2017 is shaping up to be a year of uncertainty for many EU countries, as the UK and the EU aim to start Brexit negotiations, while major elections have been or will be held in the UK as well as in three of the union’s founding member states: France, Germany, and the Netherlands. What is more certain is that, in recent years, there has been a clear proliferation of anti-globalization sentiment, especially in Western countries where economic growth has been slow.
While traditional advocates of international neoliberalism in the West now pull back, China is emerging as a key proponent of globalization. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can be seen as a force to advance globalization and open trade, while other large-scale efforts to expand trade like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership have encountered profound challenges. In light of this global environment, many EU countries are changing their views and becoming more open to the opportunities that the Belt and Road offers as a way to potentially foster economic growth.
Growing European Interest in the BRI
The EU is one of the crucial poles in today’s multipolar world, but has been occupied with various internal crises in the past few years, including the euro zone sovereign debt crisis and the refugee crisis. The EU and its member states have turned more inward. Given these challenges, the EU increasingly needs China’s support and cooperation, especially in terms of creating more trade and investment opportunities. Yet when Chinese President Xi Jinping first proposed the BRI in late 2013, the EU’s reaction was largely lukewarm.
The initiative aims to boost economic development, investment, and cultural exchanges throughout Eurasia by funding port, rail, and road construction along routes linking China and Europe. Only recently, EU countries seem to be showing growing interest in the Belt and Road, owing to the fact that Europe is a final destination of both of the initiative’s two major routes: the Silk Road Economic Belt through Central Asia and the Twenty-First Century Maritime Road through South and Southeast Asia.
A plethora of conferences are being held and many reports are being written to analyze what the BRI means for China and for Europe. Assessing European perceptions of China—as reported in major European media outlets and in conversations with prominent European officials, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs—is a useful way to gauge how European views on Chinese initiatives like the Belt and Road are shifting in important ways.1
After Xi first announced China’s plans for the BRI, Europe’s immediate reaction was lackluster, and the initiative received little attention from European media. In the first two years following the Belt and Road’s launch, media outlets in Brussels as well as in France, Germany, and the UK published few articles on the initiative or its goals. Nor did any European government immediately give a positive response to China’s call for countries to become members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a China-led multilateral financial institution that was officially announced in October 2013 and has become a key source of financial support for the BRI.
It was not until March 2015 that Europeans finally began signaling concrete interest, and since then European engagement has continued to grow. This shift took place following the wave of European countries that joined the AIIB as founding members in March 2015, starting with the UK. Analysts have pointed out several reasons behind Europe’s delayed entry into the AIIB, namely pressure from the United States, concerns about the AIIB becoming a rival of existing development-related international institutions, and concerns that the China-led bank may not uphold high standards for good governance or environmental and social protections. Eventually, fourteen EU countries did decide to become founding members so as to influence the bank’s institutional design, as well as strengthen their respective relationships with China. When the participation of European governments became apparent, media outlets in most of these countries began reporting more not only on the AIIB but also on the BRI.
Analyzing the Belt and Road’s Potential
At the same time, policymakers and analysts have gradually written more about what the Belt and Road means for relations between China and Europe. In March 2015, the Chinese government published an official policy paper on the BRI that outlines China’s plan. The Belt and Road has since been the subject of a growing number of academic, governmental, and think tank discussions and publications as well, particularly in 2016. For instance, the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development has organized discussions among officials from different government departments to assess the implications of the Belt and Road for Germany and for Europe.2 Another example is the briefing report on the Belt and Road that the European Parliament published in July 2016. Think tank publications on the topic have also proliferated since March 2015.
For many European actors, their initially cautious or reserved responses changed once they learned more concrete details about the BRI. A segment of European elites reported that at the time they needed to know more about China’s plans for the Belt and Road and how these plans might impact Europe before determining their responses.3 For some observers, China’s efforts to help establish the AIIB showed the strength of China’s resolve to implement the Belt and Road. Institutional culture likely has played a role in this respect. EU countries and institutions tend to be accustomed to operating according to clear-cut rules and procedures.
For Europe, the BRI’s infrastructure network, ultimately designed to link it to China, means opportunities for more trade, investment, and cooperation from outside the region. While many Europeans acknowledge this potential, they are skeptical about when and how Belt and Road projects will materialize and bring concrete benefits. For instance, some European policy experts have expressed the view that China is attempting to repackage old projects under the new BRI framework, instead of creating brand new ones. Railways already built or planned before the Belt and Road was proposed—including a route between Chongqing and Duisburg—have been identified as examples of such rebranding. As EU member states wait to see how new projects are actually structured, China will need to demonstrate how these efforts can benefit potential European partners.
The Belt and Road’s European Stakeholders
It is also worthwhile to examine which European actors have been most receptive to the BRI. For the most part, city and provincial governments as well as large companies have been the most active in engaging China about the Belt and Road. These actors are mainly driven by the belief that the initiative will bring new economic opportunities by attracting more trade and investment from China, as well as opening up new markets in places such as Central Asia and Africa. Local governments—namely those of Duisburg and Hamburg in Germany, Madrid in Spain, and Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands—are striving to serve as China’s gateway to Europe and as a regional hub of the Belt and Road. Similarly, large companies that engage in export trading, construction, and logistics are energetically seizing opportunities to get involved in BRI projects.
By contrast, the Belt and Road is viewed as less relevant for small and medium enterprises, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.4 They perceive its projects as being large in scale and mainly falling into areas like infrastructure construction, transportation, and public procurement that are only feasible for large enterprises, particularly multinational corporations, to participate in.
Geography also makes a difference. EU members in Southern Europe, such as Greece and Portugal, have been the most open to Chinese investment through initiatives like the Belt and Road. Meanwhile, countries in Western Europe have been especially cautious. For instance, one European scholar has stated that Germany is worried about the initiative’s potentially negative impacts on the EU’s investment rules and political solidarity between member states. A report from the European Parliament has made similar claims. A European Commission investigation into the Belgrade-Budapest high-speed rail, the first flagship Belt and Road project in Europe, serves as one example. One reason behind these European concerns is the fear of competition from Chinese industries, namely construction and high-speed rail firms, and the potential impact on job markets in developed European economies.
It is also worth noting that European interest in the BRI has largely been confined to EU elites. According to a study by the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC), the Belt and Road remains an unfamiliar, or even unknown, topic among the general publics in most EU countries. The ENTC study observed that most EU countries have devoted limited media attention to the BRI, which tends to be deemed too distant from the lives of ordinary citizens. Thus far, the major targets of China’s diplomatic efforts to promote the Belt and Road have been European government, business, and intellectual leaders.
Some elites have started responding positively to the BRI, and China can keep this momentum and further promote this initiative to ordinary European citizens. At the same time, Beijing ought to bear in mind the rising anti-globalization sentiments and neo-nationalist movements that have been gaining traction in Europe. Not only in word, but also in concrete ways, China has to do all it can to make sure that the Belt and Road’s benefits reach the citizens of Europe. That means ensuring that the initiative does not enlarge the gap between Europe’s rich and poor, but instead offers something to people at all levels of society.
As the endpoint of the China-proposed BRI, Europe’s cooperation is important to its success. Amid growing nationalist-fueled misgivings about globalization in many parts of the world, success in fostering transregional linkages between China and the EU through initiatives like the Belt and Road is a promising sign of globalization continuing onward. In May 2017, Beijing is hosting the Belt and Road Forum, and many leaders from Europe and around the world are expected to attend. This may indicate a degree of European support for the further development of the Belt and Road and the potential that it represents.
Lai Suetyi is a former visiting fellow at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center focusing on China-EU relations.
1This article draws on the findings of China in the Eyes of the EU, a research project conducted by Shi Zhiqin and Lai Suetyi of Tsinghua University’s Department of International Relations from 2014 to 2016. The research explored the EU’s views and attitudes toward China as reflected in official discourses, news media, public opinion polls, and personal interviews with public intellectuals, business leaders, and government officials. The research project focused on the EU headquarters in Brussels, as well as the countries of France, Germany, and the UK.
2Jan Gaspers and Bertram Lang, “Germany and the ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative: Tackling Geopolitical Implications Through Multilateral Frameworks,” in Europe and China’s New Silk Roads, ed. Frans-Paul van der Putten, John Seaman, Mikko Huotari, Alice Ekman, and Miguel Otero-Iglesias, 2016, 27.
3This insight is based on a series of personal interviews conducted between July 2015 and May 2017. These include the following: personal interview, an official from the Directorate General for Trade of the European Commission, Brussels, July 2015; personal interview, an official from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Berlin, August 2015; personal interview, the owner of a large British enterprise, London, August 2015; personal interview, two journalists from Le Figaro, Paris, May 2017.
4These findings draw on an expert roundtable conducted in Beijing at Tsinghua University. Tsinghua University Research Center for China-EU Relations, “Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe under the Belt and Road Initiative,” March 23, 2017.