China’s economic program Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is generally seen as a unique opportunity to boost cooperation between China and Europe by intensifying trade flows but some consider it a strategic and self-interested tool for China to extend its sphere of influence.
The European Business Summit that took place last week held a roundtable to discuss the Chinese and European perspectives on the future of the BRI initiative. China’s budget for the BRI is a stunning $1,000 billion and the project will connect China and Europe by road and sea through the Balkans and Central Asia. The project brings together almost 90 parties – countries, international organizations and other entities – following the UN principles as well as international law and trade rules.
Zhang Ming, the ambassador and head of the Chinese mission to the EU, added that transparency was very important for China and so was sustainable development. Transparency is, however, a contentious point for the EU, making some member states unwilling to sign a binding agreement that China would like to ink with as many countries as possible. To that end, one of the panelists, Luisa Santos of BusinessEurope, said that the lack of concrete opportunities for European companies was a sticking point.
“Companies need predictability and transparency to apply for the project and ensure its sustainability,” Ms. Santos said, pointing to the fact that not many European enterprises are involved in the initiative since the project cannot be trusted in the long run. The BRI is sometimes compared to the Marshall Plan but China’s project will mainly provide loans, not grants, unlike the post-war US plan for the reconstruction of Europe. Therefore, some are concerned about the involvement of countries that are more fragile economically, specifically about their ability to repay loans.