China has signalled it is changing tack with its signature Belt and Road masterplan, after taking on board the numerous criticisms that have saddled the project since President Xi Jinping launched it six years ago.
It vowed to deal better with concerns over unsustainable debt chalked up by developing countries that have signed up to the initiative's ambitious infrastructure-building projects, promote green growth and encourage more local participation in its projects.
China's central bank governor Yi Gang gave a similar assurance, saying private sector investment will become the main force driving Belt and Road projects, which will be market-oriented.
Controversy has dogged Mr Xi's pet foreign policy campaign for years, especially after a string of troubled projects hit the headlines and raised alarm bells over how China's grand scheme of recreating ancient Silk Road trade routes could plunge poor countries into debt.
Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its Hambantota port to China in 2017 for 99 years after it could not repay its loans, while the new governments in Pakistan and Malaysia last year put the brakes on expensive projects with China for fear of being trapped in debt.
Yesterday, government officials also promised to take better care of local communities and businesses, instead of prioritising Chinese interests, another common criticism of the initiative.
PM Lee in Beijing on 5-day visit
BEIJING • Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is in Beijing on a five-day visit to attend the second Belt and Road Forum and also meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.
PM Lee will speak at a high-level meeting at the forum today and deliver remarks at a Leaders' Roundtable chaired by Mr Xi tomorrow, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement yesterday.
Mr and Mrs Lee, together with other foreign leaders and their spouses, will be hosted to a welcome banquet tonight by the Chinese President and his wife Peng Liyuan.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - Mr Xi's signature foreign policy and development strategy - aims to revive ancient overland and sea trade routes, and link China to Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia by building a network of ports, roads, railways and industrial hubs.
Beijing said recently that it has inked 173 deals on the mega-project with 125 countries and 29 international organisations.
At the inaugural BRI Forum in 2017, Singapore was represented by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.
This time, PM Lee and the leaders of the other nine Asean member-states are among the nearly 40 foreign heads of state and government attending the forum. Other leaders include Russian President Vladimir Putin and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
PM Lee is expected to hold bilateral meetings with other leaders at the summit.
On Sunday, he will be at the opening ceremony of the 2019 International Horticultural Exposition hosted by Mr Xi and his wife, and visit the Singapore Garden. Before he leaves on Monday, PM Lee will meet Mr Xi as well as Premier Li Keqiang, who will host him to lunch.
China and Singapore are expected to ink deals on bilateral cooperation during the visit.
The past two months also saw Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam visiting China. Next month, President Halimah Yacob will be in Beijing to attend the Asian Civilisation Dialogue.
PM Lee is accompanied by ministers including Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli. Mr Tharman will be Acting Prime Minister during his absence.
Mr Xiao Yaqing, the head of China's state asset regulator, said the Belt and Road programme is evolving from a general sketch to a more refined rendering.
"We pay more attention to pursuing high-quality projects," he said.
"We encourage central state-owned enterprises to abide by local laws, pay attention to environmental protection, and employ as many local people as possible, contribute to local charities, and support the development of cultural, education and healthcare programmes, and provide public services," Mr Xiao said, adding that this was one way companies can bolster their image.
The quest for refinement has gone into the planning of this year's forum, deputy secretary-general Su Wei of China's state planner told reporters yesterday. Discussions are aimed at making the Belt and Road Initiative more inclusive with regard to partner countries, and for projects to meet more stringent, internationally recognised standards and best practices, he said.
These include a push to green the Silk Road by adopting more eco-friendly designs, building environmentally safe factories and expanding green financing and trade.
The National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute director Zheng Yongnian said China is learning now to put multilateralism into practice, and the dominance of Chinese state-owned companies in Belt and Road projects must give way to more participation from private businesses, especially those in the partner countries.
"No one is quarrelling with the Belt and Road concept but, rather, how it is governed. Projects have to benefit the locals, and that will change their perception," Professor Zheng, who also spoke at a session, told The Straits Times.
Singapore Business Federation chairman Teo Siong Seng recalled witnessing how Chinese enterprises would over-emphasise profits in the early days of the Belt and Road Initiative and go for short-term gains. "There were mistakes made, they are learning," he told ST yesterday, without giving details.
"But the Chinese are addressing some of these issues now. It's almost like setting a new course. From the speeches of the Chinese leaders today, it's clear what they need to do: be more concerned about local impact, employment, corporate social responsibility. This forum is almost like a review, hearing the feedback and why there is pushback."
Nearly 40 heads of state and government, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, will meet today and tomorrow with Mr Xi, who will give a speech this morning and host a gala dinner for his foreign guests at the Great Hall of the People tonight.
The leaders will produce a joint communique after their meeting tomorrow that is expected to contain commitments to sustainable financing and the promotion of green development.
• Additional reporting by Danson Cheong