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China will seek to tie ambition to reality at 'Silk Road' summit


US President Donald Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping

US President Donald Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping

US President Donald Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping

When leaders of 28 nations gather in Beijing next week for a summit to map out China's ambitious new Silk Road project, one question is likely to be on attendees' minds - what exactly is the Belt and Road Initiative?

Proposed in 2013 by President Xi Jinping to promote a vision of expanding links between Asia, Africa and Europe underpinned by billions of dollars in infrastructure investment, the project is broad on ambition but still short on specifics. Leaders of the 28 nations will gather in Beijing between May 14-15 for the summit which aims to map out a development strategy to expand links between Asia, Africa and Europe.

China has earmarked $40bn (€36bn) to a special fund for the scheme, on top of the $100bn capitalisation for the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), many of whose projects will likely be part of the initiative.

But with a confusing name, that officially refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, added to myriad economic and security risks, clouds hang over the plan.

Some diplomats are suspicious about China's aims.

"There's a lot of scepticism about China's plans. Yes, it is the kind of infrastructure that sounds attractive for parts of Europe, but we all know this is about China gaining influence," said a senior European Union diplomat.

However, with Donald Trump in the White House pursuing an "America First" agenda, more countries may be pushing for inclusion in China's grand scheme.

"Countries have actually been pressuring China to get an invite rather than the other way around," said a senior Asian diplomat, referring to the upcoming summit.

China says that between 2014 and 2016, its businesses signed projects worth $304.9bn in Belt and Road countries.

China has taken umbrage at suggestions that the new Silk Road is about it trying to dominate the world and mould it to Beijing's liking, saying it is good for all and anyone can join.

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For example, the use of local currencies instead of the US dollar or other major currencies in the initiative will help to ensure financial stability, officials at China's central bank said this week.

That would gradually reduce dependence on major currencies and lower the risks of exchange rate fluctuations, said Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People's Bank of China.

"Western sceptics have failed to see the fact that the Chinese don't harbour a zero-sum mentality, but encourage win-win thinking," the Xinhua news agency said in an English-language commentary.

China has, though, outlined its ambitions in Chinese language pieces.

"This is the China solution for global economic revival," Xinhua said last month of the new Silk Road, in a commentary blazed across the front page of the official 'People's Daily'.

During next week's meeting, more than 50 memorandums of understanding, plans, co-operation letters and co-operation projects in transportation, energy and communications will be signed, Chinese government officials say.

Speaking last week at a meeting of the Asian Development Bank in Japan, Philippine Deputy Central Bank Governor Diwa Guinigundo said it was hard to pre-judge the new Silk Road. "It is still a vision. You have to translate that into some working parts," Guinigundo said. (Reuters)

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