Testimony before the European Parliament Committee on International Trade (INTA) on the Belt and Road Initiative and China-EU relations

Andreea Brinza | 15 November 2020

On November 9, the Committee on International Trade of the European Parliament organized a hearing on EU-China Trade and Investment Relations in a post-covid world. Andreea Brînză, Vice President of RISAP, was one of the European experts invited to testify at this hearing. In her testimony, Andreea presented an overview of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and how it is best understood as a branding strategy for China’s foreign policy and overseas investments and projects. She also presented a three case studies of European BRI projects that illustrate the initiative’s characteristics, while also addressing how the COVID pandemic could influence trade and investment between China and Europe.

Andreea’s full testimony is available on the website of the European Parliament. Below is an excerpt of this testimony.

Testimony before the European Parliament Committee on International Trade (INTA) for the public hearing on EU-China Trade and Investment Relations in a post-covid world

Understanding the Belt and Road Initiative

Since its inception, in 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been perceived through many optics, from an infrastructure project, to a Marshall Plan, or more recently, a geopolitical long-term masterplan or even a debt trap. This wide variation of perspectives is understandable considering that the Chinese government never really defined the BRI, in order to dispel misconceptions. On the contrary, it has preferred to maintain it as a loose and diffuse framework for a wide variety of actions, while expanding it from its initial Eurasian area of focus to Latin America, the Arctic region and even outer-space. Seven years ago, in his speech in Astana that put forth the Silk Road Economic Belt, which was presented as the terrestrial part of the Belt and Road, Chinese president Xi Jinping described five goals, which were later formulated as: policy coordination, connectivity of infrastructure and facilities, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds. This way, China created the possibility for a broad initiative covering numerous fields, but also left an open door for interpretation and misconceptions. Contrary to these stated goals, the BRI was soon described in the West as a grand infrastructure project to connect Eurasia. China contributed to such misconceptions by publishing a map that presented two long routes, one terrestrial and one maritime, connecting China with Europe. On the other hand, it tried to correct such a misconception by changing the official English name of the initiative from One Belt, One Road, to the current Belt and Road. Yet the picture has remained hazy.

The BRI can be defined as many things. For some US experts, the BRI is a masterplan used by China to gain influence over other countries and establish itself as the world’s dominant power. For some European ones, the BRI is largely an infrastructure project. For Chinese experts, the BRI is perceived as China’s positive contribution to the world and a way to improve the global governance.

But according to my research over the past years, the BRI is just a branding strategy for China’s foreign policy and overseas investments and projects. This is both a strategy of the central government to brand numerous investments and projects as part of the Belt and Road, but has also become a strategy for Chinese companies to promote their projects under the BRI umbrella in order to easier obtain funds, approvals or endorsements from central, provincial or local Chinese government institutions. This perspective of the BRI as a branding strategy is supported by the numerous pre-existing overseas projects and investments that have been rebranded as BRI after 2013, the silent expansion of the BRI as a global initiative in 2017, the absence of an institutional framework for the BRI, even though China inaugurated a BRI Summit in 2017, the lack of a coherence in the initiative and the lack of follow-up of many memoranda of understanding signed by China with foreign countries, signaling that the signing itself was the main goal. For example, 18 EU member states have signed BRI MoUs with China, including all member states from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), but it is extremely difficult to identify completed BRI projects in these countries. Romania was one of the first European countries to sign such an MoU, in 2015, yet five years later, there is no BRI project or investment in Romania, even though China considers Romania a BRI country.

These aspects are important in guiding the future EU strategy regarding China.

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EU-China Trade and Investment Relations in a post-covid world

Testimony before INTA

Photo Credits: The State of the Union speech by the President of the European Commission in front of the European Parliament, in 2018 (Flickr/European Parliament)

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