Is Europe threatening the success of BRI project?

The European Union has once again reiterated its position that it will not be joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Likewise, on the other side of the world Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are so indebted to China that they are considering the suspension of further projects, including on the One Belt One Road Project (OBOR).   

All this while China and the US hold the world hostage in their trade wars, which will only increase pressure on China’s one-trillion-dollar OBOR project.

The confusion started when Peter Altmaier, German Economic Minister, stated in a side meeting at a Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation that the European Economic Area wanted to sign a memorandum of understanding with China as a bloc and not as individual states. However, this was against what the European Union had committed to more than five years ago.

“The ‘Belt and Road’ cooperation is entering into a new stage,” Zhang Ming, the Chinese Ambassador to the EU said at the European Business Summit in Brussels on May 6th in an attempt to persuade Europe to join the group. “We would welcome more EU countries getting involved in the belt and road cooperation, no matter if individually or as a block,” he continued, “The question is not yes or no, but how – it is time to get things done.”

The BRI was launched in 2013, and since then China has invested $90 billion in projects – Bank debts provided to date, include upwards of $300 billion in loans. The total expected cost of the project will be in excess of one trillion dollars in infrastructure, linking China to the rest of Asia, Africa, and Europe via land and maritime networks. The sole objective is to ensure China has its footprint across the globe.

The United States has raised suspicions regarding China’s attempts to divide the EU. Despite the EU bloc not joining as a whole, members’ states Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece and Portugal have all agreed to be part of the new Silk Road. In March, Italy became the first G7 country to join the BRI project and will engage with China in the development of roads, railways, bridges, civil aviation, ports, energy, and telecommunications.

Controversy surrounding the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on April 25-27, 2019, began before the Summit opened. Many countries expressed concern over the indebtedness of countries to China, and China’s lack of transparency and openness. As a result there were several cancellations from heads of state and additionally postponements of a range of projects by participating countries. In response to these pressures, while at the Forum, President Xi of China, informed his guests that he would improve the transparency and debt analysis of countries receiving financial support.

Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch said that “Beijing claims it is committed to working with other countries to foster environmentally-friendly and sound development, but the practice so far has raised some serious concerns” adding that “Criticisms of some Belt and Road projects – such as lack of transparency, disregard of community concerns, and threats of environmental degradation – suggest a superficial commitment.”

President Xi, did agree to open up the Chinese economy and abolish subsidies, as the EU and the US have demanded. However, words, like products, seem to be mass produced in China. Thus far there has been little evidence of any lowering of tariffs, increased imports, respect for IPR (intellectual property rights) nor a removal of barriers for foreign companies to access the Chinese market. So Europe may be correct in withholding its participation – whilst at the same time, insisting on greater transparency and accountability from China.

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