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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Leaders from 37 countries and delegates from more than 150 are gathering in Beijing for the second forum on China's sprawling Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. The U.S. isn't sending any high-level representatives.

The backdrop: Getting that many world leaders to turn up might seem like a triumph for President Xi Jinping, but he'll actually have to do some damage control.

Jonathan Hillman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) writes for Axios Expert Voices that in the 2 years since the last forum, concerns have grown over corruption, debt sustainability, environmental impacts and local benefits in addition to worries about Beijing's true motives.

  • "High-profile projects in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Montenegro and elsewhere have undercut the Belt and Road Initiative's promise to deliver 'win-win' outcomes, appearing to benefit China at the expense of its partners," Hillman notes.

Dan Kliman, of the Center for New American Security, says that while Xi will attempt to "rebrand and reboot" Belt and Road this week, "this is a strategic geopolitical exercise, so they don't want to take steps that would reduce their control."

The bottom line: Chris Johnson, a former top CIA China analyst now at CSIS, says the message will be: "We have heard your feedback, taken it into account, and we're making changes. But guess what, the region still has a huge need for infrastructure and we're ready to provide it."

  • Johnson says the message to the U.S. is, "try as you might, you're not going to be able to stop us."

What to watch: U.K. Treasury Secretary Philip Hammond will attend the summit, fresh off a decision to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to help build the Britain's 5G network despite vocal U.S. objections.

Go deeper: China's road to global dominance

Go deeper

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
4 hours ago - Health

Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden has picked former FDA chief David Kessler to lead Operation Warp Speed, a day after unveiling a nearly $2 trillion pandemic relief plan that includes $400 billion for directly combatting the virus.

Why it matters: Biden's transition team said Kessler has been advising the president-elect since the beginning of the pandemic, and hopes his involvement will help accelerate vaccination, the New York Times reports. Operation Warp Speed's current director, Moncef Slaoui, will stay on as a consultant.

The case of the missing relief money

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A chunk of stimulus payments is missing in action, thanks to a mix up that put as many as 13 million checks into invalid bank accounts.

Why it matters: The IRS (by law) was supposed to get all payments out by Friday. Now the onus could shift to Americans to claim the money on their tax refund — further delaying relief to struggling, lower-income Americans.

The post-Trump GOP, gutted

McConnell (L), McCarthy (R) and Trump. Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

Republicans will emerge from the Trump era gutted financially, institutionally and structurally.

The big picture: The losses are stark and substantial.