Berlin and Brussels are obstructing China’s “New Silk Road” mega project. Last Sunday, the EU refused to sign a declaration pertaining to this project at an international summit in Beijing with representatives from more than 100 countries, including 29 heads of states and governments. Beijing plans to invest trillions in this project to develop overland and maritime transport corridors from East Asia to Europe. It is considered one of today’s most important economic-strategic projects. A similar project, initiated by Berlin and Brussels in 1993 was a failure. China seeks new markets for its economy, but also seeks to consolidate unstable regions in the West of the People’s Republic. The “New Silk Road” is intended to closely connect the economies in Europe and Asia – without the United States, which had opposed it. German interests are contradictory: While business circles hope for new profits through intensified cooperation, China’s rise, propelled by this project, is challenging Germany and the EU’s geopolitical interests. Thus, Berlin and Brussels are taking an ambivalent position.
A Trillion Euro Project
The “New Silk Road” – usually referred to officially as “One Belt, One Road” – is currently one of the world’s most important economic-strategic mega projects. In September and October 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping officially announced the project for the first time during his visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia. “One Belt, One Road” aims at systematically developing transport corridors from China to the West: overland through Central Asia and Russia, respectively Iran/Turkey and on to Europe, as well as by sea via the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean to East Africa, respectively via the Red See and the Suez Canal on to the Mediterranean. The project – which will include roads, railway networks, high-speed trains and ports – is aimed at stimulating trade and boosting the economies of the participating countries. The project has tremendous dimensions: More than 65 countries have already joined the “New Silk Road,” which account for nearly one third of the global economic output and, with 4.4 billion people, make up more than half of the world’s population. Beijing has already extended credits of more than 800 billion euros; a much larger volume is expected in the future.
Beijing is pursuing several objectives with its “One Belt, One Road.” On the one hand, it seeks to open and expand new markets for Chinese businesses. On the other, it would like to economically strengthen and, in the long run, politically consolidate the economically weak and instable regions, particularly in western China and Central Asia. The People’s Republic could thus overcome potentially dangerous hotbeds, such as in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as in countries along China’s western border. Concurrently, the “New Silk Road” could eventually lead to close ties between the economies of Europe and Asia – without the United States. Washington is therefore opposed to the project. Beijing, however, is offering the states involved participation in the planning at all levels, including the summits. The current meeting in China’s capital is one example. Following its practice of the past decades, Beijing is promising not to politically interfere in the cooperating countries internal affairs. Thus, “One Belt, One Road” should ultimately challenge the military dominance of western powers. Beijing considers the New Silk Road as the “project of the century.”
Shift in Power
The “New Silk Road” demonstrates, as hardly any other, the shift of the center of gravity in political relations from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, in May 1993, the EU, in its phase of political upsurge following the cold war, initiated, under German pressure, a project with the objective of expanding the transportation corridor between Europe and Asia. The EU’s Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), which also was called the “New Silk Road” was aimed at expanding the transportation routes between Europe and Central Asia, and possibly even further on to China – through the Caucasus and the Caspian Basin, while skirting Russia and Iran. The idea was to provide German and other European companies access to Central Asia’s natural resources and East Asia’s markets without crossing neither Russian nor Iranian territories. TRACECA, which had at times been promoted with pompous PR campaigns, has produced no significant results. Under Chinese leadership, on the other hand, the expansion of the Eurasian transport corridor – which Germany and the EU failed to achieve – is advancing at an amazing pace.
For the German establishment, “One Belt, One Road” is of an ambivalent significance. On the one hand, German companies have a keen interest in expanding trade with China, Germany’s most important trade partner. This is why, at a high-ranking business conference last year in Berlin, the “New Silk Road” had been “positively evaluated by the majority of the participants.” The actual benefits can be illustrated by concrete examples. Duisburg’s harbor, Europe’s largest river port, is greatly benefiting from the fact that 25 container trains are now arriving from China every week. The quantity is supposed to increase appreciably. The 16 to 19 days to arrive is only half the time it takes by sea. With the further development of the route, the time is supposed to be reduced to 8 days. Duisburg could become “China’s gateway to Europe,” is already being predicted. In the meantime, corporations such as BMW have been using the option of transporting car parts by train from Germany to Chinese factories. The Deutsche Bahn AG is making a profit on such transports. Economic interests have induced Germany to participate in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which was opened in Beijing at the turn of the year 2015/16 and is among the main financiers of the “One Belt, One Road” project.
On the other hand, “One Belt, One Road” is engendering new competition in Europe. The best known example is with the “China Ocean Shipping Company” (COSCO), which in 2009 began buying shares in the port of Piraeus, where it has already achieved strong influence. For ships sailing from China and entering the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, Piraeus is the first docking opportunity in Europe. This is why Beijing has chosen this harbor as one of the “New Silk Road” destinations. Corporations such as HP, having the final assembly of their computers done in China, have begun resettling their European distribution from ports such as Rotterdam to Piraeus. Rivalry fears are beginning to be felt even in the port of Hamburg. Beijing has also begun to initiate infrastructure measures, not just in Greece, but in other eastern and southeastern European countries as well. This is likely to increase China’s influence significantly in Europe – at the expense of Germany’s. It challenges Berlin’s geopolitical interests, just as the reinforcement of China’s global political prominence through the “New Silk Road.” The rise of the great rival continues.
Thus, Berlin and Brussels’ current position in Beijing is ambivalent. Chancellor Angela Merkel had been invited to the summit ending today. However, she did not attend so as not to lend greater importance to the event. The German media is playing it down as a summit meeting in the Chinese capital with Berlin’s main enemies “Putin and Erdoğan.” Even though German business interests are represented by Germany’s Minister of the Economy, Brigitte Zypries, the EU has declared it will not sign the planned common declaration, under the pretext of differences over ecological and social standards. In fact, Brussels is threatening to punctually obstruct Beijing’s mega project. This double strategy combines economic profits with an effort to politically curb China – thereby serving Germany’s economic and political interests.