China’s Xi aims to soothe Belt and Road fears

BEIJING (AFP) – Chinese President Xi Jinping sought yesterday to bat away concerns about his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), saying his global infrastructure project will have “zero tolerance” for corruption while vowing to prevent debt risks.

In a speech kicking off a BRI summit, Xi also offered soothing remarks to the US 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 – with hundreds of billions of dollars in financing from Chinese banks.

It offers to bring much-needed modern infrastructure to developing countries, but critics say it is riddled with opaque deals favouring Chinese companies while saddling nations with debt and environmental damage.

“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 todays.

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.

From left, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. – AP

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.”

China is presenting a debt sustainability framework at the forum – a move welcomed by International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde.

Calling for a “BRI 2.0”, Lagarde said in a speech the scheme needs “increased transparency, open procurement with competitive bidding, and better risk assessment in project selection”.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who said his country 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 China’s northwest to the Arabian sea port of Gwadar.

Amid warnings that some of the massive projects are causing environmental damage in Asia, Xi said China will also promote “green” development.

Eric Olander, managing editor of the non-partisan China Africa Project website, said there is no data to back up claims that BRI worsens debt problems, but US 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.