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How Europe might miss out on the One Belt One Road project

A lot has been said and written about the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative which is China´s majestic project to revive trade and development on the Eurasian continent, and far beyond. But despite all this news coverage, there are signs Europe is missing out on the big picture.

 Beiing claims OBOR is poised to become the biggest public investment program since the Second World War, with new infrastructure works like airports, train connections and harbors are being built along the belt in countries situated between China and Europe. These projects are meant to stimulate trade and commerce and link Europe and Asia closer together. The first building bricks have been laid already which resulted in January of this year with the first train from the Chinese city Yiwu arriving in London. China is of course the big advocate of the OBOR project and has invested since 2013 more than 50 billion USD in the project.  Examples are the acquisition of a 67% stake in the Greek harbor of Pireaus by the Chinese shipping company COSCO, while last year China also started to build a new HST-connection between Serbia and Hungary.


Little EU attention

That should catch Europe´s attention, especially since the inauguration of President Trump the US-European relationship is under pressure. While Trump is cutting in government spending, Chinese President Xi Jinping hopes that OBOR can emphasize China´s leading role in a new wave of globalization. Together with the Asia Infrastructure & Investment Bank (AIIB), in which China invested 100 billion USD, the project could be an absolute game changer which has the potential to redefine the current economic world order. Official figures mention new future projects along the belt for up to 900 billion USD which include among others a new gas pipeline from The Bengales through Myanmar towards south-east China and a railway connection from Beijing to Duisburg, a logistic center in Germany.

Strangely enough Europe seems to pay little attention to all this. In May of this year China organized the two-day Belt & Road Forum in Beijing where it promoted OBOR to the world. China highlighted the forum as the biggest diplomatic event of the year. Besides the Chinese President Xi Jinping, for whom OBOR will shape his legacy, 29 other heads of states or government leaders attended the event. But Europe was underrepresented despite (or maybe because) the presence of the Russia President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Just like the Japanese Premier Abe Shinzo, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the British Premier Theresa May snubbed the event.

European concerns

Europe seemingly has its doubts about the OBOR project. The European Union made clear that the Belt and Road initiative can only be a success if it’s based on transparency and co-ownership, which is currently not the case according to the EU. It also suggests its members wanted guarantees that projects would be economically and environmentally sustainable and subject to fair tendering processes. Some also think that China will use the OBOR initiative to stimulate the own economy and increase its own influence in the region.

European policy makers also seem to be confused about the real size and amount projects among the belt. Lots of European politicians and officials still look at the OBOR project as a marketing slogan without clear strategy. After all it´s not immediately clear how al the new projects under construction or in the pipeline are linked together. Moreover, although it is believed there are 60 countries member of the OBOR project, there is no official list of countries which have joined.

Western policymakers also often focus on the problems of the OBOR initiative instead of looking at the progress being made. They believe China is too optimistic about the whole project, and underestimates the difficulties. The 3.000 kilometer HST-connection between Kunming in south-west China and Singapore which previously encountered problems due to disagreements between China and Thailand over a piece of land, is such an example.

One can understand why the EU might be not paying too much attention to the OBOR initiative. To a certain extent the big internal issues the EU currently are facing, distract it from a more long term vision and strategy. The EU has it hands full with the refugee crisis and recent crucial elections within several member states such as France and Germany. And then there is of course the looming Brexit issue which will occupy EU leaders for the next two years. As a European diplomat recently told me: “rationally the EU knows that China is important, but their heart is not in it”.

Wrong EU perception

But despite these understandable internal problems, Europe´s handling of the OBOR initiative also shows a certain lack of understanding about China, which is by no means a new problem. It´s often hard to understand for westerners that China and Chinese companies behave very pragmatically with a focus on fast implementation, which in the western world is considered to be not very efficient. Chinese companies first outline their broad strategy without focusing too much on the details. Fast implementation is key to success, while the details will be taken care of later. Whatever works will be implemented even faster, and what doesn´t work will be put on hold. The OBOR project carries the same logic. It's simply a project that be will be more and more shaped over time, while for China the big strategic picture is clear.

Europe might also have forgotten that China is no stranger to majestic and visionary projects. China is a huge country with big challenges (now and in the past) which it often tackled successfully. China has a lot of experience with mega government projects. With its 13,000 kilometer in length The Great Wall is such a project, just like the Grand Canal that has been built 2,000 years ag and stretches for 1,700 kilometer between Beijing and Hangzhou. In recent history there is the majestic Three Gorges Dam or the South-to-North Water Diversion Project which carries water from south-China to north-China. In other words, China has a very different vision towards these kind of majestic projects which always have been part of government policy.

Whatever the underlying reasons for Europe´s skepticism, the EU might be missing out completely on the next big geopolitical thing. Not only does Asia require brand new infrastructure works for the staggering amount of 770 billion USD per year according to the Asian Development Bank, the OBOR initiative also represents a profound change in how China deals with the world and starts to go out. The OBOR project is part of an optimistic vision of the future, in which China will be designing a new world order. The EU better starts to pay more attention.