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Asian neighbors still leery of China's Belt and Road initiative

India boycotts Beijing gathering; Russia sends Putin despite concerns about China's growing regional influence

BEIJING/NEW DELHI -- Many Asian countries, notably India, remain leery of throwing their support behind China's Belt and Road initiative, fearing that the efforts by Beijing to create a new sphere of economic influence in Asia could erode their own regional power.

At the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on Sunday and Monday, more than 100 nations attended. But the delegation from New Delhi was conspicuously absent. No Indian government officials came, but rather only a few academics, a diplomatic source said. In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the event in person, and met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

India has been eager for economic cooperation with China in the past, for example joining the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But long-standing regional tensions are at play in this case: The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key piece of the infrastructure-building initiative, passes through Kashmir, which both India and its neighbor claim as their own.

The project will ultimately establish road and rail links between China's far western Xinjiang region and the Pakistani port of Gwadar, fueling Beijing's maritime expansion efforts. India's Ministry of External Affairs stood firm against the plan Saturday. "No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity," a spokesperson said in a statement.

Washington did send a delegation to the event, likely aiming to secure Beijing's help in addressing North Korean nuclear and missile development and in reducing the U.S.-China trade imbalance. However, the team was lacking in cabinet-level clout, featuring as its leader Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council. Pottinger said in a breakout meeting Sunday that the U.S. recognizes the importance of infrastructure development but noted that transparency is key when governments are involved in procurement.

Changing of the guard

Even Russia has reservations, despite being a frequent collaborator with China. Moscow regards much of Central Asia, the main stage for the Belt and Road initiative, as its own backyard and is reluctant to cede influence in the region to Beijing.

Putin met with Xi on Sunday, and proposed linking the Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow's own regional economic project, to Beijing's initiative. Putin arrived more than 10 minutes later than his peers to a leaders' summit the next day, in what some have called a warning to Beijing.

China must avoid having the Belt and Road initiative characterized as a purely unilateral strategy, according to a book the Chinese Communist Party has recommended on the subject. Xi referred to this advice in his opening address Sunday: "We are ready to share practices of development with other countries, but we have no intention to interfere in other countries' internal affairs, export our own social system and model of development, or impose our own will on others," he said.

"What we hope to achieve is a new model of win-win cooperation," Xi said.

In short, China aims for an alternative to a U.S.-led international order where aid and cooperation have been predicated on shared values of liberalism and democracy.

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