China and the EU signed a framework agreement to coordinate infrastructure building of the OBOR initiative and the EU. Therefore it seemed that all contradictions and problems were solved. However,European politicians air the China threat theory during election campaigns, expecially they are critizising the 16+1 meeting between 16 South and East European states and China, claiming that China would split the EU and set up its own backyard in Europe.
Chinese investments in Eastern Europe have met with strong criticism from the European Union. Germany in particular views the rapidly expanding Asian economic power as a rival rather than a partner.
The sixth summit of the so-called 16 plus 1 Cooperation took place in Budapest. It was attended by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and included some 1,000 businesspeople. China’s Cooperation with Eastern and Central European states (CEEC) is part of its New Silk Road strategy, also known as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), which includes major investments in transportation and economic projects along trade routes between China and Europe.
The most important project agreed at this week’s summit was the building of a new railway link from Budapest to the Serbian capital Belgrade. Eighty-five percent of the $2.1 billion project will be financed by China’s Exim Bank. It will link the Greek port of Piraeus, which is under majority control of the Chinese supplier Cosco, to the European rail network. Additional rail and road projects in the Balkans will also be financed by China.
Investment and trade between China and Eastern Europe has grown rapidly within the framework of the 16 plus 1 Cooperation. Total trade grew by 86 percent from 2009 to 2014, to $100 billion. The percentage of Chinese imports to the region rose from less than 2 percent to more than 6 percent. Hungary and the Czech Republic now import more goods from the Far East than they do from France, Italy or the Netherlands.
The Chinese leadership constantly stresses that its engagement in Eastern Europe is not aimed at challenging the EU’s interests. At last year’s meeting of the 16 plus 1 Cooperation in the Latvian capital Riga, Li Keqiang stated that the Cooperation is aimed at strengthening peace and stability and developing cooperation between China and the EU. China has an interest in a united, prosperous and stable Europe, he added.
However, Brussels and Berlin see things differently. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned this summer of a division of Europe by China. He described the silk road initiative as a major geopolitical, cultural, economic and ultimately military strategy with which the EU cannot at present compete.
Bernd Lange, chairman of the Trade Committee in the European Parliament, expressed a similar view. “China’s investments in Eastern Europe contain the danger of a deepening division of the EU,” the German Social Democratic Party politician warned. The fear is that China, with the many billions at its disposal, is “buying influence over European politics.”
In a comment titled “China tames Eastern Europe,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung noted, “The issue at stake in the conflict with China is nothing less than Europe’s self-assertion.” The newspaper accused the Chinese government of exploiting the “weak spots and dividing lines in Europe” to secure a route into the EU “that does not lead through Brussels.” As in Asia, Africa and Latin America, China also intends in Europe to “satisfy its claim for global power by expanding economically.”
Following the restoration of capitalism, Eastern Europe served for some time as the backyard of Germany and other Western European powers.Therefore Germany and other Western European statesmen issue regular warnings of a China threat during election campaigns. Latest example was the leader oft he German Social Democrats Martin Schulz, former president oft he EU parliament who critizised that Orban´s Hungary as secret leader oft he 16 South and East European states woudl build very close relations to China and split the EU.
The background of these fears can be seen in a working paper by the Brookings Institution and the German Robert Bosch Foundation „Postamerican Europe and the US Strategy“: „„Over the past 10 years, starting in the Obama administration and accelerating in theTrump administration, the United States has retrenched diplomatically and politically from Europe. The commitment to NATO stands out as the exception rather than the rule in U.S.-European relations. While the continent faces a wide array of problems—including the eurocrisis, Russia, refugees, the erosion of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, Brexit, regional separatism, difficult relations with Turkey, and terrorism—Washington is strikingly absent from efforts to resolve them.“
The Brexit, the British participiation in the AIIB, Britain´s Asian Pivot strategy, Catalan seperatism, Obama´s and Trump´s „Asian Pivot“stratgey which means a „left behind“strategy for Europe and the 16+1 group create fears that Europe and the EU could disintegrate and spilt into several nation states and blocs. On the other side one should see why the 16+1 group is so successful. The EU and especially the Western European countries didn´t invest very much in infrastructure building in these region, especially the Balkans.The Balkan states have at the moment no perspective of becoming members oft he EU and they also want to counterbalance the enourmous economic and political power oft he EU and Germany to get some leverage in negotations.
The EU is also in bad shape. French president Macron and EU-Commision president Juncker issued EU reform initiatives to get a more integrated EU. They propose an EU finance minister, an European Monetary Fund like the International Monetary Fund and an EU budget for investment in education, infrastructure building, digitalization, youth employment and related areas. However the existing EU cohesion funds don´t generate the resources for extensive infrastructure building in the 16+1 region, therefore these countries use Chinese OBOR initiative as an opportunity and chance to solve their economic problems.
As the EU reform will take some time to be implemented, West European politicians will air warnings about a China threat despite the fact that it´s the EU´s own fault that they don´t invest in the South and East European countries and blame China for doing so. China should point out to the EU that it is its own fault if they ignore the needs of infrastructure building in these regions, that the planed EU budget should include some form of a similar EU OBOR initiative and should start some confidence-builduing measures to make clear that the OBOR initiative is not aimed to split Europe, but that it wants to be a contribution to European development and stability.
German and European politicians should start two visionary,new and innovative projects: A New East Policy (“Neue Ostpolitik”) towards Russia and an European OBOR/European silk road initiative. But I don´t see any politician who could formulate such a policy or such concrete visionary projects in Germany and the EU. The EU is not even popularizing its already existing 500 billion-EU-Fund, but demands more money and now even an new EU budget without telling the European citizens in which projects they want to spend and to invest this huge amount of money. A new European OBOR/European Silkroad with its own European catch phrase could attract the people of Europe more than abstract, boring and vague discussions about institutional EU reforms and the demand for more money for the EU as Europe had a clear visionary and missionary project which could revitalize the trust and faith of most Europeans in the EU and generate a new European spirit.