May 14 (UPI) -- President Xi Jinping kicked off the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Sunday with promises to take China to the "center of the world stage."
The forum was an economic convention of sorts, with Xi, China's president and Communist Party leader, as the main showcase. Dozens of leaders from Russia and Asia were in attendance. The U.S. declined to send officials, and aside from an Italian delegation, Europe was absent.
During opening remarks, Xi pledged $100 billion for China's development banks -- money for massive infrastructure projects in Asia, Europe and Africa.
The president has dubbed the funding initiative "One Belt, One Road." The idea is to facilitate a 21st century Silk Road, a system of trains, ports and bridges -- an economic conveyer belt connecting three continents.
The investments will not be given as aid. Instead, nations will be asked to take on Chinese-backed debt in order to fund infrastructure projects. American and European economists have criticized the plan for its reliance on risky and unsustainable debt.
Xi described the initiative as "economic globalization that is open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all."
It's unclear how global the initiative will become.
"Western countries are skeptical that they will really benefit economically, and worry that the initiative will increase Chinese influence, both economic and geopolitical, across Eurasia and beyond," Michael Kovrig, senior adviser at the North East Asia for the International Crisis Group, told Bloomberg News.
The forum is likely just as much about projecting economic and political power as it is about policy.
"The main significance of the forum is optics: Making Xi Jinping look presidential and effective at home and making China look rich and powerful on the world stage," said Kovrig.
A variety of security personnel, including People's Armed Police as well as Communist Party volunteers, have been stationed throughout Beijing to keep the city clean and orderly during the forum. Sunday featured clear skies, a rarity in Beijing, where pollution levels are often dangerously high.