China’s president will host almost 30 world leaders in Beijing on Sunday at the first Belt and Road Forum, the centerpiece of a soft-power push backed by hundreds of billions of dollars for infrastructure projects. More than 100 countries on five continents have signed up, showing the demand for global economic cooperation despite rising protectionism in the U.S. and Europe.For Xi, the initiative is designed to solidify his image as one of the world’s leading advocates of globalization while U.S. President Donald Trump cuts overseas funds in the name of ” America First.” The summit aims to ease concerns about China’s rise and boost Xi’s profile at home, where he’s become the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping died in 1997.The strategy also carries risks. The initiative is so far little more than a marketing slogan that encompasses all sorts of projects that China had initiated overseas for years, and major world leaders like Trump, Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe are staying away. How Xi answers a range of outstanding questions will go a long way in determining its success.Key to reducing uncertainty will be addressing the concerns of strategic rivals like India, Russia and the U.S., particularly as China’s growing military prowess lets it be more assertive over disputed territory. Chinese moves to spend more than $50 billion on an economic corridor passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, build a port in Djibouti and construct oil pipelines in central Asia are all creating infrastructure that could be used to challenge traditional powers.“China needs to recognize that the way it perceives the Belt and Road Initiative is not necessarily the same way others will,” said Paul Haenle, a former China director on the U.S. National Security Council who now heads the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. For countries like the U.S., he said, “it’s impossible not to view the BRI through a geopolitical lens — a Chinese effort to build a sphere of influence.”
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