China: Putin arrives in Beijing ahead of Belt and Road Forum
China’s global investment programme is pumping money into countries around the world in order to create a ‘new Silk Road’, also known as its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. The idea comes from the ancient Silk Road, which connected East and West before and throughout the Middle Ages. Much of the overland route is presently inaccessible, however, with Beijing’s eye on reopening much of the old path, as well as forging new ways to the West.
In 2019, Italy became the first developed economy to sign up to the project, immediately raising concerns among its Western allies.
Experts warn it could provide China with a gateway to Europe via the Mediterranean, which it has floated plans to then build and widen canals through existing waterways via Venice.
While officials and academics caution Europe over its next moves, many believe that Beijing has already well-cemented itself on the continent.
Jacopo Maria Pepe, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations, sounded the alarm back in 2017.
EU news: Brussels was issued a blow after a German policy expert said China was already in Europe
New Silk Road: China’s plans span the old Silk Road route as well as new pathways
It was then that China was looking into the idea of building a canal through the Balkans in order to pierce through to the centre of Europe – something which it still has its eyes on.
China and Serbia had recently forged a new relationship, with President Xi Jinping pledging to invest millions into the seriously underfunded country.
Beijing had already loaned Serbia money to build a €170million (£145m) bridge over the Danube in Belgrade, as well as a €700million (£597m) thermal power plant.
A Chinese company had also bought Serbia’s only steel plant, promising to revitalise the country’s troubled industry without slashing jobs.
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Italy: It is the first G7 nation to sign up to the programme, opening a major port in Trieste
All of this concerned EU politicians in opposition to China over things like human rights abuses.
Speaking to Politico, Dr Maria Pepe said the fears were essentially too little too late.
He said: “The Chinese are already here.
“It’s up to the EU and Germany to come up with a strategic response.”
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Serbia: The opening ceremony of Serbia’s first Chinese built project near Belgrade, 2014
Eastern Europe: China also has its sights on Eastern Europe
Just three years have passed since Dr Maria Pepe’s warning, yet the EU appears to have moved in the opposite direction.
In the waning days of 2020, the EU – pushed along by German Chancellor Angela Merkel – secured a mammoth investment deal with China believed to be worth £176billion.
By February this year, China had overtaken the US to become the EU’s biggest trading partner.
Trade between China and the EU was worth $709bn (€586bn, £511bn) in 2020, compared with $671bn (€569bn, £485bn) worth of imports and exports from the US.
Xi Jinping: The Chinese president plans to thrust the country into a stage of even further growth
Many draw attention to the fact that China is willing to pump cash and provide loans to countries like Serbia that have weak economies that the European Central Bank (ECB) or other development banks would never think of.
Dr Maria Pepe said it is in China’s best interests to offer such infrastructure projects, both in the form of hands on work and low interest cash, as it likely plans not only to pump goods in, but also suck goods out.
China has its sights set elsewhere, too.
In Africa, it has already erected stretches of roads and railways in order to open up the continent.
Africa: China has also ventured onto the continent of Africa where it has several ongoing projects
With European investment, Politico noted: “For China, the motivations are murkier.
“But this much is clear: Beijing is establishing a significant foothold on Europe’s southeastern doorstep — increasing its influence in countries that will likely one day be full-blown members of the European Union.”
Many fear that China, like Russia, could quickly become a threat to stability in the Balkans and by extension Western Europe.