Silk Road Headlines_26th September, 2018

Among the news items and analyses from this week, one of the highlights is undoubtedly the adoption by the European Commission of a new ‘Connectivity Strategy’ linking Europe and Asia [European Union has a plan for Asian infrastructure but will it collide with China’s belt and road?]. Although this new strategy does not explicitly mention China as a competitor, many observers have nonetheless already stressed its responsive nature, in light of the other initiatives being put forward by ‘other players’. The EU’s initiative, which goes hand in hand with an expected increase in the EU’s investment in Asia, could increase up to fourfold in its next budget, confirms Brussels’ resolve to step up its eastward presence by extending the current Trans-European Network for Transport - which stretches across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region - to Asia through a combination of rail, sea and inland waterways.

Additionally, high-level EU figures have emphasised the normatively different nature of the EU’s Connectivity Strategy vis-à-vis other existing initiatives, as it fosters a sustainable and rules-based model, striving to adhere to high standards of transparency and environmental protection, and ensure a level playing field for enterprises. Again, it would be naïve not to see here the implicit criticism of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has come under increasing scrutiny by Western actors for its lack of transparency and the unsustainability of some of its projects.

While the EU’s new plan does have competitive elements in relation to China’s initiative, European and Chinese observers alike have also been quite optimistic with regard to their interplay, stressing that Brussels and Beijing could benefit from the compatibility (and possibly complementarity) of their initiatives and work together to open new markets, hence benefitting all parties.

Overall, the actual impact of the EU’s new Connectivity Strategy remains to be seen, but its launch is already a sign that Brussels intends to partake in the increasingly busy Eurasian geopolitical chessboard, with China, Russia, the United States and now the EU all striving to retain and/or expand their influence. Time will tell whether this new ‘Great Game’ will be a ‘win-win’ one for all those playing it (a mantra especially dear to Beijing), or whether it will instead result in heightened rivalries and possible conflicts between global heavyweights.

Francesco S. Montesano