Beijing, April 24 : A total of 37 countries minus India on Thursday will gather at China's second edition of the Belt and Road forum, a three-day grand event on the world's largest connectivity project.
The Belt and Road Initiative -- a trillion-dollar project floated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 -- aims to connect Asia, Africa and Europe through a network of highways, rail lines, ports and sea-lanes.
The sheer vastness of the project and the money involved in it have caused much awe among many as well as consternation in some countries that see the initiative as China's tool to increase its geopolitical influence.
Under the project, China has poured billions of dollars in over 60 partner countries where it's building vast infrastructure that range from seaports to railway lines.
The reports about many partner countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Pakistan being under the burden of onerous Chinese loans under the projects have raised concerns about Beijing's intent to create "debt traps".
China will seek to dispel this narrative at the three-day event of the year where heads of 37 countries - up from 29 from at the launch of the summit in 2017 - and representatives of over 100 international organisations will be present.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan will be among the heads of states, India will give a miss to the forum like the last time in 2017.
India opposes the multi-billion dollar artery of the Belt and Road -- China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) -- that cuts through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The corridor connects the Chinese city of Kashgar with Pakistan's Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea.
New Delhi says it cannot be the part of a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity. India's non approval of the corridor has become a sticky point in its relations with China.
Beijing maintains that the project is purely economic in nature and won't impact its neutral stance on the Kashmir issue.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought to allay New Delhi's concerns again and said the differences over the project should not become a dispute.
"One of our fundamental differences is how to look at the Belt and Road Initiative. The Indian side has their concerns. We understand that and that's why we stated clearly on various occasions that the Belt and Road Initiative, including the CPEC is only an economic initiative," Wang said.
"They do not target any third country and they have nothing to with sovereign and territorial dispute left over from history between the two countries. Of course, India has its basic position on these disputes. Our cooperation will not undermine any party's position on those issues."
He said joining the Belt and Road will be a good choice for India.
India's skipping the forum again would have certainly come up for discussion when India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale met Wang Yi earlier this week.
This time India's absence at the forum will not be as embarrassing for Beijing like the last time given their bilateral ties have been on an upswing after the Wuhan meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi.
While the US and Japan -- critics of the Belt and Road project - will send an official delegation to the event, presence of a leader of Italy will certainly be a boost to the image of the initiative.
A member of G-7 grouping, Italy last month announced to join the Belt and Road.
Rome joining China was sort of a coup for Beijing and a cause for concern among European powers and the US.
The US and its allies have long seen China's Belt and Road project as a strategy to spread its political influence in the world. They have questioned about the "lack of transparency" in Chinese funding in the projects and usurious loans to countries.
Sri Lanka had to hand over a key strategic port in the Indian Ocean for 99-years to the Chinese after it failed to pay back loans. The Maldives is already saddled with the Chinese debt.
Some quarters in the Pakistan government have expressed concerns over the country's inability to pay back Chinese, a prospect that analysts could compromise its sovereignty.
However, Wang Yi in the run-up to the event said 126 countries and 29 international organisations had signed documents expressing their support for the scheme.
He said also that while opportunities to cooperate were open to all, nations that are opposed to the Belt and Road plan should not seek to influence the opinions of others.
"All countries have the freedom to participate, but they don't have the right to prevent other countries from taking part," he said.
"We hope that more countries, including the US can actively participate in the Belt and Road Initiative."
(Gaurav Sharma can be contacted at email@example.com)
Find any Critical Errors? Please Report It!