The EU should complement, not compete with, China’s Belt and Road Initiative — Analysis

Brussels has made clear its intentions to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but Paris, it seems, has other ideas

China and France reached a $37 billion third-party market cooperation deal this week. China Daily has reported seven infrastructure projects, as well as new energy, in several regions in Africa and Central/Eastern Europe. 

In addition, China and France last year signed an agreement to fund the construction of Belgrade’s metro to the tune of $5 billion and construction began just months ago on it.

What’s remarkable about this cooperation is that it shows a definitive win-win scenario for Beijing and Paris. France is one of the EU’s largest economies and a major political player, especially now that Macron is the current President of the Council of the European Union. In recent days, we have seen the EU posture about competing with China on global development – but is that strategy wise?

In November 2021, The Financial Times reported that the EU planned to mobilise 300 billion Euros by 2027 in its Global Gateway. They cited draft proposals from European Commission with clear indications this was a way to replace the BRI.

“By offering a positive choice for global infrastructure development, Global Gateway will invest in international stability and co-operation and demonstrate how democratic values offer certainty and fairness, sustainability for partners, and long-term benefits for people around the world,”The Financial Times quotes this document as “stating”.

There is one flaw to the BRI’s logic. It is an alternative for a Western developed development status quo. The fact that the BRI is popular in the whole world shows how this status quo is failing. 

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To put this status quo in simple terms, it’s a system of dependence. The programs of humanitarian aid, loans from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank aren’t designed to solve the problems that underdevelopment has caused. They serve instead to deepen the problem by perpetuating wealth inequalities between the Global North (and Global South). 

In contrast, China’s international development cooperation is firmly rooted in South-South cooperation and fostering independence. Critics of the BRI say that it creates a system of dependence, which is why they latch onto patently false “debt-trap” diplomacy stories, like the debunked claim about Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport being seized by China. In reality, the BRI’s success speaks for itself. 

China’s BRI funding is decentralized and allows governments to decide for themselves what gets funded, which means they get to set priorities. No political strings are attached. This approach is essentially the antithesis of Western-dominated status. It shouldn’t surprise then that it has become very popular. The EU launches what amounts to a strictly PR campaign, instead of changing how they approach international developments. 

It is not true that this news concerning the EU increasing global infrastructure investment ignores the fact the EU already owns the European Investment Bank, which is the largest multilateral development bank worldwide. Also, according to the EU’s own data, the EU invested just about the same between 2013 and 2018 as China did for BRI projects. 

So why haven’t these projects been met with the same positive reception as the BRI? It is qualitatively different. Despite the fact that the Global Gateway’s existence in the first place acknowledges the success of the BRI, the EU has no plans to meaningfully change how it approaches international development as it currently stands.

The only difference between the EU’s current and future plans is the fact that it is changing its brand. For example, EU member states individually fund infrastructure projects around the world, which Brussels hopes will turn from national projects to “European” ones, though there’s no guarantee this will pan out.

The same applies to phrases such “sustainable,” “comprehensive”And “rules-based” while also casting China’s BRI as the opposite, the EU hopes to shore up its messaging to promote the Global Gateway. This is a mere rhetorical shift that will not make a difference to those parts of the globe that care more about seeing tangible results than ticking boxes for Western corporations. 

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It’s also important to note that China’s BRI is so effective that several EU countries are signing on. How can Global Gateway have effective messaging when China’s BRI is helping the EU? It doesn’t make sense.

There are win-win opportunities for international development. Cooperation over competition results in a more effective use of resources and time, helping developing countries to achieve faster results. The EU would be wise to complement China’s BRI rather than try to replace it, i.e., replacing what is already a (successful) replacement. 

France and China’s cooperation on this front is a notable example that the EU as a whole can learn from. The development countries will benefit from the completion of much-needed projects, while France and China will have the opportunity to strengthen their economic relations in the developing world. This is the place where the majority economists believe global GDP growth will center in the future. 

On top of the economic growth potential it creates, it helps boost China’s BRI and France’s delicate reputation in places like Africa – which could, if things changed in Brussels, also help bolster the EU’s image too.

Statements, opinions and views expressed in this column do not reflect those of RT.



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