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Europe needs to understand China better

By Jeremy Garlick ( Updated: 2016-06-17 10:26

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – also called ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) – appears to be confusing to many non-Chinese observers. Despite specific Chinese infrastructure projects aimed at improving transport links along the route from East Asia to Europe and East Africa, such as the building of ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Djibouti, Tanzania and Greece, BRI/OBOR has been called ‘vague’ and ‘nebulous’ by some.

Similarly, the ‘16+1’ meetings that began in 2012 to improve relations between China and a group of 16 nations in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) are perceived by certain European critics as an effort by China to drive a wedge between the western and eastern halves of Europe. These naysayers believe that the platform is a thinly-veiled geopolitical attempt to form a pro-Chinese bloc that will undermine the unity of the EU.

This week, since Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Poland and Serbia in an effort to promote ties relating to BRI/OBOR and 16+1, there is an opportunity for China to clarify its intentions with regard to these two linked initiatives.

In March this year, on a visit to Prague in support of Xi’s visit to the Czech Republic, scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) insisted that the aims of the two initiatives are geo-economic rather than geopolitical. This, it was explained, means that through this pair of platforms China wants to develop win-win economic growth across the Eurasian landmass as well as East Africa, rather than attempting to increase its political influence and power in the countries concerned.

Unfortunately, coverage by a number of mainstream Czech media outlets concerning Xi’s visit frequently tended to convey a negative impression, meaning, despite the apparent success of the trip in boosting diplomatic and business ties, that the overall view formed by the Czech public was not as positive as might have been anticipated. With regard to the two CEE countries being visited next week, it would therefore be advisable if the Chinese delegation could take greater care to communicate the aims of the trip clearly to the local media and public, so that relations may be enhanced to the maximum extent possible.

Poland and Serbia are both key players in 16+1, being among the largest of the 16 CEE countries involved in the meetings. Xi’s visits to these two countries are therefore likely to be interpreted by Europeans as strategically important in some sense.

Poland, in fact, is the largest CEE nation, with a population of over 38 million. It has ports and a position between Germany and Russia that make the country influential in European trade. Warsaw, Poland’s capital, was the site of the first 16+1 meeting, meaning that it is certainly viewed as a key European player by Beijing.

Serbia is also a significant actor in the region, since it contains Belgrade, once the capital of the former Yugoslavia, and is arguably the most influential of the five 16+1 nations that are not members of the EU. China has already developed very positive cooperation with Serbia in recent years, with a high-speed railway between Belgrade and Budapest currently under construction by Chinese firms. A Chinese-built bridge over the Danube River in Belgrade was completed in late 2014.

Thus President Xi’s visit to these two countries can be seen as an effort to consolidate relations with key partners. On the other hand, the trip may be seen by some Europeans as an attempt at geopolitical ‘divide and conquer’ tactics designed to undermine the institutions and influence of the EU.

This is why, at this important time of global economic shakiness, when stability of relations of all types between China and Europe is desperately needed, China needs to be crystal clear about the scope and limits of its intentions. Sowing the seeds of further suspicions of China’s aims in Brussels is not a desirable outcome. The Chinese delegation must therefore make sure, through careful and clear communication, that the doubts about China’s European ventures that already exist in not a few European minds are mitigated rather than increased.

Jeremy Garlick is a lecturer in international relations at the Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies, University of Economics in Prague.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and don't represent views of China Daily website.


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