BEIJING (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping promised greater access to China’s market for international firms and new financing exceeding $100 billion for other developing economies as he opened a forum Wednesday on his signature Belt and Road infrastructure policy.
The initiative has built power plants, roads, railroads and ports around the world and deepened China’s relations with Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Mideast. But the massive loans that funded the projects have burdened poorer countries with heavy debts, in some cases leading to China taking control of those assets.
At the forum’s opening ceremony at the cavernous Great Hall of the People, Xi promised two Chinese-backed development banks — the China Development Bank and the Export–Import Bank of China — will each set 350 billion yuan ($47.9 billion) financing windows, while an additional 80 billion yuan ($11 billion) will be injected into the Silk Road Fund to support BRI projects.
“We will comprehensively remove restrictions on foreign investment access in the manufacturing sector,” Xi said, adding that China would further open up “cross-border trade and investment in services and expand market access for digital products,” as well as carry out reforms of state-owned enterprises and in sectors such as the digital economy, intellectual property rights and government procurement.
Representatives from more than 130 mostly developing countries are attending the forum, including at least 20 heads of state and government. Russian President Vladimir Putin is attending, in a sign of China’s economic and diplomatic support for Moscow amid the isolation brought by its war in Ukraine.
Addressing the forum right after Xi, Putin praised BRI as leading to a “fairer, multipolar world,” according to a translation of his speech by state broadcaster CGTN.
On Tuesday, Putin met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is the sole government leader attending from the European Union. Their meeting was a rare instance of the Russian president meeting a European leader since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine in February 2022.
Also in attendance are the presidents of Indonesia, Argentina, Kazakstan, Sri Lanka, Kenya among other countries, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has in the past praised the Chinese policy as bringing development to neglected areas. Most Western European countries and U.S. allies sent lower level or former officials to the forum.
China became a major financer of development projects under BRI, on par with the World Bank. The Chinese government says the initiative has launched more than 3,000 projects and “galvanized” nearly $1 trillion in investment.
It has also attracted criticism from the U.S., India and others that China was engaging in “debt trap” diplomacy: Making loans Beijing knew governments would default on, allowing Chinese interests to take control of the assets. An oft-cited example is a Sri Lankan port that the government ended up leasing to a Chinese company for 99 years.
The initiative now looks to become smaller and greener after a decade of big projects that boosted trade but left big debts and raised environmental concerns.
One of the key concerns among participants at the forum will be whether BRI can become more sustainable in terms of the debt burden, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
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