Europe has been cautious in its approach towards Beijing’s ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, largely due to the fact that Chinese projects typically end up benefiting the Chinese while the nations who get sucked into Chinese investments usually become indebted to Beijing. There is also a serious concern among EU nations that by allowing China to extend their influence, the Western values of a democratic, open society will be disturbed.
Concerns about Chinese influence through OBOR
A yet-to-be-published paper by the Federation of German Industries (BDI) asks the country’s businesses to reduce their dependence on China while also raising some serious concerns about the OBOR project.
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“It [BDI] describes the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi’s ambitious plan to connect China to Europe, Africa, and beyond via transport links and trade deals, as an attempt by Beijing to build geopolitical influence and shape third markets according to its own interests. To counter this influence, the BDI calls for a ‘diplomatic offensive’ from Berlin and Brussels toward countries in eastern Europe, central Asia, southeast Asia, and Africa,” according to the paper. (Reuters)
Several top European officials also believe that China is playing a “divide and conquer” game in the region, opening up its purse to Eastern European nations. Traditionally, Western Europe has been financially well off while Eastern counterparts have comparatively struggled with slower economic growth and unemployment. The Chinese are reportedly planning to pump money into Eastern European nations, trying to undermine the political unity of Europe. According to estimates, Eastern and Central European countries received about US$8 billion in investments from China in 2016.
Politicians in Germany are pushing forward the idea of “One Europe,” which seeks to develop a single strategy for the region toward China. They fear that if China is allowed to run loose in Europe, Beijing could very well split up the region by promising a few nations large investments in exchange for their political support. China’s tactics have been so effective that a large section of European countries that attended the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017 came from Central and Eastern Europe.
A new Euro-Asian connectivity
To counter China’s menacing influence, European leaders have put forward the idea of a new Euro-Asian connectivity. The plan involves developing comprehensive connectivity between the two regions, covering all modes of transportation — land, water, and air. Establishing energy and digital links is also a part of the agenda. A detailed strategy is expected to be finalized later this year.
“Connectivity is the way to the future. The more connected we are, the more opportunities we have — to find common political solutions and to bring economic prosperity to citizens. Our approach is the EU’s way: to establish stronger networks and strengthen partnerships for sustainable connectivity, across all sectors and based on a respect for common rules. This is the European way to tackle challenges and take opportunities, to the benefit of people in Europe and in Asia as well,” said Federica Mogherini, Vice President of the European Commission, in a statement. (The Asean Post)
Funding for the project is expected to be raised through the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), European Investment Bank (EIB), and member states. EU leaders are betting that the availability of funds from open and tolerant democracies would allow European and Asian nations to avoid becoming excessively dependent on the Communist Chinese.