Despite assurances, nations have taken a cautious approach to China's ambitious trade and infrastructure projects
Perhaps the best word to describe Europe's attitude toward the
potential benefits of China's project to revive the ancient Silk Road is
A recent report by 27 of the 28 European Union ambassadors stationed
in Beijing, and leaked to the German business newspaper Handelsblatt,
included a familiar complaint that the Belt and Road Initiative is at
odds with Europe's trade agenda and favors subsidized Chinese companies.
President Xi Jinping addressed such criticism from Western
governments when he told an Asian forum in Hainan in April: "The Belt
and Road Initiative is not a Chinese plot, as some people
internationally have said."
It was a response to those such as French President Emmanuel Macron,
who said during a visit in January that China and Europe should work
together on the Belt and Road but that the project must not be "one-way"
in China's favor.
European reservations, expressed most strongly among the richer
states north of the Mediterranean, reflect the concerns of countries
that want ever-greater access to the Chinese market but who nevertheless
worry about increased Chinese competition.
In response to the allegation that Belt and Road deals will largely
favor Chinese companies, Beijing has sought to reassure its European
partners that projects along the trade routes will be open to investment
One area in which European caution is most apparent is the Maritime
Silk Road concept that seeks to boost a "blue" economy based on the sea
lanes that connect China with the rest of Asia, Africa, the
Mediterranean and finally the major ports of Northern Europe.
The governments of France, the UK and Germany are among those that
have resisted China's encouragement to formally sign up to its maritime
Among Europe's worries is that China may soon catch up with, and
eventually overtake it, in scientific and technological developments
linked to the blue economy.
While acknowledging these reservations, a recent paper by a leading
European think tank has warned that Europe could be missing out by
adopting a negative stance to China's maritime plans.
In a policy brief published in April by the European Council on
Foreign Relations, its authors suggest that Europe should look and learn
from China's blue economy, already worth a tenth of the country's GDP,
as an engine of growth and wealth.
"Europe should emulate China's strong and well-funded policies on
developing shipbuilding, deep-sea exploration, offshore oil and gas
exploration and exploitation, shipping, and on the availability of
Chinese corporations and policy banks in supporting infrastructure
projects worldwide," the paper proposed.
It said that, on balance, the Maritime Silk Road creates more
competition in Europe-China relations, "but it also creates space for
cooperation in the blue economy and for specific maritime security
While reflecting European concerns about greater competition, it said
of the prospects of enhanced cooperation: "These opportunities should
not be missed."
The paper, entitled "Blue China: Navigating the Martime Silk Road to
Europe", also proposed that, aside from emulating China's blue economy,
European governments should encourage innovators in their own countries
to respond to well-funded Chinese industrial and research and
The paper acknowledged that creating the conditions for continuous
growth in EU-China maritime trade was in the interests of Europe and
that Chinese investment in port infrastructure along the route could
reduce the cost of trade for all parties.
It nevertheless reflected the concerns expressed by some European
governments that Chinese companies might be in a position to set prices
and dictate the terms of economic exchanges to trade partners.
The analysis concludes that, when it comes to the Maritime Silk Road,
Europe will increasingly need to consider its approach to China as a
matter of grand strategy, and not as a collection of specific policy
responses around competition and cooperation with Beijing.