Chinese President Xi Jinping sought on Friday 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 also offered soothing remarks to the U.S. 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 favors Chinese companies while saddling nations with debt and causing environmental damage. 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 on 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. “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.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, who said Pakistan 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 would also promote “green” development.
Eric Olander, managing editor of the non-partisan China Africa Project website, said there is no data to backup claims that BRI worsens debt problems, but U.S. criticism has had an impact. “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.
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. E.U. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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. 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. 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.