China says it wants more Southeast Asian countries on its Belt and Road project

BEIJING – President Xi Jinping told Southeast Asian leaders at a summit in Beijing on Sunday that his country would continue to advance ties with the region despite U.S. complaints that Beijing’s economic and military power posed a threat to its neighbors.

The comments come as Xi seeks to consolidate his power and consolidate China’s leadership role in the “Belt and Road” infrastructure program, which was created to galvanize development in the region as part of Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

“China will always put regional cooperation and the future of the Belt and Road initiative first,” Xi said at the close of a three-day summit in Beijing, hosted by the 14-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to discuss the initiative.

“China’s claim that it has no intentions to dominate is unwavering,” Xi said in a keynote speech at the meeting.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in his welcoming speech on Friday, reiterated his country’s “indisputable right” to build an “open trade” architecture. ASEAN members Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei are part of the program.

But the Trump administration has been pushing back on the initiative and has moved to counter it by encouraging countries to develop their own transportation and trade infrastructure, sometimes involving U.S. companies.

On Saturday, the vice president of the State-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, Li Xiaopeng, said China was open to cooperating with more maritime nations to “uphold the free seas as the foundation of international security and development.”

The United States is concerned that China is trying to establish control over important parts of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in global trade passes each year. It has repeatedly criticized China’s refusal to include the U.S. in certain security agreements.

On the sidelines of the summit, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, was in Manila to meet with the top military officials of the Philippines, Vietnam and the US, two diplomatic sources told Reuters.

“China hopes that all countries in the region, including the Philippines, will actively participate in the Belt and Road initiatives,” said China’s ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, when asked on Friday about the Belt and Road initiative during a web-cast speech on the China-U.S. relationship.

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