(Bloomberg) -- Premier Li Qiang called China an “anchor for world peace” while expressing optimism about the recovery in the world’s second-biggest economy in a keynote speech at a forum that included business and government leaders from around the globe.

“Chaos and conflicts must not happen in Asia, otherwise the future of Asia would be lost,” Li said Thursday at the Boao Forum for Asia amid tensions between China and the US over issues including trade, technology and Taiwan. He also urged nations to “firmly safeguard the hard-won peaceful environment.”

“In this uncertain world, the certainty China offers is an anchor for world peace and development,” he said. “This is the case in the past and will remain so in the future.”

China’s economic recovery is picking up pace, and March will likely produce a better outcome than the first two months of the year, Li said, citing stronger consumption, investment and sentiment. He added that China will continue to pursue stability, expand domestic demand, open the economy and safeguard the financial sector.

Li said a China that’s “stable and dedicated to development” would be a pillar for the world economy in a time of uncertainty. “We do have the confidence and ability to sail the giant ship of the Chinese economy steadily ahead against all winds and waves, and make even greater contributions to the global economy,” he added.

Economists are forecasting growth of 5.3% this year, up from just 3% in 2022. Morgan Stanley is even more bullish, predicting 5.7% expansion for the year, and saying in a report Thursday that the government is restoring confidence in private businesses with the return of Jack Ma to China and the swift announcement on Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s restructuring.

Even so, global growth is slowing and foreign businesses remain cautious about doing business in China. The latest survey from the American Chamber of Commerce in China shows the country is no longer one of the top three investment priorities for US firms. Almost half of US firms already in the market plan no new investments, according to the survey. 

The four-day Boao gathering comes as Beijing rolls out a charm offensive to court overseas business and investment and bolster its diplomatic efforts to portray China as a responsible geopolitical actor. 

For foreign firms, operating in China in recent years hasn’t been easy. Many faced disruptions and supply chain logjams due to stringent Covid Zero controls, while consumer spending slumped and profits were squeezed. 

More recently, US firms have faced more scrutiny for their business ties to China amid rising political tensions between the two countries.  

The Boao event follows on the heels of the China Development Forum earlier this week in Beijing, with global executives like Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook and Standard Chartered Plc’s Bill Winters making their first visits to the country in years. Li urged foreign business leaders in a meeting this week to take a long-term view amid economic challenges.

US-China Strains

While strained China-US relations rarely came up during the China Development Forum earlier this week, the mood at a closed-door panel was “somber,” said Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

At the session, which didn’t include Li or other senior officials, some Chinese participants complained about “a reflexive American opposition to China’s success,” while US participants expressed concern over an unintentional crisis erupting, Kennedy said.

Foreign companies are also having to contend with security risks. Japan is seeking the release of an employee of drugmaker Astellas Pharma Inc. who was recently taken into custody by Chinese authorities. A Japanese official told parliament this week that China had detained 17 Japanese citizens since 2015.

Also, five local employees at the American due diligence firm Mintz Group were detained last week, according to the New York Times. The company “is suspected of engaging in unlawful business operations,” the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said.  

Debt Relief

China is also under pressure to provide more debt relief to developing countries. In a speech to the Boao Forum on Thursday, International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva underlined the importance of “countries in a relatively stronger position helping the vulnerable members of our global community.”

While she welcomed China’s participation in multilateral efforts to restructure debts of some developing nations, a number of Western nations including the US, the IMF’s largest shareholder, have accused Beijing of dragging its feet in providing relief. 

The Ministry of Commerce has designated 2023 as the “Year of Investing in China,” with a series of promotional events planned to lure investors. Commerce Minister Wang Wentao last month said China welcomed foreign businesses to step up research and development spending in the Asian nation.

Chinese leaders have in the past used the Boao Forum to announce major steps to open the financial system, including the establishment and expansion of the stock connect program that links mainland exchanges with Hong Kong.

(Updates with additional comments from Li.)

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