China is moving forward with an ambitious project to build a new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe, hosting regional allies and other foreign dignitaries in what is expected to be the country’s biggest diplomatic event of 2017.
Representatives of as many as 110 countries are expected to attend including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, as well as the leaders of Myanmar, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Only one G7 nation leader, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, said he would attend the May summit although France, the UK and Germany are sending high-level delegations.
Called the the One Belt, One Road project, China is attempting to revive an ancient Eurasian trading network which will combine on-land economic corridors with international shipping lanes to boost trade flows and encourage long-term economic investment and development.
If realised, the network would stretch from Xi’an in China, on through to Tehran, Istanbul, Moscow, Rotterdam and terminating in Venice.
Maritime routes would stretch from Fuzhou in China, on through the South China Sea to ports in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Kenya before also terminating in Venice, according to a map by China’s Xinhua News Agency.
China has dedicated nearly €38 billion to the project and was one of the driving forces behind China’s €47 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the project “is to date the most important thing China has given to the world”.
The project was initially put forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, and although it has yet to achieve major western support, there are signs European countries may be warming to the concept’s promise of continental trade.
Earlier this month (April 10), a Chinese freight train hauling dozens of containers carrying baby products, vitamins and other pharmaceuticals, left Britain’s Stanford-Le-Hope bound for China.
The 12,000 kilometre journey takes three weeks, half the time needed to make the same trip by sea.
It was Britain’s first ever trans-continental train shipment destined to far eastern markets. The train first arrived in the UK from China in January 2017.
The shipment makes London the 15th European city with a direct rail link to China. Xubin Feng, chairman of Yiwu Timex Industrial Investment Co., which manages the freight train service, said London will be a regular freight destination moving forward.
The train, he said at the time, is “just the start of a regular direct service between the UK and China”. Feng said: “We have great faith in the UK as an export nation and rail provides an excellent alternative for moving large volumes of goods over long distances faster.”
China has aggressively lobbied potential international trading partners as the country attempts to shore up its long-term economy and potentially insulate itself against protectionist US trade policies.
The country is also keen to appear a more global player as uncertainty reigns as to the role the United States will play under US President Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, April 19, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called on the European Union to join China in promoting a “positive signal” in favour of free trade and globalisation.
He told Federica Mogherini, the EU’s top diplomat on foreign affairs, the two should work closer together as “two great forces in the world” to improve the “international governance system”.
The EU is hoping to agree with Beijing on a bilateral investment treaty to facilitate European companies doing business in China.
But Brussels remains cautious. The European Council on Foreign Relations said in 2015 China’s project could fail
Some Western countries have also expressed their concern about a lack of transparency about China’s Silk Road project while others are suspicious of China’s wider political motivations.
China, for instance, has increasingly militarised the South China Sea and some accuse Xi Jinping of encroaching authoritarianism in his campaign to stamp out corruption and consolidate Beijing’s control over Hong Kong.