When China started offering economic benefits to poor African countries in exchange for their votes in the United Nations on the issues that mattered most to Beijing, Europe was judgmental. Something like this could never happen in the civilized and principled Europe, Brussels thought then. Now, faced with Greece blocking the EU from speaking out on human rights abuses in China, we have to think again.
Greece, just like many others, has become increasingly dependent on the economic benefits delivered by China. There are many signs of that. Last year, Greece was one of the countries that prevented the EU from declaring that China should stick with a ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague regarding Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea. We ourselves facilitated the growing Greek dependence on China by making Greece follow the very strict austerity rules that have made the Greek economy contract more than 25% since 2008.
In contrast, the German economy grew by 10% during the same time period, thus giving the Greek people the impression that the austerity measures were more in the interest of richer Western members than in the interest of their country. In 2010, Greece was forced to privatize much of its public property to pay off its debts. The fact that the harbor of Piraeus fell in the Chinese hands has much to do with the EU’s policy. China had already owned part of the harbor and its further involvement during the crisis made the Greek feel that it could expect more benefits coming from Beijing than from Brussels. This should be a warning sign to the EU.
Greece is slowly getting into China’s sphere of influence and the EU is letting this happen by sticking to its ideology combined with strict austerity measures with a focus on the privatization of public goods. Obviously, China is also playing an active role in making this happen. Its activities in Greece are part of its Chinese Belt & Road initiative, which – wanted or not – divides Europe at the end of the day. China presents this plan as a grand opportunity for the world to develop together with it by showing that it is a new and benevolent leading force in creating future prosperity in the world.
Within Europe, Beijing mainly focuses on cooperation with eastern and southeastern European countries, some of them members and some non-members of the bloc. Much of the focus of China’s global initiative is on construction but what it offers here in Europe is essentially superfluous to what the EU is offering. In 2014, Brussels published its own plan to better connect the north to the south and the east to the west: the trans-European transport network with funding of about 25 billion EUR.
If China wants to play a role in these plans, it should be invited to join the debate and take part in these plans based on European needs and rules. But if we join the Chinese Belt & Road without discussing and contemplating it first, we will lose out – we will be serving Chinese needs rather than our needs. But more importantly, such Chinese involvement will lead to more politically tainted project and will ultimately divide Europe while China’s influence in Europe grows stronger.
‘China’s Belt & Road Initiative: Nice for China, Not for Europe’ – Opinion by Garrie van Pinxteren – Clingendael / Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
(The Opinion can be downloaded here)