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Xi set to champion globalization at forum

Russia's Putin, North Korea among invitees to New Silk Road summit

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to present himself as a champion of globalization and free trade at a two-day international forum which Beijing will host from Sunday to discuss the Belt and Road Initiative, an effort to create a China-led economic sphere.

Experts said Xi will likely offer another robust defense of globalization, mirroring his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January.

"China has been the biggest beneficiary of globalization. It is only natural that Xi will declare that he will fight against protectionism in front of these leaders," said Wu Junhua, a China scholar and counselor at the Japan Research Institute.

Beijing has positioned the forum as the most important diplomatic event it will host this year. Close to 30 heads of state will attend the forum, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de-facto leader.

A nation with strict restrictions on foreign investment, however, China seems an unlikely vanguard of free trade and international cooperation. But experts say with a more isolationist and inward-looking West, Xi sees an opportunity to fill a possible vacuum in global economic leadership.

"For China, the forum is certainly the most ideal setting to push itself as the world's economic leader," added Wu.

The forum will discuss Xi's signature policy first announced in 2013 to build land and sea routes linking China with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The plan centers on building highways, railroads, power plants, ports and pipelines.

According to various media reports, a joint communique will be released at the end of the forum with a pledge to oppose all protectionism and a warning that the global trade system is facing headwinds, in an apparent call to oppose U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" mantra.

In an English-language commentary earlier this month, the official Xinhua news agency declared that the initiative will "help pull the world out of the current economic quagmire, with a more inclusive model that runs counter to protectionism and unilateralism."

As China is an export-driven economy, maintaining robust trade is also crucial for Xi's political legitimacy ahead of the party congress to be held this autumn, said Naoto Saito, chief economic researcher at the Daiwa Institute of Research.

"The bigger the number of heads of state attending the forum," Saito said, "the more Xi can prove [to the Communist Party] that his initiative is acknowledged by the world."

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said North Korea is sending a delegation. Meanwhile, only the Italian prime minister will attend from among leaders of Group of Seven states. Washington announced to send a delegation led by White House advisor Matt Pottinger. Japan is also sending Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. 

The newly elected South Korean government is also dispatching a delegation to Beijing. There could be a first high level talk with North Korean officials.

"Through the forum, China will aim to paint the picture that the country is binding the whole of Asia together," said Naoki Umehara, senior economist at the Institute for International Monetary Affairs, a research organization based in Tokyo.

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