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Belt and Road

China looks West for Belt and Road allies amid Asia pushback

Peru signs up to initiative with Switzerland set to join soon

Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders stand for a group photo at a welcoming banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China's Belt and Road Initiative is making deeper inroads into the West, as partners in Asia grow more wary about being lured into "debt traps" that make them beholden to Beijing.

China announced Saturday that Peru had endorsed the massive infrastructure program, and Switzerland has said it will join during its president’s current visit to Beijing. To date, 126 countries, including 13 EU members, and 29 international organizations have signed BRI-related cooperation agreements with China.

The recruitment of two more non-Asian nations would come on the heels of Italy's surprise backing of the plan in March. The developments stand in contrast to the push back in Asia, as well as Washington's long-standing criticism of Beijing for seeking to expand its global influence.

Wrapping up the three day Belt and Road forum in Beijing on Saturday, President Xi Jinping said more than $64 billion of deals had been signed at the event.

Xi unveiled the Belt and Road six years ago in what it said was a plan to knit Eurasia and Africa together through web of highways, rail lines and ports.

More new signatories would represent a diplomatic win for Beijing as it looks to pick up more allies in the developed world. But the initiative is still contentious in Europe, with some, mostly Western European, countries viewing China as a systemic rival, while others, mostly in the poorer east, eager for an investment boost from Beijing.

To reassure skeptics in the developed world, Xi is plugging a modified version of its "go global" strategy, pledging greater efforts to fight corruption, increase transparency, and encourage private investment.

"To continue growing BRI, Beijing will likely try to continue pursuing some major infrastructure deals in less developed countries, while implementing enough safeguards to win the approval of developed countries, primarily in Europe and Northeast Asia," Kelsey Broderick, a China analyst at Eurasia Group, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Senior Chinese officials have been traveling to Europe this year carrying big investment promises.

Xi successfully persuaded Italy to join the initiative in March, signing up the first Group of Seven nation to the program. On the same trip, Xi proffered an order worth tens of billions of dollars for 300 jets to France-headquartered Airbus -- Boeing's biggest rival. Premier Li Keqiang attended a summit in Croatia with 16 central and eastern European countries the same month.

Investment promises are expected to bring China more support from countries that are traditionally closer to the U.S.

Speaking in Beijing on Friday, Phillip Hammond, the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, praised the "truly epic ambition" of BRI. His comments came days after London opened up Britain's 5G network to Huawei Technologies, despite protests from the U.S.

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before a meeting in Beijing on Friday.   © Reuters

The moves are raising eyebrows in Washington, which is competing with Beijing for global influence on trade, technology and diplomacy. The U.S. made its discontent clear by not sending any high-level officials to the three-day BRI conference in Beijing.

"The U.S. sees the initiative as China's attempt to shift the global landscape in its favor," Broderick said, adding that she expects the Trump administration to continue pushing back on the China-led plan.

In a shift from a hard line stance of rejecting claims that BRI projects place a financial burden on host countries, Xi on Friday said China will help to assess the debt sustainability of projects to reduce risk.

Chinese financial institutions, mostly state-backed, have lent more than $440 billion to BRI projects so far, Yi Gang, governor of China's central bank, said during the forum.

But he said the private sector should play a bigger role in financing the projects and the market should have a "decisive" say. China's Ministry of Finance also released a "debt sustainability framework" for participating countries to assess the quality of the debts.

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