For a long time now, Western Diplomats in the EU and beyond have kept tabs on China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious infrastructure project that harks back to the ancient Silk Road, with a vast collection of development and investment initiatives that stretch from East Asia to Europe and beyond.
Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, it significantly expanded China’s economic and political influence, but in Europe it has created uneasiness through debt traps (Montenegro most recently) and massive investment in critical infrastructure worldwide.
Experts see the BRI as one of the main pillars of bolder Chinese statecraft under Xi, a pushback against the US’ ‘pivot to Asia’ and a recipe for a looming Chinese economic middle-income trap.
EU Foreign Ministers are on Monday set to sign off on a counter-scheme to the BRI, under the bulky title of ‘Connecting Europe Globally’.
Efforts will include a list of “high impact and visible projects”, to be drawn up in the next nine months, in addition to its 2018 EU-Asia connectivity strategy to move towards a “globally connected” EU with Africa and Latin America, and a soft power communication drive with a shiny logo and (hopefully) catchy name.
“The Council notes that other key economies have developed their own approaches and tools for connectivity and underlines the need for all such initiatives and actions to apply high international standards,” and add that the EU’s Chief Diplomat, Joseph Borrell, is “to proceed swiftly with the implementation” of the idea.
EU Ambassadors had agreed on the conclusions without changes in the text.
It is understood that the European Commission is cooperating with the European External Action Service and various Commission services on how to proceed on the basis of the Council’s conclusions and will look for ways to work with member states to mobilise public and private sectors, and provide a legal and economic framework for investment in different parts of the world.
A final version of the communication is expected to be announced during Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address in autumn.
But will this Idea Fly?
EURACTIV understands that there is currently a lack of clarity in the European approach and in how it distinguishes itself from the US and Chinese approaches.
The main political push for the EU to have an overall strategy comes from the member states, notably France and Germany, but some sources say that due to different geographical (and economic) priorities, the final proposal could be diluted.
It could also potentially lead to a clash between Berlin and Paris over which regions to focus on, what initiatives to support and with what amount of money, an EU source told EURACTIV.
At the same time, several EU diplomats have pointed towards a lack of reference in the conclusions to a budgetary line for the initiative and a weak encouragement for EU companies to engage in strategically important but economically risky locations.
“How do the human-centric approach and the sustainability aspect translate to international connectivity remains to be seen. Europe still needs to define which countries to deal with, how, and what these countries will get out of it,” the source added.
“To succeed the EU’s scheme will need a strong narrative, credible resourcing, political commitment, and far less fragmentation than previous, more tentative efforts,” Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said.
This would require countries and investors understanding what it is and how to tap into the financing, which is easier said than done, and political commitment is required to break down the bureaucratic silos and provide clarity and strategic direction, Small said.
“There are plenty of people in the EU system who have thought very seriously about all these questions and know what needs to be done, including on various ingenious ways of mobilising finance, now they need to be backed properly,” he added.
Looking beyond Europe, while Russia has become one of the BRI’s most enthusiastic partners, other third countries, most notably India and Japan, have sought to balance their concerns about China’s ambitions against the BRI’s potential benefits.
At the same time, the EU Chamber of Commerce in China recommended Europe should review its internal regulations, fashion shields to protect itself from BRI-related market distortions and push for reciprocity with China.
Asked whether the new scheme could impact Chinese business opportunities for Europe, the chamber said “the EU needs to play a more active role on the global stage, and repeat its own connectivity miracle across other regions while adjusting its own rules to counter China going global”.
“At the same time, it is imperative that the EU remains fundamentally open to private investment and ensures legitimate, Chinese private investment can continue to follow market forces in the European economy,” it added, which would “go without saying that the EU should continue to expand cooperation with China on areas of shared bilateral interest, such as climate change, biodiversity, energy and international development”.
And what will the Chinese do?
Asked about Beijing’s views of the leaked plans, the Mission of China to the EU said they are not yet in a position to comment and are awaiting the official EU announcement on the matter.