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World leaders gather in Beijing for second Belt and Road forum

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