Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold a welcome banquet for foreign leaders

China announced Wednesday it will host a gathering of foreign leaders next week to celebrate a decade of its Belt and Road infrastructure project, with Russian President Vladimir Putin expected to attend.

The Belt and Road is a landmark project in President Xi Jinping’s bid to expand China’s clout overseas, with Beijing saying this week it had now inked over two trillion dollars in contracts around the world.

Critics have long accused China of luring lower-income countries into debt traps by offering huge, unaffordable loans through the initiative, however.

Representatives from over 130 countries are due to take part in the event, with Xi set to deliver an opening speech and hold a welcoming banquet for foreign leaders.

It is the third forum of its kind since China launched the vast investment initiative, with events previously held in 2017 and 2019.

Russian President Putin has said he will attend the event, in what will be his first visit to China since his war in Ukraine threw him into international isolation.

Top Russian diplomat Sergei Lavrov will also attend and hold talks with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Moscow said.

China and Russia describe each other as strategic allies, frequently touting their “no limits” partnership and economic and military cooperation.

They came even closer following the invasion of Ukraine, with the Kremlin seeking to deepen ties with Beijing after finding itself increasingly ostracised by the West.

China has refused to condemn the war, and has tried to position itself as a neutral party, while at the same time offering Moscow a vital diplomatic and financial lifeline.

“We welcome countries and partners actively participating in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to come to Beijing to discuss cooperation plans and seek common development,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said last month.

– ‘Significant debt distress’ –

Beijing hailed the BRI on Tuesday as having “delivered real gains to participating countries”.

It also said the balance of loans for BRI projects from the Export-Import Bank of China (Eximbank) — a key BRI creditor — now totalled 2.2 trillion yuan ($307.4 billion).

Eximbank has financed major transport and energy projects across the BRI and has been linked to foreign loan plans everywhere from Africa to Central Asia.

But some of Beijing’s partners are increasingly wary about the cost involved.

Italy, the only one of the group of leading developed democracies to sign up to the investment scheme, said last month it was considering opting out of the deal.

A report by experts at Boston University’s Global Development Policy noted the BRI’s role in providing “additional resources for the Global South” and fostering “significant economic growth”.

But it also said that “many of the recipients of Chinese finance are subject to significant debt distress, with several countries owing China a significant share of their external debt”.

It also pointed to the “increased carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution” caused by the project’s support for fossil fuel emitting infrastructure.

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