Belt & Road Meeting Draws World Leaders

BEIJING (AP) -- Beijing was enveloped in a massive security presence Thursday as leaders gathered for a conference on China's sweeping Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Paramilitary troops, police and various other security services patrolled streets, subway stations and other key locations, while major roads were to be closed to clear the way for visiting dignitaries and their hosts.

The event celebrating the push for China-backed road, port and rail-building projects across the developing world, President Xi Jinping's signature foreign policy initiative, is one of Beijing's biggest of the year.

It brings together leaders or envoys from three dozen countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Serbia, Myanmar and Kenya.

Many have welcomed the help with building up modern infrastructure in a region the Asian Development Bank says needs $26 trillion of investment by 2030 to keep economies growing.

But most projects are built by Chinese state-owned companies and involve loans from government banks carrying commercial interest rates. China often imports much of the labor to build the projects, raising complaints they create too few local jobs.

Experts working in development also have expressed over the potential the projects might cause environmental harm or encourage corruption.

Some countries, including Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, have canceled or renegotiated terms of projects they found to be too expensive or otherwise unwanted.

During the three-day gathering in Beijing, some Asian and African leaders plan to press for relief from debts financial burdens.

Beijing has gradually won support for the Belt and Road from countries that initially shied away. Italy became the first member of the Group of Seven major economies to sign on with a recent agreement to support it. Japan has also said it's willing to work with China on some projects.

But the U.S. and some other countries fret over Beijing's expanding influence, contending that the plan is meant to build a China-centered political empire and undercut good governance.

China vehemently denies it is setting "debt traps" for countries participating in Belt and Road projects. Chinese officials say Beijing is learning from experience and examining borrowers more carefully to ensure they can repay loans.

Possibly due to tighter scrutiny, the number of new Belt and Road projects has plunged.

The total value of new contracts fell 42 percent in the first half of 2018 compared with a year earlier, according to Moody's.

(KA)