Mon, Jan 08, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Europe wary of ‘One Belt, One Road’

‘AWAKENING’:Central and Eastern European countries have welcomed the program, but Poland and Denmark have concerns about communism and Chinese influence

AFP, PARIS

Depending on who you ask in Europe, China’s colossal East-West infrastructure program is either an opportunity or a threat — and when French President Emmanuel Macron visits China this week, Beijing will be watching to see how keen he is to jump on board.

Since China launched the “One Belt, One Road” plan in 2013, the hugely ambitious initiative to connect Asia and Europe by road, rail and sea has elicited both enormous interest and considerable anxiety.

“It’s the most important issue in international relations for the years to come and will be the most important point during Emmanuel Macron’s visit,” said Barthelemy Courmont, a China expert at French think-tank Iris.

The US$1 trillion project is billed as a modern revival of the ancient Silk Road that once carried fabric, spices and a wealth of other goods in both directions.

The plan would see new road and rail networks built through Central Asia and beyond, and new maritime routes stretching through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

Beijing would develop roads, ports and rail lines through 65 countries representing about 60 percent of the world’s population and one-thirds of its economic output.

Macron, who yesterday headed to China for a three-day state visit, will notably be accompanied by about 50 company chiefs keen to do business with the Asian powerhouse.

So far, France has been cautious of Beijing’s plan, but Courmont said Chinese leaders were “waiting for a clear position” from Macron at a time when they view the young leader as an “engine” for growth in Europe.

“If Macron takes a decision on how to tackle the Chinese initiative, all of Europe will follow,” Courmont said.

However, Europe is divided on what to make of China’s ambitions, he added.

Europe could potentially benefit handsomely from increased trade over the coming decades, but in some corners there is suspicion that it masks an attempted Beijing influence grab.

“They are notably asking themselves about the geopolitical consequences of this project in the long term,” Alice Ekman, who covers China at the French Institute of International Relations, said of France and Germany.

In Central and Eastern Europe the program has been met with altogether more enthusiasm, given the huge infrastructure investment that China could bring to the poorer end of Europe.

“Some consider the awakening of China and Asia as a threat,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in November told a summit in Budapest, which gathered China with 16 Central and Eastern European countries.

“For us, it’s a huge opportunity,” he said, with Beijing using the summit to announce 3 billion euros (US$3.61 billion) of investment, including a Budapest-Belgrade railway line.

Bogdan Goralczyk, director of the Center for Europe at the University of Warsaw, said there were divisions even within eastern Europe, with Poland hesitant due to its right-wing government’s “strong anti-communist stance.”

Others to the west have made little effort to hide their concern.

Former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen fretted in a column for Germany’s Zeit newspaper that “Europe will wake up only when it’s too late, and when swathes of central and eastern Europe’s infrastructure are dependent on China.”

The former NATO chief said that Greece — a major recipient of Chinese largesse — had in June last year blocked an EU declaration condemning Chinese rights abuses.

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