China’s summit for its new Silk Road is missing 44 heads of state from the 65 nations involved

China's Transition
China's Transition

World leaders are gathering in Beijing this weekend for a big summit touting China’s infrastructure spending spree to connect Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The project, known as the Belt and Road Initiative—or “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) in straight translation—was introduced by president Xi Jinping in 2013 as a land-and-sea version of the fabled Silk Road trading route of the 16th to 18th centuries.

China says the project is open to everyone, but it has also identified 65 countries along the Belt and Road that, since the early stages of the proposal, it’s insisted will participate in the initiative (whether they’ve confirmed it themselves or not). Together, the 64 nations plus China account for 60% of the world’s population and 30% of its GDP (pdf), according to the Hong Kong–based think tank Fung Business Intelligence.


This week China’s foreign ministry confirmed that 29 heads of state will attend the May 14-15 forum. They’ll be among the summit’s 1,500 or so Chinese and foreign attendees.

But a closer look at the attendee list shows that only 20 OBOR countries will send their heads of state (nine, including Fiji, are from outside the Belt and Road). In other words, 44 OBOR nations are not sending their top leaders to the OBOR summit. None of the Middle Eastern nations will; neither will most European countries. As for the 20, they have an average GDP per capita of about $14,700, compared to $25,000 for the 44 countries that won’t, according to UN data.


It’s worth noting that some OBOR nations are sending lower-ranking officials to attend the forum, but the number is hard to determine. For example, Afghanistan will send a minister-level delegation, but it’s unclear how many people will be in it. Saudi Arabia will send its minister of energy and industry. (The Diplomat has compiled an attendee list of 52 nations, with different levels of participation, noting it isn’t comprehensive because of unavailable data.)

But the forum seems to be meant for heads of state. According to Bloomberg, China will ask the heads of state at the forum to sign a joint communiqué endorsing its economic and diplomatic positions, though not everyone is on board with those. The Chinese foreign ministry stated that the communiqué will be issued on May 15.

Xi has vowed to set an example on globalization, as Donald Trump turns inward with his “America First” policy. The Belt and Road initiative is Xi’s signature foreign-policy effort, and China’s state-controlled news outlets have billed the summit as one of the year’s most important international events.

Judging by the no-shows, not everyone feels the same.

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