Europe unveils its answer to China’s Belt and Road plan
Brussels concerned that Beijing is dividing bloc with ‘16+1’ regional initiative Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief Michael Peel in Salzburg YESTERDAY 27
The EU has launched proposals for its answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure across Europe and Asia. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said the plans would represent a “European way” of connecting the two continents, an implied contrast with some Beijing-backed projects that have loaded countries with debt or offered poor value for money. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative refers to a swath of Chinese infrastructure projects in dozens of countries, and is a signature foreign policy for Xi Jinping, China’s president, linking the country more closely to neighbours while promoting development. Ms Mogherini insisted that the plan was not a reaction to Belt and Road or any other international initiative, “be it in Beijing, Washington, Moscow or Timbuktu”.
The new EU proposals come weeks before a flagship EU-Asia summit in Brussels that will be an important test of relations between the two regions, which both face tension with Donald Trump’s US. The document also appears at a time when Brussels and some European capitals fear that China is dividing the EU through its “16+1” regional grouping, which includes 11 bloc states and five aspiring members in the western Balkans.
The EU hopes to use its connectivity plan to work with China, and other countries, in projects such as those needed to fill a $26tn infrastructure gap in the region identified by the Asian Development Bank last year. The proposals also call for greater involvement of EU states’ public and private finance institutions, including sovereign funds. Recommended James Kynge China’s Belt and Road difficulties are proliferating across the world Ms Mogherini said the proposals “set out how this EU approach to sustainable connectivity can be expanded” in and towards Asia, “in a way that will be beneficial both for us, in Europe, in Asia, and also for the entire planet”.
Critics said the EU plan was too cautious and unrealistic. One EU diplomat said the European document was “no match” for China’s efforts, adding that it “smacks of Marco Polo”, the 13th century Italian explorer who told fabulous and sometimes questionable tales of the Middle Kingdom. “This is not comparable to Belt and Road: it’s more of a status report and it completely lacks an attractive narrative,” the diplomat said. “Belt and Road is about China’s influence. It is gaining strength and importance to the detriment of European Union member states.”
One diplomat supportive of the plan stressed that it was not meant to set Brussels and Beijing in opposition but with a view to possibly co-operating with China and influencing its approach in areas such as environmental standards and tendering practices. Supporters of the EU proposals argue that China has an incentive to co-operate after facing a backlash over the indebtedness that some countries have suffered after signing up to Belt and Road projects.