Xi Jinping sang the praises of the New Silk Roads during his recent Greece trip. Faced with a stagnant economy, many European countries are desperate for Chinese investment, but risk becoming tributary vassals of Beijing. The West should create a serious alternative to China’s mega-infrastructure project.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot but be proud of genuine European interest in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), his flagship infrastructure program aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road, improving connectivity and transport links across Eurasia and beyond.
While on a state visit to Greece on November 11, Xi said that China’s investment in the port of Piraeus was the biggest Belt and Road project. The Chinese president consider the Greek facility, which is majority-owned by China’s Cosco Shipping, “the head of the dragon” in the New Silk Roads strategy.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was in sync with his illustrious guest. He emphasized that cooperation with China was essential to turn Greece into the most vital logistics hub connecting the Far East with Europe.
A number of European ports are busy working to become Belt and Road hubs. The fact that such a China-centric network of trade relations may threaten the Western-shaped international has not deterred many in Europe from doing business with Beijing.
And that was even more evident after the European Investment Bank on November 11 granted a loan of €140 million to help Cosco expand and upgrade Piraeus port.
The Chinese control or have stakes in a dozen European ports, including in Greece, Italy, Malta, Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. 90% of China’s foreign trade travels by sea, and all these countries want their chunk of the Belt and Road pie.
For instance, on November 5, Italy’s Trieste Port Authority signed a memorandum of understanding with China Communications Construction Company to create logistics and distribution platforms in the areas of Shanghai, Ningbo e Shenzhen. These facilities will be linked to Trieste, but are expected to also service other Italian ports.
The problem is that the BRI may make China’s trading and investment partners dependent on Chinese power and wealth. By controlling foreign ports, Beijing will ultimately control international transport routes – and so the world’s commerce.
It is the modern and globalized revival of the ancient Chinese tributary system. Thus the New Silk Roads become subtle instruments of hegemony, with China wielding investment and development loans to subdue Belt and Road clients.
Unlike their allies in Europe, US leaders are persuaded that the Chinese mega-infrastructure project is actually an asymmetric response to the vast American network of military alliances and partnerships.
At a recent hearing before US Congress, Carolyn Bartholomew, chair of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said that China could use its financial interests in Asian, European and African ports to control a significant fraction of its inbound supply chain for key commodities, as well as outbound trade routes for its export. She noted that in case of conflict, Beijing could exploit its control over these ports to hinder trade access to other nations.
What Bartholomew did not say is that Chinese investors are modernizing European ports and creating jobs in a depressed economic environment. As a result, US friends in Europe are unwilling to block Chinese investment in their port facilities.
Trump has several times threatened NATO allies in Europe with punitive measures if they acquire 5G broadband technology from Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
But many European countries are betting big on Chinese cooperation exactly because they are trying to transform their facilities into “smart ports.”
The possible integration of the EU plan for connecting Europe and Asia with the “Blue Dot Network,” an infrastructure scheme promoted by America, Japan and Australia as an alternative to China’s, could help dissuade them from riding the Chinese dragon.