking China to other Asian nations plus Africa and Europe.
Attracted by billions of US dollars-worth of investment, 37 world leaders attended this week’s Belt and Road Forum in the Chinese capital.
Mr Xi used the forum, jokingly referred to as “Barf” by some critics, as a recruitment drive for both governments and businesses. "We need to encourage the full participation of more countries and companies," he said in the Chinese capital.
On Friday he said: "We welcome the participation of multilateral and international financial institutions in Belt and Road investment and financing… with involvement of multiple stake holders we can surely deliver benefits to all."
Rather than benefits, critics are concerned that nations are signing up to crippling debt and pressure to kowtow to Beijing’s authoritarian influence. The Morgan Stanley bank predicted that China could spend around £1 trillion on the project overall.
Belt and Road-related loans worth over £70 billion have been loaned from China to overseas.In 2017 Sri Lanka handed over Hambantota, a port on the country’s south coast, to China on a 99-year lease after accruing debts of over£6 billion to Chinese state-owned companies.
Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, leading the UK’s delegation to the forum, called for “full transparency around [Belt and Road] projects, and around the sustainability of the debt that partner countries are incurring to secure them.”
Britain has not signed up to the Belt and Road project, with Prime Minister Theresa May saying that although China was a “natural partner”, the Belt and Road project must reach “international standards”.
In March, Italy signed up to the project, becoming the first G7 nation to do so. Switzerland is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding to sign up to it on Sunday.
Africa has been another focal point of Belt and Road investment, with Ethiopia this week saying that China had written off interest payments the former country had owed the latter through to the end of 2018.
In 2017 China opened a military outpost in the in Djibouti, a small Horn of Africa nation also signed up to Belt and Road.
Beijing denies expansionist ambitions, but the US is concerned about Belt and Road shoring up China’s military and political clout. However, Mr Xi touted his vast project as marking China’s further “opening up”.
He said: “We are convinced that a more open China will further integrate itself into the world and deliver greater progress and prosperity for both China and the world at large.”
At the forum Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the project: a move that will further rile the US, which did not send a delegation to the event. Xi did not directly mention China’s trade war with the US, but said that China would be tougher in intellectual property violations and would not undergo currency devaluation.
World leaders from Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Myanmar were among those attending the forum. Mr Xi said that over £49.5 billion-worth of deals were signed at the event.
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