Xi pledges open Belt and Road but project splits west

President Xi Jinping has pledged a more open approach to the Belt and Road Initiative, as western divisions over China were laid bare at a forum on his flagship foreign policy.

Seven EU countries are set to endorse the initiative following the meeting in Beijing, according to a draft of the final communiqué, despite the reservations of some of the EU’s biggest member states over the infrastructure building programme.

Mr Xi told the Belt and Road forum on Friday that he would open domestic markets, make financing of the country’s overseas investments more transparent and ease import and customs barriers.

“Today’s China is already at a new historic point,” he said. “Despite the glory of our achievements, there are still mountains that must be scaled.”

The BRI has divided the EU between states that support a tougher stance against a “systemic rival” and others including Italy, Hungary and Greece, which want tighter political and investment ties with Beijing. More than half of the EU’s 28 member states have now signed bilateral endorsements of the BRI.

“On the political level there are these divisions in the EU, and China has garnered a level of influence,” said Thomas Eder, a research associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin think-tank. “This is something that the big EU countries have to think about.”

Western commercial centres led by London and Switzerland are also lining up to get involved in BRI projects, a day after China pledged to open the programme to more international and private financing. 

Belt and road map

Germany, France, Spain and the UK sent ministerial-level representatives to the forum in Beijing this week.

But in a sign of the sensitivities around the project, the British embassy in Beijing barred media from chancellor Philip Hammond’s launch of a report on the services the UK could provide to BRI projects. 

New standards for sustainably financing projects, some of which have pushed a number of countries deeper into debt, open the door for western capital to fund the Chinese investments. On Thursday, 12 international banks and 13 Chinese and Hong Kong banks agreed to “green” investment principles for the projects.

European diplomats wrangled with Beijing to make the BRI forum communiqué consistent with EU rules. “Our European participants have to be effectively co-ordinated and I think we have succeeded,” said one senior European diplomat, acknowledging divergent views on China within the bloc.

China has played on European fears of immigration as part of its outreach. An April report by the Belt and Road Forum advisory council, a group of retired international officials co-ordinated by the Chinese foreign ministry, argued that infrastructure investment in Africa would provide jobs and development.

“On this score the Belt and Road co-operation could be deemed as ‘A Gift to Europe’,” the report said. 

The report was signed by Douglas Flint, former chairman of HSBC and an envoy of the UK Treasury, Romano Prodi, former European Commission president, and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former French prime minister, as well as several retired Asian and African officials. 

A spokesperson for the US embassy in China said: “We call upon all countries to ensure that their economic diplomacy initiatives adhere to internationally accepted norms and standards, promote sustainable, inclusive development and advance good governance and strong economic institutions.”

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