What is happening?
On October 17-18, the third Belt and Road Initiative Forum took place in Beijing to celebrate the decennial of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Through its flagship infrastructure initiative, China invested trillions of dollars over the last decade as BRI underwent changes and development. On the global scale, understanding of the BRI also evolved.
Only one week after the BRI forum concluded, Brussels hosted its first Global Gateway Forum. The Global Gateway program has been considered an EU alternative to the BRI. But is the EU capable of winning over the Global South?
What is the broader picture?
In Beijing, the number of representatives applauding Xi’s initiative and money in the audience has shrunk, and the amount of investment has decreased as the Chinese economy slowed down.
The number of high-level participants and global embracement of the initiative has declined. Among the participants were mainly high representatives of the Global South, or the developing countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa which are within the Chinese sphere of influence. The Taliban delegation and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres were also present. Seen as a criminal by many, Vladimir Putin was hosted as a special BRI Forum guest and treated with all respect as he delivered one of the first keynote speeches and held a meeting with Xi Jinping (習近平). Russia has been by far the largest recipient of Chinese investment and remains Beijing’s closest ally. European countries, with exception of Hungary whose prime minister Viktor Orbán used the opportunity to meet with Putin, were not represented at a high level.
In recent years, the initiative’s focus has shifted from traditional infrastructure projects (bridges, power plants, railway, etc.) to digital infrastructure projects (such as 5G, e-commerce, and digital economy) which are less costly. In his keynote speech, Xi Jinping argued that “viewing others’ development as a threat or taking economic interdependence as a risk will not make one’s own life better or speed up one’s development,” referring to the US export bans on AI and advanced chips which angers China.
Technology and AI was one of the major themes of the gathering as China proposed its Global Initiative for Artificial Intelligence (AI) Governance, calling on all countries “to enhance information exchange and technological cooperation on the governance of AI.” and suggesting to “work together to prevent risks, and develop AI governance frameworks, norms and standards based on broad consensus.”
China continues to seek greater influence on global governance, as it continues to propose its own initiatives and alternatives and uses appealing slogans and concepts. Even some of the European “elites” still buy into it. Czechia’s former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek, who participated in all the three BRI forums, is an admirer and supporter of BRI and the Chinese proposed new world order or the “community with a shared future for mankind” (人類命運共同體 renlei mingyun gongtongti). The Special Representative of French President and Former Prime Minister of France Jean-Pierre Raffarin made historical analogies to claim that we should let China take over the global order: “Now, China is back around the table of big nations. I think we have to accept that and not be afraid, but to discuss.“
Europeans criticize the human rights abuses, environmental issues, one-sided relations, quality of the infrastructure projects, or unfavorable loan terms associated with the BRI and provide an alternative. Claiming that “We want to create links and not dependencies!,” Ursula von der Leyen announced the Global Gateway program in 2021. Just one week after the BRI concluded in Beijing, Brussels hosted the first Global gateway forum.
Especially because of its lengthy bureaucracy, the Global Gateway was labeled as “project without a plan” or a “marketing exercise” and received some substantive criticism from European diplomats, especially in its early stages. After two years, some concrete projects were finally announced, such as the Trans-African Corridor, or strategic economic corridors in southern Africa.
Why it matters?
The EU continued to lag behind China in promoting infrastructure investment projects for at least one decade. The time will show whether the Global Gateway program will mobilize some of the European private capital and eventually balance global Chinese investments. Borrowing words of David McAllister, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament: “The EU can’t afford to squander this moment … If not now, when?“