“Tell us what we are going to get out of this,” said James Zimmerman, a lawyer in Beijing who is a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, referring to the West. “It’s a nonstarter if it’s all about bringing Chinese goods to Europe, or if it’s all one way.”
A top official in the Trump administration, Matthew Pottinger, the senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, said at Sunday’s conference that China should provide transparency in the bidding for contracts related to the initiative, to give a better chance to companies that aren’t state-owned.
China’s industrial overcapacity is a big motivator behind the plan. China can make nearly 1.1 billion tons of steel a year, as much as the rest of the world put together, but has domestic demand for only about 800 million tons. The initiative might absorb only about 30 million tons a year, according to a recent study by the European Union Chamber of Commerce.
Some American companies are taking steps to improve their chances — but that sometimes means manufacturing more in China, not the United States. Ms. Duan said G.E. had focused on ways to produce goods in China to meet the country’s requirements that some of the work be done locally. Honeywell said in a statement that it had also been looking for ways to produce more goods in China for the program.
“When the roads are built, when the ports are built, when the power plants are built, I think the other opportunities will come,” Ms. Duan said.
Others are waiting and watching. Investments have been heavily concentrated in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other nearby countries that are geopolitical priorities for China but that have weak economies.
Vincent Lo, a real estate billionaire who is the chairman of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, led a team of 50 Shanghai and Hong Kong businesspeople to Thailand and Vietnam last week to explore investments based on the Chinese initiative, he said. Trips to the Mideast and Eastern Europe may be next. Central Asia is far down his list.
“If Central Asian countries are keen, we will work with them, but of course we’ll have to look at the financial fundamentals,” Mr. Lo said. “A lot of these countries will have to do a lot of reforms to be able to receive capital.”
Chinese players look to be big winners from the outset.
Mr. Xi has designated the city of Xuzhou — a dusty rail hub roughly halfway along the five-hour bullet train trip between Beijing and Shanghai — as a key manufacturing base for his policy. At the foot of a hill here topped by a new complex of Buddhist temples, Caterpillar has one of the world’s biggest construction machinery factories, making huge pieces of digging equipment.
Nearby, its local rival X.C.M.G. is ramping up. Employing 23,000 workers in this city and controlled by the Xuzhou municipal government, X.C.M.G. is China’s largest manufacturer of construction machinery, from excavators to cranes to bulldozers.
The factory makes tank-size excavators in a series of four halls with 80-foot-high steel roofs. Almost everything inside is new, from the 13 steel-cutting robots the size of cottages to the costly Italian and Japanese machining equipment that precisely trim steel components.
Mr. Wang, X.C.M.G.’s chairman, dismissed concerns that the business won’t materialize.
“We should be persistent and manage our business as well,” he said. “When the spring comes, we will arise abruptly.”