Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature infrastructure gambit was supposed to connect Asia, Africa and Europe through a network of railroads and trade deals, cementing China’s global influence. A decade on, it’s run into a diplomatic wall at the European border.

The lack of European leaders at this week’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing pointed to growing skepticism among Western democracies about what Xi once described as a "project of the century.” Instead of making friends and scoring political points across Europe, the Chinese leader appears to have reformed the initiative as a club for emerging economies known as the Global South that can challenge the U.S.-led world order.

Seven EU nations — Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Hungary — sent their chiefs to the forum in 2019, the last time the event was held. Four years later, only Hungary’s Viktor Orban made the trip to Beijing. Italy, the sole Group of Seven member, has told China it plans to drop out of the investment pact entirely.