China’s Belt and Road Initiative: What are the implications for Europe?

China’s Belt and Road Initiative: What are the implications for Europe?

By: Steijn Muller

As a short introduction to next week’s online discussion on the implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for Europe, this article will introduce the BRI and some of its potential economic, security and digital implications for Europe. Join the webinar on the 20th of May at 20:00 to discuss these important matters with Dr. Matt Ferchen of LeidenAsiaCentre, who is specialized in the economic statecraft of China and specifically the BRI, and Brigitte Dekker of the Clingendael Institute, who has expertise in both the technological and geopolitical aspects of EU-China relations.

What is the BRI?

In 2013, China’s president Xi Jingping proposed to build the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

The BRI is mainly focussed on foreign investments and developing new infrastructure, including the establishment of a large network of railways, utility grids, and pipelines. In addition, it includes the creation of new maritime routes. However, there is also a digital aspect to the BRI which is called the China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR). With this, China aims to become a technological superpower by investing in digital infrastructure (see for example 5G and Huawei). The aim of the DSR is also to achieve more technological autonomy from its geopolitical rivals like the US. All in all, the aims of China’s new project are to stimulate more economic cooperation between the East and West and other adjacent countries, but also to become more autonomous in the digital sector.

Can it have benefits for Europe?

The project might have several benefits for Europe. The BRI could, for example, lead to more economic cooperation between China and European countries, which could benefit trade relations and enhance economic growth. Experts from the “17+1” economic and trade cooperation mechanism have said that the economic benefits especially for Central and Eastern Europe are “undeniable”. 

What are its potential problems?

However, there could also be problems. Some are skeptical of the true intentions behind China’s BRI, and worry that the initiative can lead to undesirable political influence in Europe, especially in the economically weaker European countries. In addition, the BRI might cause a divide in Europe, as some countries are more favorable towards the BRI than others. China has also been accused of violating human rights, such as the case of the Uyghurs, but also specifically with the creation of the BRI. Many Chinese migrant workers involved in the development of the BRI have been faced with passport detention, excessive work hours, intimidation and threats. Finally, the digital aspect of the BRI might pose problems: several European countries, including Sweden, have decided to no longer use Chinese technology for their networks because of fears of Chinese (cyber) espionage.

A concluding note

All in all, the BRI is a highly complex and controversial project that can have various implications for European countries. It might pose potential economic benefits and more cooperation and interconnectivity with China, but there also might be hidden geopolitical intentions behind it, not forgetting the human rights and potential espionage issues surrounding it. We recommend joining the webinar to delve deeper into this fascinating topic, and listen to what experts have to say about it. There will also be room to ask your own questions to our panel. We hope we can welcome you on the 20th!

Register here to join the webinar.