Only one leader of a big Western country is attending China’s most important diplomatic event of the year, a summit next month on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s New Silk Road strategy, as China’s foreign minister denied it had been snubbed.
Xi has championed what China formally calls the “One Belt, One Road” or OBOR initiative to build a new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa and Europe, a landmark programme to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects including railways, ports and power grids.
China has dedicated $40 billion to a Silk Road Fund and the idea was the driving force behind the establishment of the $50 billion China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
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.
But a list of attendees announced by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Tuesday included only one leader from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations, 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 as among 28 leaders coming, along with the Spanish, Greek, Hungarian, Serb and Polish prime ministers and Swiss and Czech presidents.
“This is a positive, cooperative agreement, and we don’t want to politicise 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 representatives of 110 countries would come.
British finance minister Philip Hammond will come as May’s representative, while Germany and France are having elections at the time and will 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.”
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 Two.
Western leaders were unhappy that the guest list that included Russian President Vladimir Putin and 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 countries with dubious human rights records, like the Philippines and Central Asian states, had contributed to a reluctance among Western leaders to attend.
“What Western leader wants to sit on the same stage as Putin?” said one senior Beijing-based Western diplomat who is familiar with the planning for the summit, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Still, at a time of uncertainty about the US place in the world following President Donald Trump’s pledges to put America first, China sees an opportunity to become more of a global leader and has found a receptive audience for its New Silk Road.
Leaders from countries that would appear to have little, if any, connection to the plan are coming to the summit, including Chile and Argentina.
“Everyone wants to be China’s friend now with Trump in office,” said a senior Asian diplomat in Beijing. While China says the New Silk Road is not political, it has run into opposition from India due to a section of it in Pakistan, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, where some projects run through the disputed Kashmir region.
Wang dismissed those concerns, saying the Pakistan project had nothing to do with the dispute and India was welcome to participate in the New Silk Road.
A senior Indonesian government official said China was aiming for a “spectacular” summit.
“The Chinese are gunning for…global leadership so I think this OBOR summit is going to be huge,” the official said.