Only one leader of a big Western nation is attending China’s most important diplomatic event of the year, a summit next month on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) New Silk Road strategy, as Beijing denied it had been snubbed.
Xi has championed what China formally calls the “One Belt, One Road” initiative to build a new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa and Europe, a landmark program to invest billions of US dollars in infrastructure projects, including railways, ports and power grids.
China has dedicated US$40 billion to a Silk Road Fund and the idea was the driving force behind the establishment of the US$50 billion China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing said China had hoped for at least some senior Western leaders to attend the summit, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, to burnish the plan’s international credentials and make it less China-centric.
However, a list of attendees announced by Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) yesterday included only one leader from the G7 — Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who took over in December after his predecessor quit following a crushing defeat in a reform referendum.
Wang confirmed the presence of the presidents of Russia and the Philippines among the 28 leaders, along with the Spanish, Greek, Hungarian, Serb and Polish prime ministers, and the Swiss and Czech presidents.
“This is a positive, cooperative agreement, and we don’t want to politicize it,” Wang told reporters, when asked if China was upset at the absence of most major Western leaders.
“This is an economic cooperation forum, an international cooperation platform that everyone is paying attention to, supports and hopes to participate in,” he said, adding that representatives of 110 countries would attend.
British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond would be May’s representative, while Germany and France are holding elections at the time and would send high-level representatives, Wang said.
“They have explained to us many times, France has elections in May, as does Germany about then, so their leaders originally were really willing to attend. This is not a platitude, it’s the real information we got,” he said.
China is sensitive to any suggestion that what it sees as its benign intentions do not have a receptive global audience, especially in Western capitals.
China was privately upset in 2015 after most Western leaders rebuffed invitations to attend a big military parade through Beijing marking 70 years since the end of World War II. Western leaders were unhappy that the guest list included Russian President Vladimir Putin and were wary of the message China would send with the show of strength.
While China has portrayed the New Silk Road as a genuine effort to share the bounty of China’s economic development and to fund infrastructure gaps, many Western countries are concerned about a lack of detail and transparency in the project, and are suspicious about China’s broader political intents.
Diplomatic sources said the presence of Putin and other leaders from nations with dubious human rights records, like the Philippines and Central Asian states, had contributed to a reluctance among Western leaders to attend.
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