CHONGQING, China -- The Belt and Road expo held in southwestern China that kicked off this week was billed as an opportunity to join "hands with the West for a bright future." The guest list featured a who's who of Western blue-chip companies invited to invest in the massive infrastructure project that is a centerpiece of Chinese President Xi Jinping's foreign policy.
The only problem, none of them showed. In response, Chinese organizers are using the expo, which held its opening ceremony on Friday, as a venue to highlight partnerships with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
American and European companies stayed away from the third annual conference as human rights concerns -- and trade tensions with the Washington -- shroud China.
Microsoft, ExxonMobil, Walmart and Daimler, among others, were initially approached to attend the Western China International Fair for Investment and Trade in the metropolis of Chongqing. All declined to send executives to the expo or affiliated events.
"We will deepen economic exchange with ASEAN and share business opportunities in China's inland region," Chongqing Mayor Tang Liangzhi said at the event. Tang oversees economic policy under Chen Min'er, the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, the top position in the city. Chen is considered a close ally of Xi.
In attendance at the expo were senior government officials from Singapore, Vietnam, Laos and other countries active in Belt and Road. Marubeni, the Japanese trading group, said it has agreed to strategic tie-ups with Chongqing in areas such as infrastructure and logistics.
This marks the third Western China International Fair after the cancellation last year due to the coronavirus. The event has brought in 228.5 billion yuan ($35.4 billion) in contracts for major projects, according to figures from the Chongqing government, down 30% from 2019's total.
China's Ministry of Commerce, the Chongqing municipal government and other bodies launched the fair in 2018, the year after Chen rose to become Chongqing's boss. It debuted as a larger extravaganza than similar preceding events for the purpose of accelerating Belt and Road, which seeks to connect Asia with Europe and Africa.
Chongqing is positioned as the nexus linking rail networks extending to Europe with shipping routes to Southeast Asia. Relations with the U.S. and Europe, however, have soured due to China's reported abuses of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, along with Beijing's clampdown on Hong Kong and cross-strait tensions with Taiwan.