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Leaders hope new 'Silk Road' initiative will boost economic growth

Photo by Financial Express

Beijing (dpa) – Thirty heads of state and government adopted Monday a joint statement supporting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious plan to build a trade and infrastructure network across Eurasia.

The country leaders posed in front of a traditional Chinese painting of a vast landscape with a red sun at the formal Belt and Road Forum dinner in Beijing on Sunday night.

"This land so rich in beauty," read the Chinese calligraphy at the top of the painting, alluding to a poem by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, which continues, "Has made countless heroes bow in homage."

It wasn’t China’s beauty that drew the leaders to Beijing for the two-day forum, but rather the hope that Xi’s initiative to build railways, ports and power plants across Eurasia and Africa would bring economic benefits to all.

Xi pledged more than 100 billion dollars in investment, financing and aid for Belt and Road projects over an unspecified period of time.

"It is our hope that the Belt and Road cooperation will help boost economic growth of all participating countries, improve their infrastructure, invigorate their industrial development, deepen financial cooperation and intensify people-to-people exchanges," Xi said Monday as he closed the forum, which was meant to garner international support for the initiative.

The leaders’ joint statement pledged to build an open economy and "oppose all forms of protectionism," as well as fight climate change and promote social inclusion, according to a draft version of the document seen by dpa.

It added that the leaders wanted to promote trade and investment based on a "level-playing field, on market rules and on universally recognized international norms."

The "least developed countries" would get special attention in order to "remove bottlenecks of development," the document said.

In the document, the leaders also promised to protect the environment and uphold the international Paris Agreement on climate change. They pledged to promote sustainable development and the protection of human rights, aiming for "a globalization that is open, inclusive and beneficial to all."

Most of the statement's signatories came from countries in Central and South-East Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa, as these states had sent high-ranking officials to the forum. The signatories' list included Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Phillipines President Rodrigo Duterte and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Most Western European countries had sent ministers or other lower-ranking officials to the forum, in a sign of hesitation about China's initiative, which they had criticized for its lack of transparency and formal structure.

Western leaders were involved, however, in drafting a second document, on trade, which got bogged down in disagreements over the statement’s content.

European officials on Sunday accused China of refusing to include language on free trade, environmental protection and working conditions. European negotiators also requested the document on trade include provisions on steel production overcapacity and government subsidies for enterprises – both sore spots for China.

"The demands of the EU countries in areas such as free trade, setting a level playing field and equal conditions have not been met," Brigitte Zypries, Germany's economy minister, said on Sunday, adding that EU countries would not sign the trade document unless these conditions were met.

On Monday, Zypries downplayed the trade document’s relevance, saying it was only as important as a joint press release. By Monday evening, Europeans had not heard back from the Chinese side on their requirements, a European official familiar with the talks told dpa.

The initiative also faced backlash from India, who boycotted the forum because part of a planned China-Pakistan corridor will run through the disputed Kashmir region.

And in Pakistan earlier last week, officials said gunmen killed workers at a Belt and Road-related project, highlighting the initiative’s risks in unstable countries.

China’s neighbour North Korea also showed defiance to Beijing by launching a ballistic missile on Sunday, as the Belt and Road Forum started, despite Beijing’s repeated requests that Pyongyang suspend its nuclear and missile programme.

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