By Laurie Chen and Yew Lun Tian
BEIJING (Reuters) -Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against decoupling from China as he addressed the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Wednesday, criticizing Western efforts to reduce dependence on the Chinese economy.
Xi also lauded his grand plan – Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – launched 10 years ago of building global infrastructure and energy networks connecting Asia with Africa and Europe through overland and maritime routes, saying “blueprints turned into real projects”.
To support Belt and Road projects, the China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China, the country’s two policy lenders, will each set up a financing window of 350 billion yuan ($48 billion), with the state-run Silk Road Fund adding 80 billion yuan to the pool, according to an official statement issued after the forum.
At the forum that ended on Wednesday, $97.2 billion worth of cooperation projects were signed.
Representatives of over 130 countries, largely from the Global South, attended the forum including Xi’s “dear friend” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We stand against unilateral sanctions, economic coercion, decoupling and supply chain disruption,” Xi told more than 1,000 delegates.
Western leaders insist their goal is to “de-risk”, not “decouple”, from China, saying they want to diversify supply chains that have become overly dependent on the world’s second-largest economy.
China’s threats to Taiwan and the trade disruptions of the pandemic years have added urgency to the desire to limit their dependence.
Although BRI at first set out to connect China to Western Europe, senior EU figures were missing. The sole head of state present from the bloc was Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Attending heads of state totalled just 23, compared with 37 at the previous forum in 2019.
Notable attendees included the Afghan Taliban administration’s commerce minister Haji Nooruddin Azizi.
“China has more interest right now in developing Afghanistan at this moment, so we are more engaged with China. The Chinese have more interest in economic affairs, that’s why we’re here,” Azizi told a gaggle of reporters at the ceremony.
Western scepticism of Xi’s grand plans stems from suspicions over the way it would extend China’s global influence, analysts say. China has at times bristled at criticism of the BRI, saying it carries anti-Chinese prejudice and a wish to contain its rise, while overlooking what it says are genuine good intentions.
Analysts have also said some of China’s infrastructure lending through the project has saddled poor countries with loans they can’t repay.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, whose country owes China more than $20 billion, emphasized in a speech that BRI projects “must not complicate (countries’) fiscal conditions”.
In an address that followed Xi’s, Putin praised the BRI and invited global investment in the Northern Sea route which he said could deepen trade between east and west. Several European officials left the hall as Putin took to the stage.
During a three-hour meeting on the sidelines of the conference, Xi told Putin that both sides should explore cooperation in strategic emerging industries and deepen regional cooperation.
“China hopes that the China-Mongolia-Russia natural gas pipeline project will make substantive progress as soon as possible,” Xi said according to a state media readout.
Both leaders also had “in-depth” discussions on the Middle East conflict, state broadcaster CCTV reported without giving further details.
After the meeting, Putin was filmed accompanied by officers carrying the so-called nuclear briefcase which can be used to order a nuclear strike.
Xi is making the Belt and Road smaller and greener, moving away from big-ticket projects like dams to high-tech ones such as digital finance and e-commerce platforms.
The aim is to aid a broader push for a world order that is multi-polar and gives the Global South more agency, rather than one dominated by Washington and its allies, analysts say.
The BRI has also become more focused on issues such as climate change and artificial intelligence, as Xi seeks to use it to export Chinese ideas about governance and build consensus around Chinese norms and its development model, analysts say.
On Wednesday, Xi reinforced those trends, pledging to “deepen cooperation in green infrastructure, energy and transportation,” and “put forward global initiative for artificial intelligence governance.”
After Xi’s speech, China’s foreign ministry said the country would push to create a United Nations body to regulate AI, adding that Beijing opposes “malicious obstructing” of other countries’ AI development, a likely reference to the Biden administration’s efforts to block export of advanced AI chips to China.
A European business representative, who did not want to be named for sensitivity reasons, said on the sidelines of the ceremony that BRI was, “creating impact for some of the countries involved” and that, “I think there is some truth to some of the speeches about improving livelihood and connectivity.”
($1 = 7.3165 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Ryan Woo;Editing by Antoni Slodkowski, Simon Cameron-Moore, Don Durfee and Chizu Nomiyama)