The Global Gateway Joins the Competition Against the BRI

Andreea Brinza | 1 December 2021

Recently, the EU officially launched the Global Gateway strategy as a new branding for its EU-Asia connectivity programs. This happened more than two months after Ursula von der Leyen first announced the strategy during her 2021 State of the Union speech. While the idea of connecting Europe to Asia is not new, the novel name aims to give a special touch to all the economic, financial, infrastructure, and people-to-people relations packages that the EU proposed not just for Asia, but also beyond.

One can be forgiven if this phraseology sounds familiar.

Indeed, the Global Gateway sounds similar to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Back in 2013, when the ideas of BRI were launched, the Chinese initiative was received with enthusiasm, anticipating a positive impact on the developing world, because of its promises of increasing investments in infrastructure networks along Eurasia.

But since, a sense of general disillusionment regarding the BRI has emerged, and so have would-be contenders for the role of a key global infrastructure framework.

BRI Lite?

The EU’s Global Gateway did not start from scratch.

Instead, it builds on previous EU connectivity strategies for Eurasia, repackaged under a catchy name that lends itself to easier promotion by European leaders.

The EU wants the Global Gateway to not only mirror the BRI, but to rise above it. “Values-based approach”, “transparency”, “good governance”, “democratic values”, “links, not dependencies”, “sustainable infrastructure” – these were the words that Ursula von der Leyen used to present the initiative. This was another not-so-veiled reference to the BRI, which is now perceived by many as not abiding by standards of transparency, environmental protection or good governance, or is even seen as a debt trap and a new type of imperialism.

Paradoxically, the problem with the Global Gateway is that it may have taken too much inspiration from the BRI.

The Global Gateway is a €300 billion plan. The Global Gateway wants to promote “investments in quality infrastructure, connecting goods, people and services around the world.” The Global Gateway wants to have a healthcare aspect. The Global Gateway wants to“connect institutions and investment, banks and the business community.” The Global Gateway wants to promote “a positive vision of cooperation in the 21st century.” The Global Gateway wants to go to Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arctic.

If all this sounds very BRI-style, then, where is the twist? This twist is all about high standards in labor, environmental protection, transparency, rule of law and democracy that the Global Gateway professes to focus on. But will this type of Western standards work in developing economies where the emphasis is placed on building things and less on how they are built? Can the Global Gateway be better than the BRI in such environments? After all, Global Gateway is not alone in a quest for competing with the BRI.

Crowded Playground

The EU’s answer to global connectivity came just months after the US had proposed, during the G7 summit, the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative, which focuses on “climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality.” As in the case of the Global Gateway, the aim of the project is to create an alternative to the BRI by promoting a “values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership.”

While B3W wants to create an alternative to the Chinese BRI, it seems to have remained just an American strategy linked too much to the persona of Joe Biden, that may not be fully embraced by other G7 countries, which did not even agree on including its full name in the G7 communique.

The B3W, in turn, was preceded by the Blue Dot Network. Proposed by the US, Japan and Australia in 2019, the project imagined a multilateral initiative aimed at encouraging private companies to invest in infrastructure by providing certifications to those projects that respect high standards of transparency, sustainability and environmental impact.

For the moment, neither initiative has undertaken concrete steps in helping developing countries, beyond creating the image of competition with the BRI. While B3W is a very new proposal which has not had enough time to prove what it is capable of, the Blue Dot Network has already shown that it is not much more than just a buzzword.

This happened because it is very hard to motivate companies to take part in a competition where they do not have much to gain. Investing in infrastructure in developing economies is not so much about big profits, but about improving lives.

Yet, the US or the EU are not alone in the quest to emulate the BRI. Japan is well-known for its connectivity strategies that came long before the Chinese initiative.

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This article has been published by Andreea Brinza in China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE). You can read the full article on the CHOICE website.

Photo Credits:  Ursula von der Leyen gives a speech in the EU Parliament (European Parliament/Flickr)

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Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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