Is the New Silk Road simply a path to prosperity or a Chinese power grab in disguise?
Paris (AFP) - Depending on who you ask in Europe, China’s colossal East-West infrastructure programme is either an opportunity or a threat – and when French President Emmanuel Macron visits next week, Beijing will be watching to see how keen he is to jump on board.
Since China launched the New Silk 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 $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.
Known in China as “One Belt One Road”, the plans would see gleaming 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 an estimate 60 percent of the world’s population and a third of its economic output.
Macron, who heads to China for a three-day state visit on Sunday, will notably be accompanied by some 50 company chiefs keen to do business with the Asian powerhouse.
So far France has been cautious on the Silk Road 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 predicted.
Like traders on the old silk road, modern Chinese companies expect to profit handsomely from the $1-trillion revival of the route
But, as Courmont acknowledges, Europe is divided on what to make of China’s ambitions.
The continent 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.
- Win-win? -
In Central and Eastern Europe the programme has been met with altogether more enthusiasm, given the huge infrastructure investment that China could bring to the poorer end of the continent.
“Some consider the awakening of China and Asia as a threat,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban told a summit in Budapest in November 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 three billion euros of investment in projects including a Belgrade-Budapest railway line.
Beijing plans to develop roads, ports and rail lines through 65 countries representing an estimate 60 percent of the world's population
Bogdan Goralczyk, director of the Centre for Europe at the University of Warsaw, noted 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 premier 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 noted that Greece – a major recipient of Chinese largesse – had in June blocked an EU declaration condemning Chinese rights abuses.
It came just months after Athens’ Piraeus port, one of the biggest in the world, passed under Chinese control.
Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is favourable to Chinese investment, but has reservations.
“If we do not develop a strategy in the face of China, it will succeed in dividing Europe,” Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned in August.
France is meanwhile seeking to “rebalance” relations with China during Macron’s trip, according to his office – eyeing a trade deficit of 30 billion euros, its biggest with any partner.
“Our Chinese partners would prefer a win-win situation. Why not? On the condition that it’s not the same party that wins twice,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday.
“It is not France’s intention to block China,” he said.
“But we should establish a partnership based on reciprocity when it comes to the opening of markets.”