Now, a more coherent European strategy is coming into focus, through a series of policies that have the clear ambition of countering China, regardless of what it could mean for investment in Europe.
Last week, the European Commission unveiled a plan called the “Global Gateway,” to invest €300 billion ($340 billion) globally by 2027 on infrastructure projects, digital connectivity and curbing climate change.While the plan does not mention China, it’s hard to see this announcement as anything other than a direct alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a wide-ranging trade and infrastructure project that would link economies from Jakarta to Rotterdam via Nairobi. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the gateway offered a “true alternative” to China’s BRI, which has been accused of saddling some countries with huge debts since its inception in 2013.
The BRI was once seen by some in Europe as a way of pouring money into the continent while modernizing its infrastructure, but Beijing’s authoritarian turn at home and hostile foreign policy abroad in recent years has led to a radical rethink on whether having state-backed Chinese companies holding major stakes in critical infrastructure — or allowing European countries to be in debt to China — is the best place for Brussels to be.
The Global Gateway comes hot on the heels of an EU proposal to bolster its military capabilities independently of NATO and the “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” a plan to bolster European influence in the geographical area in which China wields significant power.
There’s little doubt that these tougher policies will annoy Beijing. “China likes Europe when it’s sitting on the fence,” says Theresa Fallon, director at the Centre for Russia, Europe and Asia Studies. “They liked it when Europe wanted a bit more autonomy from America and a closer relationship with China was part of that. Now, the idea of Europeans attending [US President] Joe Biden’s democracy summit, which will point the finger at China, is a lot less comfortable.”
The EU’s newfound assertiveness didn’t come about suddenly, rather it was the culmination of several years of changing attitudes. In 2019, the European Commission published a document in which it labeled China a “systemic rival.” In the two years that followed, Europe has slowly worked out how it deals with a rival with whom it has so many ties and which it still wants to partner with in other areas.
Charles Parton, former first counsellor to the EU delegation in Beijing, thinks Brussels’ previous inaction largely came down to the fact that for a time, Europe’s leaders could get away with doing nothing.
“The reality was, citizens were not putting huge pressure on politicians to do anything. Persecution of the Uyghurs or crackdowns in Hong Kong. When …….