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Transcript of Ambassador Zhang Ming's Interview on BRI with BBC

As the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation is about to open in Beijing, Ambassador Zhang Ming, Head of the Chinese Mission to the European Union, took an exclusive interview with BBC on 25 April. The following is the transcript:

BBC: Ambassador, thank you so much for making time for us. I wonder if you would just outline for us how China exactly sees the Belt and Road Initiative?

Zhang: As you know, the second Belt and Road Forum starts this morning, and will last till the day after tomorrow. It has a high-level and wide representation. Heads of state or government from 37 countries will participate. The EU, Germany, France, the UK, Spain, among others, will send high-level representatives. From Brussels, Vice President Šefčovič of the European Commission will attend as the special envoy of President Juncker.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is six years old. Very young. The forum is a good opportunity for stocktaking and future planning. In the past six years, the BRI has become a well-received public good. Every one is welcome to join. Of course, such participation is voluntary.

The BRI cooperation has registered a strong growth momentum. So far, 126 countries and 29 international organizations have signed BRI cooperation documents with China.

BBC: It is a young initiative. But there have been criticisms of the motivations of Beijing with this initiative. There are those who argue it is a campaign for global dominance. A stimulus package for a slowing economy, but one which is resulting in capturing the countries that are involved in it into a trap of debt. What's your view of that?

Zhang: The logic of the BRI is not about seeking supremacy. In history, we had the ancient Silk Road, a symbol for openness and mutual learning. The BRI aims to revive that spirit. Today, the world has many challenges, like shortfall in infrastructure, and so on. Some countries are still living with the impact of the financial crisis. The BRI aims to offer a solution to global challenges and an open platform for global cooperation. It focuses on connectivity, as you know, and would hopefully give a boost to global growth.

BRI cooperation is not government directed, but market driven. Enterprises are the major players. If it is all about government, there would not be so much interest in and support for the BRI and BRI forum. The BRI is launched by China, but its benefits are shared by the world.

BBC: You say the benefits are shared by the world. But there are already countries that have signed up to this, who are expressing concern. For example, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has to hand over the control of a port to China, back to 2017, to help it repay the foreign loans, I wonder if you want to address the issue of the trap regarding debt that some countries can get into as a result of being involved in the initiative.

Zhang: I heard some gossip about the debt or the so-called China's debt trap. Well, I must say that debt is a global problem with a long history. The BRI is just six years old, do you think it makes sense to blame a young initiative for an old problem?

The so-called debt trap is not a suitable hat for China, nor for the BRI. No one is in a better position to tell the true story than the BRI participants themselves. Many leading officials, business communities and the general public of the BRI countries have spoken up and refuted the argument with the facts and figures. For instance, Financial Secretary of the Philippines recently stated publicly that the debts owed to China account for only 0.65% of the country's total debts. That's the truth.

Also, the BRI countries not only borrow from China, but also from other countries. It's not fair to say that someone else's money is a sweet pie while China's money is a trap.

BBC: I wonder if you would address directly the challenge that you have as Beijing's ambassador to the European Union. Beijing has come under particular criticism by European leaders. President Macron has said that the period of European naivety is over, that the relationship between the EU and China must not be, first and foremost, of the trading one, but a geopolitical and a strategic one. And that in the past, letting Chinese companies buy up EU infrastructures such as ports has been a strategic error. This all suggests that your job is very very difficult in the context of what Europe sees your bigger ambitions beyond this being an invitation to cooperate when it comes to trade.

Zhang: Well, thank you for the great sympathy that you showed to me. But I want to make it clear that it's not China's tradition to play anyone against another and not in China's interest to play European countries against each other. China supports European integration, and supports European unity. This is a clear and consistent position China has been sticking to for several decades.

In terms of the BRI, I do not see an uphill battle in Europe. China always sees Europe as a natural BRI partner because we shared the history of the ancient Silk Road. When the BRI was first introduced, some Europeans might be skeptical and hesitant. But over the years, I have seen an increasing interest and a more and more positive approach from European partners.

At the political level, Chinese and EU leaders have agreed to synergize the BRI and the EU's connectivity strategy.

BBC: Except for everything you were saying, it's counter to the direction that Europe is moving in. Europe is saying that its stance with regard to China is as a systemic rival now rather than someone with whom it should cooperate. The European Commission has been critical of Italy signing up to the Belt and Road Initiative, aligning itself too closely to this. This notion that there is a soft approach to Beijing is over when it comes to Brussels. There is a real sense now of much more skepticism towards Beijing. I wonder how you deal with that as you approach this two-day summit.

Zhang Ming: Well, as you said, the EU says that China is a systematic rival, but you forgot that the EU also says China is a comprehensive strategic partner, and also a collaborator. More and more EU member states show more interest in the participation of the BRI, because they see they can benefit from the cooperation and from the partnership in the framework of the BRI. And even the EU itself shows great interest in cooperation with China over connectivity.

BBC: I wonder if you accept, though, that this summit in a way goes towards China's rebuttal, if you like. China has come under criticism. There are countries who continue to say, including the European Union as a bloc, that China is lending into very high-risk environment and that will trap countries. I wonder if you accept that this two-day summit is designed to counter those criticisms and present China's case in a more positive light.

Zhang: China is very open and inclusive. We organize the forum in the coming days to listen to constructive advice. We welcome all the members of the world community to take part in the BRI in different way. We welcome constructive criticisms, and also their contribution of ideas suggestions and advice to advance the cooperation in the framework of BRI. This is one of the aims of the forum.

BBC: Ok just one final question I wonder you would just address specifically, that there are governments, from Malaysia to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, who are all rethinking the cost of the project which they have become involved with China. Sri Lanka in particular, the government leased the port to a Chinese company for 99 years after struggling to make the repayment, which suggest that this is a cautionary tale which other countries are picking up on, including the European Union. They are saying that let's just pause for a moment.

Zhang: As for all these ports, all these highways, the infrastructures, we are collaborating with the host countries to build them up. And we never move them to Shanghai. We never move them to the Forbidden City for a show. They are still there in the host countries to serve the local economy, to serve the local people, and to serve the regional economy and even the world economy. That is the truth.

BBC: Ambassador, thank you so much for your time, we are really grateful. Thank you.

Zhang: Thank you.

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