Beijing celebration of building binge overshadowed by debt

Beijing: Asian and African leaders plan to press Beijing at a conference this week to reduce the politically volatile debt burden left by its Belt and Road Initiative to build ports and other trade-related infrastructure.
That may bring a note of conflict into the official celebration of President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign initiative, which has stirred anxiety in Washington, Moscow and Tokyo that Beijing is trying to expand its global influence.
The meeting starting Thursday brings together leaders or envoys from three dozen countries including Malaysia, Serbia and Kenya. Debt “is going to be part of the prime minister’s focus at the forum,” said Billenne Seyoum, press secretary for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia. Other governments welcomed Beijing’s initiative in a region the Asian Development Bank says needs USD 26 trillion of investment by 2030 to keep economies growing.
But countries including Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand have canceled or renegotiated railways and other projects they concluded were too expensive or unproductive. Most projects are built by Chinese state-owned companies and financed with loans from government banks at commercial interest rates that critics say could leave borrowers mired in debt they cannot repay. Beijing also faces grumbling by the United States, Japan, India and Russia that Belt and Road is a tool to build a China-centered political structure and erode their influence. American officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have told countries considering Belt and Road projects to look closely at Beijing’s motives and warned about debt.
“BRI project financing will be a main topic for discussion” at the forum, said James Su of research firm Fitch Solutions in an email. He said Chinese leaders appear ready to discuss “more sustainable” financing to ease fears of a “debt trap.” (AP)

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