West and allies re-launch campaign for their own version of the belt and the road in China

A new fiber-optic submarine data cable crossing the ocean between southern Europe and Latin America is due to come online this month – and the timing could hardly be more opportune.

The € 150 million EllaLink project is supported by public lenders, including the European Investment Bank. It will come into effect as the EU and its allies renew their campaign of cooperation on international infrastructure projects to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in which Beijing has expanded its influence across the world.

The aim is to strengthen collaboration between the EU and its partners – including Japan, the United States and India – and to support high quality projects in low and middle income countries. The topic is expected to feature prominently on the agenda of EU and G7 summits in May and June. The EU and its partners will try to give the momentum the weight it has lacked so far, with Biden calling for it to be added to the agenda at a G7 summit in the UK this summer.

“So far we are trying to counter Belt and Road mainly with buzzwords and lofty political documents,” said a senior European diplomat. “But unfortunately, there is no real coherent and coherent geopolitical strategy or plan. There is a real need to work together on infrastructure projects and to prevent countries from becoming too dependent on China. “

Lindsay Gorman, a member of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an advocacy group, said the effort could be successful as long as it was more focused and imaginative than simply trying to “block all roads that China has.” built”. Instead, the EU and its allies should focus on critical sectors such as digital to reduce China’s authoritarian reach in regions such as Africa, Central Asia and Latin America, as well. than Europe.

“It’s less physical roads than digital highways that power law enforcement systems,” she said, adding: “It’s really going to be about committing significant capital – and identifying strategic areas where we can do it. the most good. “

The BRI has become a tool for Beijing since its launch in 2013, as dozens of countries signed up for China-backed projects such as railways, bridges and ports. It has been endorsed by more than 150 states and international organizations – including more than half of the 27 EU countries. Beijing expanded the idea with initiatives such as the Digital Silk Road, the Polar Silk Road, and the Green Silk Road.

A response from international powers is a an infrastructure alliance should be concluded between the EU and India this month. There was also “clearly an opening” for Europe to work more closely with the United States under the Biden administration, said Jonathan Hillman of the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Workers on site at a Colombo mall under construction by China Harbor Engineering Co. Analysts are unsure how the US and EU could deter countries from signing China-backed projects © Atul Loke / Bloomberg

The latest push for an alternative to the BIS comes after previous efforts have yielded little concrete results. While the EU launched a connectivity plan in 2018 and signed a partnership with Japan in 2019, neither has produced flagship projects in third countries. The United States has little to show for the Build Act, passed in 2018 to boost private sector investment in poorer countries, and the Blue Dot Network initiative to certify infrastructure standards, launched with Japan and Australia the following year.

Critics say the EU and its partners are too late. Beijing has led the BRI for over seven years and prioritized international infrastructure long before that, especially in Africa.

Supporters of a stronger Western will counter that growing backlash against Chinese plans offers a second chance, with some recipient countries complaining that BIS debt terms are onerous and that construction and environmental standards are deficient .

But obstacles remain, including internal divisions between potential partners. While most EU member states, including France and Germany, are broadly in favor of expanding the bloc’s partnerships, some officials say initiatives should not simply aim to build a new “Material” to compete with the BRI, but also to create partnerships based on common rules and standards.

“We now understand that it’s not just about infrastructure though. . . a chance to set standards, ”said a European diplomat. “[Whoever] writes the rules rules the world. ”

Meanwhile, international powers have divergent positions on China, with some fearing to jeopardize economic relations or ease security tensions in Asia. While the United States has called for international cooperation to confront Beijing, others like the EU and India are reluctant to join an explicit anti-China alliance.

Other potential issues include funding. Public institutions such as the Luxembourg-based European Investment Bank could provide some funding, but much is expected to come from the private sector, officials say.

Analysts are also unsure how the United States and the EU could persuade countries not to subscribe to Chinese-backed projects that are not backed by Western countries, Hillman said: “If there is has a national interest in doing them and a source of funding that China is prepared for. to provide, how to prevent bad projects from happening? It seems almost impossible.

All of this means that there is unlikely to be a single global infrastructure initiative as an alternative to the BRI. A patchwork of separate but coordinated bilateral and multilateral initiatives is more likely, officials said.

Reinhard Bütikofer, chairman of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, said the latest push seemed more serious than previous iterations.

“The Chinese made inroads because they had something to offer that we didn’t have,” said Bütikofer, one of several EU officials put under sanctions by Beijing in March in retaliation for measures imposed. by the bloc to Chinese officials.

“We learned a lesson from that. There is a great opportunity for us to be better partners for some of these countries than the Chinese are prepared to be ”.

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