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Chinese President Xi Charms Europe, But Critics Warn of Trojan Horse

President Xi of China meets with Vladimir Putin and President of Mongolia Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, July 2015.
President Xi of China meets with Vladimir Putin and President of Mongolia Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, July 2015. (Photo via Kremlin.ru)

“China is aiming for the heart of Europe with newfound tenacity.”

France’s President Emmanuel Macron hosted China’s President Xi Jinping for a state visit March 25, 2019, as the two attended the signings of several multi-billion dollar bilateral deals.

Monday marked the end of a week-long European visit for the Chinese leader, having previously spent several days in the Italian capital with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. On March 23rd, Conte signed a bilateral agreement endorsing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the first signal of support for the massive Chinese infrastructure project from a G7 country.

Is the Belt and Road Initiative a Trojan Horse?

Officials in Europe and the U.S. have expressed discontent over China’s efforts to expand its influence in the European continent. German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass warned, “If some countries think they can do clever business with the Chinese, they will be surprised when they wake up and find themselves dependent.”

Critics fear the Belt and Road Initiative could be a Trojan Horse for Chinese hegemonic expansion. China heavily subsidizes many of its firms, and foreign companies are often required to give industry secrets in exchange for doing business within Chinese borders. These concerns have led the EU to criticize Chinese business practices as unfair, while the U.S. has expressed disapproval over Chinese telecom giant Huawei winning contracts in Europe, fearing they could give data to the Chinese government.

According to Sylvie Kauffman, the editorial director of Le Monde, “China is aiming for the heart of Europe with newfound tenacity.”

What Is the Belt and Road Initiative?

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the largest infrastructure project in history, a global economic plan including railways, power grids, ports and roads connecting the Asian superpower to other countries throughout the continent, as well as Africa and Europe. The BRI has been compared to the Marshall Plan, the U.S.-led effort to rebuild Europe after the Second World War. But with China and local partners planning to spend up to $1.3 trillion (other estimates put the figure far higher), the BRI dwarfs the post WWII infrastructure project by a scale of one to twelve.

The BRI is also referred to as the “Silk Road Project,” in reference to the historical trade network that put China at the epicenter of the global economy in the first millennium. The BRI’s growing network of overland and maritime trade routes now reaches at least 76 countries, many of which are struggling, poor nations in desperate need of foreign investment.

In Europe, China took advantage of Greece’s economic recession by purchasing a 35-year lease on the Greek port of Piraeus. According to the South China Morning Post, Italy could be opening four of its own ports to Chinese investment as part of its cooperation in the BRI deal.

Could Economically Struggling Countries Strengthen Ties with China?

President Xi’s successful week in Europe gives China a symbolic and logistical win in its trade war with the United States. Critics fear economically struggling European countries such as Italy and Greece could continue to strengthen their ties with China.

EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger expressed unease regarding China’s growing influence in the continent, saying, “In Italy and other European countries, infrastructure of strategic importance like power networks, rapid rail lines or harbors are no longer in European but in Chinese hands.”

With expanding Chinese presence, Russian funding of anti-EU and anti-establishment groups, an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Washington, and the chaos of Brexit, Europe’s leaders will have to address their internal divisions or risk ceding power to the foreign nations competing for influence on their soil.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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