BEIJING: Only one leader of a big Western country is attending China's most important diplomatic event of the year, a summit next month on President Xi Jinping's New Silk Road strategy, as China's foreign minister denied it had been snubbed.
Xi has championed what China formally calls the "One Belt, One Road" or OBOR initiative to build a new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa and Europe, a landmark programme to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects including railways, ports and power grids.
China has dedicated $40 billion to a Silk Road Fund and the idea was the driving force behind the establishment of the $50 billion China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Diplomatic sources in Beijing said China had hoped for at least some senior Western leaders to attend the summit, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, to burnish the plan's international credentials and make it less China-centric.
But a list of attendees announced by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Tuesday included only one leader from the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who took over in December after his predecessor quit following a crushing defeat in a reform referendum.
Wang confirmed the presence of the presidents of Russia and the Philippines as among 28 leaders coming, along with the Spanish, Greek, Hungarian, Serb and Polish prime ministers and Swiss and Czech presidents.
"This is a positive, cooperative agreement, and we don't want to politicise it," Wang told reporters when asked if China was upset at the absence of most major Western leaders.
"This is an economic cooperation forum, an international cooperation platform that everyone is paying attention to, supports and hopes to participate in," he said, adding representatives of 110 countries would come.
British finance minister Philip Hammond will come as May's representative, while Germany and France are having elections at the time and will send high-level representatives, Wang said.
"They have explained to us many times, France has elections in May, as does Germany about then, so their leaders originally were really willing to attend. This is not a platitude, it's the real information we got."
China is sensitive to any suggestion that what it sees as its benign intentions do not have a receptive global audience, especially in Western capitals.
China was privately upset in 2015 after most Western leaders rebuffed invitations to attend a big military parade through Beijing marking 70 years since the end of World War Two. Western leaders were unhappy that the guest list that included Russian President Vladimir Putin and wary of the message China would send with the show of strength.