China's Xi Jinping urges world to use Belt and Road to reject protectionism

Beijing looks to find more global partners for initiative day after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid announces a $3.4bn investment in Dubai

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday urged dozens of world leaders to reject protectionism and invited more countries to participate in his Belt and Road initiative after seeking to ease concerns surrounding the programme.

A day after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid confirmed the UAE's role in the global infrastructure mega-project announcing deals worth $3.4 billion (Dh12.49 billion) had been agreed by the two countries, Mr Xi made a renewed pitch to the world to be open to multilateral co-operation and globalisation.

"We need to build an open world economy and reject protectionism," Mr Xi told 37 world leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Pakistan's Imran Khan seated around a large round table at the Yanqi Lake retreat on the edge of Beijing. Italy this year became the first European country to sign up to the Belt and Road.

Heads of states and officials attend a roundtable summit session on the final day of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on April 27, 2019. Chinese President Xi Jinping urged dozens of world leaders on April 27 to reject protectionism and invited more countries to participate in his global infrastructure project after seeking to ease concerns surrounding the programme. / AFP / Sputnik / Aleksey Nikolskyi

At the closing of the summit, Sheikh Mohammed said: “the global initiative will connect societies, economies and people and boost global growth in multiple sectors and industries through developed infrastructures and new trade routes”.

A draft communique for the forum similarly pledges to "reject protectionism" and "unilateralism" in a swipe at President Donald Trump's "America first" presidency. The US, which has been fighting a festering trade war with Beijing and is vocally critical of the Chinese mega-project, did not send officials to the summit.

Mr Xi's signature foreign policy aims to reinvent the ancient Silk Road to connect Asia to Europe and Africa through massive investments in maritime, road and rail projects – with hundreds of billions of dollars in financing from Chinese banks.

"We need to encourage the full participation of more countries and companies, thus expanding the pie of common interests," Mr Xi said.

On Friday, the UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai said China will invest $2.4bn to create a storage and shipping station in an area spanning 5.5 million square metres in Jebel Ali to export Chinese goods all over the world. Given the UAE’s advanced infrastructure, it aims to become a regional hub for the Belt and Road to open up corridors to the GCC, wider Middle East and Africa.

In a meeting with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, Sheikh Mohammed said: “Arab-Chinese collaboration will positively contribute to the Belt and Road Initiative, given the Arab world's strategic location that connects East and West”.

Sheikh Mohammed said that a further $1bn will be spent on setting up a major food processing and packaging and export project in Dubai.

While at the summit, Sheikh Mohammed met several world leaders in attendance. After meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi to discuss joint projects and sharing of ideas, the Vice President met President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko.

According to a tweet from the Ruler of Dubai, the pair talked about joint projects.

“We stressed during the meeting the importance of developing our relations to new levels and stimulate these relations through joint projects and new economic agreements,” he said in the tweet.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned the forum that the Belt and Road initiative must be used "to stop runaway climate change".

Mr Guterres said the Belt and Road initiative could contribute to a more equitable, prosperous world and allow countries to transition from "unsustainable, fossil-fuelled grey economy to a clean, green, low-carbon energy future".

"I see the Belt and Road initiative as an important space where green principles can be reflected in green action," Mr Guterres said.

The UN chief pledged the support of United Nations country teams – which comprise UN agencies, funds and programmes operating in participating countries.

China's project has faced pushback in some quarters. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad cancelled some planned works and renegotiated a rail project, cutting 30 per cent off the price tag.

But Mr Mohamad and other leaders attending the summit had fulsome praise for BRI.

At the opening of the conference, Chinese officials said they were working to make the Belt and Road more sustainable with Mr Xi saying: "We also need to ensure the commercial and fiscal sustainability of all projects so that they will achieve the intended goals as planned".

He also batted away some concerns at the opening ceremony, saying the initiative will have "zero tolerance" for corruption.

The focus on sustainability drew the praise of International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde.

The draft communique said the BRI would welcome developed countries and international investors to participate in the projects.

China's finance ministry released guidelines for assessing financial risk and debt sustainability to apply to projects. The document notes that countries already facing payment problems or in the process of restructuring payments "does not automatically mean that debt is unsustainable in a forward-looking sense".

During a state banquet on Friday night, Mr Xi called on attending world leaders to band together in the face of setbacks.

"Certainly, while building the Belt and Road initiative, we will face difficulties and there will be twists and turns," he said.

"No matter a smooth or challenging way, we need to continue the spirit of partnership, not forget our initial intention of co-operation and move forward unwaveringly," he said.