May 16, 2017 6:10 am JST

China's Belt and Road forum brings bold promises, mixed results

High-profile projects mask uncertain future for economic sphere

ISSAKU HARADA, Nikkei staff writer

BEIJING -- China has used the first international conference on its Belt and Road initiative to push key infrastructure projects forward, though private-sector support remains tepid.

Some 1,500 people from more than 100 countries gathered here Sunday and Monday for the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Leaders from 29 nations, including Italy, Russia and Indonesia, were in attendance.

These leaders recognized, in a joint statement issued Monday, that growth in global trade and investment is sluggish. "We reaffirm our shared

commitment to build open economy, ensure free and inclusive trade, [and] oppose all forms of protectionism," the statement said, according to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua. The initiative has "achieved positive outcomes" by "providing important opportunities for countries to deepen cooperation," according to the statement.

A second forum will be held in 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping told a news conference after the event ended.

Strengthening connections

China gave a kick to a number of stalled projects while the conference was in session, signing a deal on Sunday to finance an Indonesian high-speed railway and making progress on a deal to build nuclear reactors in Argentina. Xi announced a total of 780 billion yuan ($113 billion) in additional funding in the forms of an increase in the scale of the country's Silk Road Fund and loans from policy banks.

Through infrastructure development under the initiative, China aims to broaden its sphere of economic influence and win allies around the world. Some 64 nations in Asia, Africa and Europe, with a variety of political systems and at various stages of development, sit along the trade routes Beijing has planned. China hopes the benefits the initiative brings will turn this diverse group into a loose union.

But investment in Belt and Road projects has been slim. Private companies have balked at putting up money, as they see risks outweighing potential returns. Chinese state enterprises are thought to have put up the majority of funds so far. The initiative's future thus seems somewhat unsteady, particularly as China's structural economic troubles deepen. An official at a development bank said there are very few suitable infrastructure projects in developing nations the institution could invest in.

Japan's government "is keeping a close watch on" Belt and Road to see whether the initiative turns into something that "can contribute to the region's sustainable development," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Monday. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent officials including Takaya Imai, his executive secretary, and Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to represent Japan at the forum.

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