Opportunity or threat? China watches to see which way Macron goes on New Silk Road

France has so far been cautious about Beijing’s plans to revive trade along ancient land and sea routes but that could change as the French president seeks to rebalance a multibillion-euro trade deficit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 January, 2018, 4:40pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 January, 2018, 10:13pm

Depending on who you ask in Europe, China’s colossal East-West infrastructure programme is either an opportunity or a threat – and when French President Emmanuel Macron visits this week, Beijing will be watching to see how keen he is to jump on board.

Since China launched the New Silk Road plan in 2013, the hugely ambitious initiative to connect Asia and Europe by road, rail and sea has elicited both enormous interest and considerable anxiety.

“It’s the most important issue in international relations for the years to come, and will be the most important point during Emmanuel Macron’s visit,” said Barthelemy Courmont, a China expert at French think tank Iris.

The US$1 trillion project is billed as a modern revival of the ancient Silk Road that once carried fabric, spices, and a wealth of other goods in both directions.

Known in China as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, the plans would see gleaming new road and rail networks built through Central Asia and beyond, and new maritime routes stretching through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

Beijing would develop roads, ports and rail lines through 65 countries representing an estimated 60 per cent of the world’s population and a third of its economic output.

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Macron, who heads to China for a three-day state visit, will notably be accompanied by some 50 company chiefs keen to do business with the Asian powerhouse.

So far France has been cautious on the Silk Road plan, but Courmont said Chinese leaders were “waiting for a clear position” from Macron at a time when they viewed the young leader as an “engine” for growth in Europe.

“If Macron takes a decision on how to tackle the Chinese initiative, all of Europe will follow,” Courmont said.

But Europe is divided on what to make of China’s ambitions.

The continent could potentially benefit handsomely from increased trade over the coming decades, but in some corners there is suspicion that it masks an attempted Beijing influence grab.

“They are notably asking themselves about the geopolitical consequences of this project in the long-term,” Alice Ekman, who covers China at the French Institute of International Relations, said of France and Germany.

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In Central and Eastern Europe the programme has been met with more enthusiasm, given the huge infrastructure investment that China could bring to the poorer end of the continent.

At a November summit in Budapest that brought together China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said: “Some consider the awakening of China and Asia as a threat,”

“For us, it’s a huge opportunity,” he said, with Beijing using the summit to announce 3 billion (US$3.6 billion) of investment in projects including a Belgrade-Budapest railway line.

Bogdan Goralczyk, director of the Centre for Europe at the University of Warsaw, said there were divisions even within eastern Europe, with Poland hesitant due to its right-wing government’s “strong anti-communist stance”.

Others to the west have made little effort to hide their concern.

Former Danish premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen fretted in a column for Germany’s Zeit newspaper that “Europe will wake up only when it’s too late, and when swathes of Central and Eastern Europe’s infrastructure are dependent on China”.

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The former Nato chief said Greece – a major recipient of Chinese largesse – had in June blocked a European Union declaration condemning Chinese rights abuses.

It came just months after Athens’ Piraeus port, one of the biggest in the world, passed under Chinese control.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is favourable to Chinese investment, but has reservations.

“If we do not develop a strategy in the face of China, it will succeed in dividing Europe,” Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned in August.

France is meanwhile seeking to “rebalance” relations with China during Macron’s trip, according to his office – eyeing a trade deficit of 30 billion, its biggest with any partner.

“Our Chinese partners would prefer a win-win situation. Why not? On the condition that it’s not the same party that wins twice,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday.

“It is not France’s intention to block China.

“But we should establish a partnership based on reciprocity when it comes to the opening of markets.”