In the past, globalisation was primarily a project of the ‘old West’ (that now mythical alliance of Europe and the US). But like so many things, this seems to be changing. China’s president, Xi Jinping, is now the defender of free trade, while his country is pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, based on the old Silk Road. Globalisation is now increasingly upheld by the East. 

So what exactly is the Belt and Road Initiative? It actually consists of two different projects; the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (SRM) and the sea-based Maritime Silk Road (MSR), which themselves are split into a number of sub-projects. To bring these about, China is pouring enormous sums into infrastructure projects such as the Budapest to Belgrade railway line or ports such as Piraeus and Gwadar.

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Its aim, of course, is to sell over-capacity surplus in the European markets and to project its power more fully. But what does this mean for Europe, and what does this tell us about ourselves?

First: China still has big ideas. Europe apparently has not. The Belt and Road Initiative is the type of grand project for which critics are quick to predict inevitable failure. But it is also the type of project that unites a people. Just think of putting a man on the moon. There are countless hiccups, problems and delays. But while Europe’s ‘future plans’ centre around establishing the smallest common denominator of deviating interests, arriving at watered-down compromises, China is at least trying. Whether this is hubris or an epochal achievement, multilateralism or neo-colonialism, only time will tell.

Second, China looks after its own interests. While China protects strategic industries and its own vital interests, Europe is selling hi-tech firms off to the highest bidder (for example, automation specialist Kuka) and allows market access that European firms are not even close to being granted in China. If Europe is not standing up for its own interests and reciprocity in trade, it can hardly blame the Chinese for it. With the Belt and Road Initiative, this is only going to intensify.

Third, China seems to see a great future for Europe. Given the country’s level of investment in European firms and European assets, one can only conclude that it sees great potential and opportunities in it, something that is not necessarily true for a lot of European investors.

Right now, Belt and Road Initiative is running into difficulties. Malaysia’s rail link has been put on hold, and rumblings of discontent in India are getting louder. It remains to be seen if in 10 years’ time people still remember what SRM and MSR stood for. Nonetheless, European countries – if not having ideas of their own – at least need to have a joint position on China’s initiative.

Martin G Kaspar is head of business development at a German mittelstand company within the automotive industry. E-mail: martin.georg.kaspar@gmail.com