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18 Feb, 2022 08:02

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

Brussels has made clear its intentions to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but Paris, it seems, has other ideas
The EU should complement, not compete with, China’s Belt and Road Initiative

This week, China and France signed a third-party market cooperation agreement to the tune of $1.7 billion. As China Daily reports, there are seven projects in the infrastructure, environmental protection, new energy and other sectors in regions including Africa and Central and 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?

The Financial Times reported in November 2021 that the EU plans to mobilize up to 300 billion euros by 2027 as part of its Global Gateway, citing draft proposals from the European Commission, with clear indications that this is aimed at being an alternative to 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 the document as saying.

One glaring flaw in the logic of providing an alternative to the BRI is that the BRI is itself an alternative to an already-established development status quo set by Western countries. That the BRI is so popular across the world is an indication that this status quo has failed. 

To put this status quo in simple terms, it’s a system of dependence. Humanitarian aid programs, as well as loans through institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, are not designed to address the antecedent problems of underdevelopment but, rather, deepen them by perpetuating the wealth disparity 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. There are no political strings attached. It should come as no surprise that this approach, basically the opposite of the Western-dominated status quo, also happens to be popular. Instead of simply changing the way they approach international development, the EU is essentially launching what amounts to strictly a PR campaign. 

In fact, this latest news about the EU stepping up global infrastructure investment belies the fact that the EU already has the largest multilateral development bank in the world, the European Investment Bank (EIB). 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? Because they are 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.

Instead, the only real difference between what the EU is doing now and what it plans to do is basically changing its branding. 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.

Likewise, through phrases like “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. But, again, this is just a rhetorical change that means little to parts of the world that are more interested in seeing results than in ticking Western corporate boxes. 

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.

International development does not have to be a zero-sum game, win-win situations are possible. Plus, cooperation over competition means more efficient use of time and resources, which would only help developing countries achieve results quicker. 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. Developing countries will see much-needed projects moved along while France and China can deepen their economic ties in the developing world, which is where most economists agree global GDP growth will be centered 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.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.