04/01/2019, 10.28
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Win-win cooperation under China’s BRI may be wishful thinking

by Emanuele Scimia

Xi scored a diplomatic coup by getting Italy to join the BRI during his recent Europe trip. But some EU countries that are already committed to the Chinese megaproject have started to question the Asian giant’s geoeconomic strategy.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Chinese President Xi Jinping returned home from Europe with gifts in hand on March 27.

During his week-long trip to the Old Continent, Xi saw European leaders renew their commitment to multilateralism, despite France, Germany and the EU Commission raising issues about Beijing’s market-distorting practices and the opacity of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The Chinese delegation also secured a raft of commercial deals worth billions of dollars, including a $ 33.7 billion (€30 billion) contract to buy 300 planes from the Franco-German aviation giant Airbus.

More importantly, the Chinese President managed the “diplomatic coup” of getting Italy to sign up to the BRI, his signature geoeconomic plan to improve trade links along the ancient Silk Road between East and West.

China is in the middle of a trade war with the United States, and having a Group of Seven country committed to the Belt and Road scheme is seen as a way to break the US siege.

Veteran Sinologist Willy Lam told AsiaNews that Xi Jinping’s main motive for going to Europe was to show that “China has the means to drive a wedge in the Western alliance.” Even though Beijing has persuaded Italy to take part in the BRI, Lam does not believe the Italians will be putting money in Belt and Road projects. “It is like putting money in a black hole,” he bluntly said.

EU countries that have formally endorsed the BRI say they will get greater access to the vast Chinese market and attract more investment from China.

Michele Geraci, undersecretary of state at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, said at the Boao Forum in China on March 27 that Italy’s participation in the BRI would boost economic growth in the country, which slipped into recession at the end of last year.

But the facts tells a very different story.

EU countries that joined the BRI in 2015 has seen their trade deficit with China widen – with the exception of Hungary and Slovakia, which have had slight improvements. Poland, the largest economy within the 16+1, a grouping of 16 central and eastern European countries plus China, saw its trade imbalance with the Asian giant expand to $ 24.2 billion (€21.6 billion) in 2017 from $ 20.4 billion (€18.2 billion) in 2015, according to World Bank data.

Furthermore, Chinese investment in the 11 EU member states that are part of the 16+1 format amounted to a modest $ 6 billion (€5.3 billion) between 2013, when the BRI was launched, and 2018. Britain, the top European beneficiary of China’s financial largesse, attracted $ 55.3 billion (€49.2 billion) during the same period, the China Global Investment Tracker reports.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella, his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel all told Xi that the BRI should be a “two-way street” and benefit both Europe and China. But the reality is that “win-win” cooperation under the New Silk Roads seems like wishful thinking at the moment. In this respect, some EU countries that have so far supported Belt and Road’s expansion, sometimes even undermining the EU’s unity vis-à-vis China, have started to recalibrate their policies toward Beijing.

Poland’s and the Czech Republic’s alarms on security threats posed by technologies provided by Chinese telecom giant Huawei clearly signal a change in their approach to the Asian powerhouse.

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