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Europe signals alarm at assertive China's Belt and Road initiative

Financial Review -

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. Marlene Awaad

by Laura Tingle

European leaders have singled out a new assertiveness by China, particularly its Belt and Road Initiative, as a spur to develop a joint foreign policy that could see Europe contest China's infrastructure drive into central Asia.

Despite a range of major foreign policy headaches closer to home including Russian aggression, a flailing defence relationship with the United States and Brexit, European leaders attending a major security summit in Munich on the weekend made time to speak of the challenges posed by China's Belt and Road initiative – a massive infrastructure play that is pushing Chinese development of road and sea lanes towards Europe across Central Asia.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and French Prime minister Édouard Philippe all spoke at the Munich Security Conference of the challenges to Western liberalism and the prevailing world order laid down by the rise of China and other authoritarian regimes.

The most comprehensive observations on China were made by Mr Gabriel, and endorsed by President Juncker and Prime Minister Philippe.

Mr Gabriel said on Saturday that China and Russia were trying "to test and undermine" the liberal Western world order,

He noted an increasing global claim to power by China, as well as Russia asserting itself militarily, as phenomena leading to "massive shifts in our world order with unpredictable consequences".

Staking their claims 

With the United States "no longer by far the strongest power in the world", others were starting to stake their claims, Mr Gabriel said.

 "I'm sure neither the US nor Europe will be happy in this new architecture," he said

"Powers will start shifting with the rise of China. The new Silk Road initiative is not what some people in Germany think it is – only a sentimental reminiscence of Marco Polo – but it is an attempt to establish a comprehensive system to put a Chinese mark on the world.

"It is not just about business and industry. China is developing a comprehensive system that is not like ours, not based on freedom, democracy and human rights."

Mr Gabriel said China appeared to be "the only country in the world  that seems to have a real global strategic idea and they are pursuing this idea consistently".

It was perfectly understandable that China would be doing this, Mr Gabriel said – "they are very right to do so." But he said the West was at fault for not having a new strategy to meet this new challenge and create "a new balance in our world order".

World of carnivores

"Powers like Russia and China are constantly trying to test and to undermine the EU's unity," he said. "Individual states or groups are tested with sticks or carrots … whether they want to stay in the union or be singled out."

The EU's joint strategy could not rest simply on military power, he said, "but it cannot forgo the military completely because as the only vegetarian we will have a difficult position in the world of carnivores".

As a non-military arm of policy, he suggested, the EU could, for example, "start our own initiative to promote the construction of infrastructure from Eastern Europe to Central Asia with European money but also observing European standards".

He also noted China's massive investment in Africa and said Europe needed to "stop thinking of Africa only in terms of problems and think of it as a continent of opportunities".

"In the much more complex world today we have developed democracies on the one hand and autocracies on the other," Mr Gabriel said.

"I am convinced that liberal democracy will always prevail because mankind wants to be free, and only in freedom we can develop the forces of progress."

Prime Minister Philippe said Europe "cannot leave the rules of the new silk road to China". The choices were either co-operation in developing infrastructure across central Asia, or accepting Chinese hegemony, he said

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