April 26, 2019
By Brenda Goh and Yilei Sun
BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Belt and Road initiative must be green and sustainable, President Xi Jinping said at the opening of a summit on his grand plan on Friday, adding that the massive infrastructure and trade plan should result in “high quality” growth for everyone.
Xi’s plan to rebuild the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond with huge spending on infrastructure, has become mired in controversy as some partner nations have bemoaned the high cost of projects.
China has repeatedly said it is not seeking to trap anyone with debt and only has good intentions, and has been looking to use this week’s summit in Beijing to recalibrate the policy and address those concerns.
Xi said in a keynote speech to the summit that environmental protection must underpin the scheme “to protect the common home we live in”.
“We must adhere to the concept of openness, greenness, and cleanliness,” he said.
“Operate in the sun and fight corruption together with zero tolerance,” Xi added.
“Building high-quality, sustainable, risk-resistant, reasonably priced, and inclusive infrastructure will help countries to fully utilize their resource endowments.”
Western governments have tended to view it as a means to spread Chinese influence abroad, saddling poor countries with unsustainable debt.
While most of the Belt and Road projects are continuing as planned, some have been caught up by changes in government in countries such as Malaysia and the Maldives.
Those that have been shelved for financial reasons include a power plant in Pakistan and an airport in Sierra Leone, and Beijing has in recent months had to rebuff critics by saying that not one country has been burdened with so-called “debt traps”.
Since 2017, the finance ministries of 28 countries have called on governments, financial institutions and companies from Belt and Road countries to work together to build a long-term, stable and sustainable financing system to manage risks, China’s finance ministry said in a report released on Thursday.
Debt sustainability has to be taken into account when mobilizing funds, the finance ministry said in the report, which outlined a framework for use in analyzing debt sustainability of low-income Belt and Road nations and managing debt risks.
The framework is based on the IMF/World Bank Debt Sustainability Framework for Low Income Countries while penciling in local conditions and development of partner nations, according to the report.
The Belt and Road initiative will also open up development opportunities for China just as China itself is further opening up its markets to the world, Xi said.
“In accordance with the need for further opening up, (we’ll) improve laws and regulations, regulate government behavior at all levels in administrative licensing, market supervision and other areas, and clean up and abolish unreasonable regulations, subsidies and practices that impede fair competition and distort the market,” he said.
Xi promised to significantly shorten the negative list for foreign investments, and allow foreign companies to take a majority stake or set up wholly-owned companies in more sectors.
Tariffs will be lower and non-tariff barriers will be eliminated, Xi added.
China also aims to import more services and goods, and is willing to import competitive agricultural products and services to achieve trade balance.
“China will strengthen macroeconomic policy coordination with major economies in the world and strive to create positive spillover effects to promote a strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth for the world economy,” said Xi.
Visiting leaders include Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as well as Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, a close China ally and among the biggest recipients of Belt and Road investment, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, which recently became the first G7 country to sign on to the initiative.
The United States, which has not joined the Belt and Road, is expected to send only lower-level officials, and nobody from Washington, citing concerns over opaque financing practices, poor governance, and disregard for internationally accepted norms.
“The United States is not sending high level officials from Washington to the Belt and Road Forum,” a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said.
“We continue to have serious concerns that China’s infrastructure diplomacy activities ignore or weaken international standards and best practices related to development, labor protections, and environmental protection.”
(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Yilei Sun; Additional reporting by Tony Munroe, Stella Qiu, Ryan Woo, Cate Cadell and Tom Daly; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)