Silk Road initiatives fit into EU recovery goals

Silk Road initiatives fit into EU recovery goals

In recent years, the West has urged Beijing to shoulder more global responsibility, and since the 2008-09 financial crisis, these demands have become ever more insistent. But when Beijing offers its solutions to the world, other powers are inclined to simply turn the other way.

The latest episode of this happened when the European Commission's new president, Jean-Claude Juncker, held his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia.

If the published reports are to be believed, Juncker, whose main priority should be to drive growth by expanding investment, failed to even mention the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road when he met Xi, even though China and the European Union had decided, when Xi was in Brussels early this year, to work together on the matter.

Indeed the Brisbane tete-a-tete is not even mentioned on the EC president's website.

Xi made public the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative in Astana, Kazakhstan, in September last year and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative in the following month in Indonesia.

Since then, China has gone all out to make it a reality. At home, every provincial region of the Chinese mainland has been asked to submit proposals on becoming part of this Eurasian ambition.

In October, Premier Li Keqiang explained the initiatives at the Asia-Europe leaders summit in Milan. Shortly before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in November, Xi even chaired a special meeting to discuss the Belt and Road Initiatives, which is an effort to give impetus to China to invest and export overseas after decades of attracting capital and technologies inwardly.

During the APEC Economic Leaders' Week, Beijing announced a contribution of $40 billion (S$52 billion) to the Silk Road Fund, after the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank on Oct 24.

Though the Belt and Road Initiatives are still in their formative stages, there is no doubt that they are one of the most decisive measures taken under the leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. The initiatives directly will affect 3 billion people in Asia and Europe and have drawn attention worldwide.

Unlike the United States when it drove the Marshall Plan into Europe decades ago, Xi said last September that the initiatives are aimed at increasing the flow of trade, investment, capital, people and culture while focusing on infrastructure projects.

Juncker has outlined similar aims in a priority plan he announced before he took office at the beginning of this month, a plan aimed at strengthening the single EU market. His team has been working on his priorities for next year, including details of his proposal to mobilize 315 billion euros (S$511 billion) of investment over the coming three years.

The EU is on the verge of slipping into its third economic recession in six years, and it is high time it started thinking laterally. China's Road and Belt Initiatives can give it a fresh burst of enthusiasm even as it presses on with long-awaited structural reforms.

At the turn of this century, China decided to expand its opening and reform drive to the hinterland by implementing its go-west strategy.

Nowadays when you consider the EU and its 28 member states, you could be forgiven for having an eerie sense of deja vu, for Europe's eastern, central and southern regions lag behind those of the west and the north.

Just as the disparity in wealth between Chinese regions gave the central government the impetus to act to fix this, Europe now has similar reasons - and opportunities - in dealing with its economic disparities.

For example, some have talked of turning the geopolitically important Greek capital, Athens, into a Mediterranean shipping and financial centre akin to Hong Kong or Shanghai.

Consider, too, the EU's rather modest ambitions to upgrade its infrastructure. It has less than 7,000 kilometers of high-speed rail and plans to extend this to 15,000 km by 2030. I say modest because it has had high-speed rail since the 1980s.

China, on the other hand, said hello to the age of high-speed rail little more than six years ago, and now its high-speed lines run for 13,000 km, and by 2020 will stretch to 30,000 km.

In imitating China's plan, the EU needs to think ambitiously - for example building a high-speed railway or highway to link Beijing, Brussels, Paris and even London.

These plans are not pie in the sky but utterly feasible. Beijing and Moscow have been working on plans to link to each other by high-speed rail, and Moscow is not far from central and eastern Europe.

But the EU, compared with its member states, is still conservative when it comes to expanding its relationship with China. It wants to conclude investment talks between China and the EU first. It is not even willing to start free trade agreement talks with China, which sharply contrasts with the EU's desire to quickly strike such a deal with the US.

However, the EU will have not just one but two great chances to put its cards on the table with China next year, when they meet at two summits. It may well be then that China's westward stare will meet Europe's eastward glance, and the EU will then have some positive things for Beijing's Silk Road projects.

The author is China Daily chief correspondent in Brussels.

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