Sri Lanka was forced to hand over a port to China – highlighting fears that other countries would find themselves caught a debt trap. Photo: AP Photo

China will continue to push forward its plans for the “Belt and Road Initiative” despite the increasing international criticism the scheme is facing, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on March 7th

At a press conference in Beijing Wang also dismissed complaints that the intercontinental infrastructure scheme is a debt trap that will force other countries to become reliant on China.

The scheme attracted further controversy following reports that

Italy would become the first G7 country to sign up, a prospect that drew a sharp response from the White House and caused concern in Europe.

Wang, who is also a State Councillor, tried to reassure the outside world by saying the scheme was “absolutely not a debt trap” and compared it to an “economic pie”, slices of which would benefit the local population.

He also insisted “it’s never a geopolitical tool, but an opportunity for many countries to develop together”.

“The initiative has speeded up development, improved people’s livelihoods and created mutually beneficial prospects for many countries,” Wang said, noting that a total of 123 countries and 29 international organisations have signed agreements with China.

Wang described these agreements as “a vote of support and confidence”, and said participants were always welcome to make constructive suggestions.

Wang was speaking ahead of the second Belt and Road Summit to be held in Beijing next month, which China will hope to use to garner support from the international community and highlight its international relations.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended the project at a press conference during the annual legislative session. Photo: Simon Song

The second summit will be bigger than the inaugural one two years ago and thousands of representatives from more than 100 countries are expected to attend, according to Wang.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad have already said they would attend.

There will be more side events, including 12 sub-forums focusing on practical cooperation, Wang said, adding that a conference will be organised specifically for the business community for the first time.

“This year’s event will have a specific focus on the business community”, Wang said, adding that China would work with different countries to create a new batch of key projects.

“China looks forward to a full exchange of views on our future cooperation plans,” he said.

The first Belt and Road Forum was held in May 2017, with 29 national leaders taking part from countries such as Greece, Pakistan and Russia.

Xu Liping, from the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said pushing the Belt and Road Initiative was seen as vital to further China’s plans to reform and open up its economy.

“Beijing can forge closer partnerships with other countries and boost economic transformation by pushing forward the Belt and Road Initiative,” Xu said.

When first unveiled in September and October 2013 during Xi’s visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia, the strategy was promoted as “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future”.

After six years of its launching however, there are a number of daunting challenges both at home and abroad that need to be addressed if Beijing truly wants progress in the coming years.

At home, doubt has been voiced publicly about whether belt and road can tangibly improve China’s domestic welfare system.

Outside the country, the initiative has been portrayed as Beijing’s attempt to lay a debt trap for smaller nations to increase their reliance on China by forcing them to sign up for costly loans they cannot repay to fund infrastructure projects.

These worries were highlighted when Sri Lanka was forced to hand over a port on a 99-year lease because it was unable to pay its debts.

Malaysia has also complained that its belt and road projects are too costly.

The US$60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has also promoted fierce opposition from India because part of it runs through Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir that India also claims.

Other Chinese overseas investments have also faced increased scepticism amid the growing concerns about the security risk posed by tech giant Huawei, which has faced increased hostility from the United States and many of its allies.

-South China Morning Post

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