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People take pictures of the "Golden Bridge on Silk Road" installation by artist Shu Yong in Beijing, China May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter(reuters_tickers)
By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Western countries are underestimating China's new Silk Road project, which is an important scheme, despite concerns it is too China-centric and so far lacking in opportunities for foreign firms, Germany's ambassador to China said on Thursday.
China has touted what it formally calls the Belt and Road initiative as a new way to boost global development since President Xi Jinping unveiled the plan in 2013, aiming to expand links between Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond.
At a summit last month, Xi pledged $124 billion (96 billion pounds) for the plan, but it has faced suspicion in Western capitals that it is intended more to assert Chinese influence than Beijing's professed selfless desire to spread prosperity.
Ambassador Michael Clauss told the Foreign Correspondents' Club that Germany saw a lot of merit in the scheme, but he felt many were largely ignoring it, especially in Europe and the United States, which surprised him.
"It's being underestimated a little bit. People should wake up," Clauss said, adding that one concern was that China was still promoting it as a very China-centric scheme.
"What we would like to see is it be done at a more equal footing. So far it's not yet been possible to have equal footing discussion between the European Union and China on that aspect," he said.
"It's very much centred on Beijing, on China."
European firms want to take part, but are being made to feel unwelcome or face undesirable conditions, added Clauss, who has been ambassador in Beijing since 2013.
"We know that in some cases companies have been asked to transfer their technology in return for being able to participate in some of the projects, which didn't meet with a lot of enthusiasm."
The new Silk Road is being promoted as part of China's efforts to bolster its global leadership ambitions as U.S. President Donald Trump promotes "America First" and questions existing global free trade deals, including pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.
Clauss said the new U.S. administration was still formulating its China policy, and in Beijing, where the new U.S. ambassador is yet to arrive and the acting top diplomat has just resigned, there was little cooperation at present between Germany and the United States on China.
Even with its problems, the new Silk Road should be supported, Clauss added, however.
"Despite these shortcomings, we feel that especially since TPP and others have been given up, there's no better game in town."
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)