BEIJING Nearly 40 world leaders and scores of finance officials are gathered in Beijing to build a new platform for international trade and counter US unilateralism and protectionist policies.
Dubbed as the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative, they aim to reinvent the ancient Silk Road to connect Asia to Europe and Africa through massive investments in maritime, road and rail projects.
Some 5,000 delegates are attending the three-day forum, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose country became the first G7 member to sign up to BRI, among the headliners.
The United States has not dispatched any officials, dismissing BRI as a “vanity project” and rebuking Rome for participating in the scheme.
However, traditional US allies such as the UK, France, Germany and Spain have sent ministers to the summit amid reports of European frustration with Washington’s trade practices.
British Finance Minister Philip Hammond told the summit on Friday his country is committed to help realize the BRI potential, offering Britain’s expertise in project financing.
“The Belt and Road Initiative has tremendous potential to spread prosperity and sustainable development, touching as it does, potentially 70 percent of the world’s population, a project of truly epic ambition,” he said.
German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said major European Union countries want to sign a memorandum of understanding on the BRI initiative as a group.
President Putin called for a global response against protectionism, unilateral sanctions and “trade wars” in veiled criticisms of the United States.
“The rise of protectionism in its most dangerous form, which at the present time is often used illegitimately as unilateral restrictions to bypass the UN Security Council, or worst of all, trade wars,” he said.
“We think that only when we are united can we counter such acute challenges amidst a global economic slowdown and gaps between countries in terms of well-being and technology,” Putin added.
The Russian leader whom Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to as “my closest friend” in a speech at the ceremony, was conferred an honorary doctorate degree from the Chinese premier’s alma mater.
BRI offers to bring much-needed modern infrastructure to developing countries and Chinas spending has increased its footprint around the world.
Beijing has not said exactly how much money will be needed in total, but some independent estimates suggest it will run into several trillion dollars.
The United States fears that China aspires to replace it at the center of the world order and the decision by Italy and Luxembourg to join BRI has raised alarm bells in Washington which sees Beijing’s influence now extending to the EU’s core.
To US leaders, BRI is on par with the Marshall Plan that established the American supremacy through an economic blueprint to rebuild post-World War II Europe. They are alarmed — all the more so because BRI is more than 10 times the size of the Marshall Plan.
The West is worried that the expansion of BRI will lead to the emergence of alternative models of governance that will challenge Western liberalism around the world.
In his keynote speech at the opening of the forum, President Xi stressed that his global infrastructure project “is not an exclusive club”, in a dig at the United States.
He called on countries participating in the initiative to promote a global partnership for connectivity to achieve common development and prosperity.
“We need to promote the liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment, say ‘no’ to protectionism, and make economic globalization more open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all,” he said.
Altmaier said he was encouraged by President Xi’s pledge to pursue free trade, multilateralism and sustainability.
“We will take this promise seriously” and make suggestions on how to achieve these goals in both Asia and Europe, he said.
China is a partner and a competitor at the same time and the EU must define its interests, Altmaier said.
“And for that we need an industry strategy. For that we need our own connectivity strategy,” he added.
The Trump administration initiated a trade war with China last year, when he first imposed unusually heavy tariffs on imports from the Asian country.
Washington has long criticized Chinas huge trade surplus with the United States and has demanded Beijing reduce it.
The US is also demanding extensive changes to Chinese practices that the White House has branded as unfair, including the alleged theft of US technology and intellectual property.
Washington also accuses Beijing of setting up myriad barriers for foreign companies to work in the Chinese market. China rejects the allegations.
Beijing has offered to increase its purchases of US products but is widely expected to resist calls for far-reaching changes to its industrial policies.
But disagreement between the two leading economic powers deepened, with both sides imposing tariffs on each others goods and led to a trade war that has rattled world’s economy.
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