China, Geopolitics, and the Global South
Guest post by Harry Seavey, March 2022
In contrast to the widespread scepticism at the beginning (see Newsletter December 2021), Harry Seavey, in his article published by Panda Paw Dragon Claw, argues that there is a chance that Europe’s own infrastructure initiative can become a serious competitor or addition to Belt&Road. For this to happen, however, a similarly attractive narrative would have to be framed to counter “resentments over Europe’s colonial legacy and history of grand plans that have proven to be ‚wishful thinking’“. Uwe Hoering
After its long-awaited announcement on 1 December 2021, last week finally saw the unveiling of some details on how and where the European Union will allocate its promised €300 billion in infrastructure investments under the Global Gateway. During a visit to Senegal in advance of the European Union-African Union Summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen laid out a program of €150 billion of Global Gateway investment in Africa, under what French President Macron, whose country currently occupies the six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, has called a “complete overhaul” of the EU-Africa relationship.
Further state visits by von der Leyen and her team last week specified investment of €1.6 billion in Morocco and €820 million in Nigeria over the next two years – countries the EU clearly views as of (geo-)strategic priority. A document on the EU-Africa Global Gateway Investment Package released by the EU on 10 February highlighted five priority areas for investment in the continent – green transition; digital economy; sustainable growth and decent job creation; health systems; and education and training.
Despite the emergence of these new details, many questions about the Global Gateway remain unclear, including how it will finance its ambitions and how exactly the EU is positioning the initiative vis-a-vis China’s Belt and Road, the rather large elephant in the room.
“Countering” the Belt and Road
The Belt and Road Initiative’s steady march forward since its announcement in 2013 left many wondering when and how the likes of the United States, the European Union, and others in the Western camp would respond. The EU arrived at Global Gateway only in the aftermath of a series of fitful stops and starts. In 2018 it launched its EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy unfunded and under detailed. Its EU-Japan Connectivity Partnership, which it inked in 2019, also amounted to little more than a piece of paper. The EU’s attempt to ameliorate those past errors took the form of launching its 2021 EU-India Connectivity Partnership with funding – which it now shares with Global Gateway.
Global Gateway thus comes in their inauspicious wake, the first major international infrastructure initiative designed to provide an answer to the BRI, and amidst profound change in Europe’s place in the world. Its relationship with Beijing has cratered, the United States has pleaded with it to take a tougher line on China, and China, for its part, is busy making the case for how and why the world is moving inexorably in its favor.
Though it went unmentioned in the initial press release, the Belt and Road was subtext to the announcement of Global Gateway on 1 December 2021. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made it clear at a follow-up press conference that “yes, absolutely” Global Gateway will be capable of competing with the BRI. This, however, is decidedly less strong than how the United States has pitched its new infrastructure investment initiative, Build Back Better World, the announcement of which explicitly mentioned “strategic competition with China” as a reason for the initiative’s creation.
Understandably, expectations for Global Gateway were and are high. European critics have called it “not a groundbreaking plan for domination in global infrastructure” and have emphasized the imperative of “outmuscling” the BRI. Global Gateway’s intended funding is comprised of pre-existing pools of money, expected contributions from other EU institutions, and hoped-for private investment. The ability of this patchwork of financiers and investors to cobble together the promised €300 billion is facing skepticism, however.
Nor has the EU been spared criticism from the developing world. Harangued for not consulting with African countries, for whom at least half of the promised funding for Global Gateway is allocated, the EU is already a step behind China, which for many years has expended huge diplomatic energy on Africa as a whole and African countries individually – the Forum on Africa China Cooperation has become a major global diplomatic moment, while Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tradition of beginning each year with visits to multiple African countries has certainly helped to build mutual respect.
Moreover, Europe’s overseas investment plans are sparking their own sovereignty concerns: growth-focused developing countries are unlikely to let Europe’s sustainability goals dictate their investment agendas. In particular, European countries’ move away from supplying public financing for all forms of fossil fuel projects has faced direct criticism, evident in particular in Senegalese President Macky Sall’s comments to Ursula von der Leyen last week. “We are for the maintenance of financing of the gas industry and hydrocarbons for a fair and equitable energy transition that takes account of the needs of the continent,” he said at the opening of the EU-African Union Summit last Thursday. The issue also cropped up during Anthony Blinken’s visit to Nigeria in November last year. China has escaped such criticism by still – for the most part – unquestioningly answering the needs of its partner countries, even when those needs are at odds with its domestic policy, such as African partners’ call for green financing for gas projects in the FOCAC8 documents despite gas not qualifying for green finance under China’s domestic policy framework.
Though the EU has made no secret of the fact that Global Gateway exists because of the BRI, it has been far more circumspect than its critics in outlining its goals for the initiative. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has argued in favor of Global Gateway as an “alternative” to Belt and Road and one that would offer “better and different offers” – not one that would send President Xi’s trillion-dollar signature foreign policy initiative packing.
The whole picture of the emerging EU and China “rivalry” over infrastructure projects in the developing world is also far from clear-cut. Last week, simultaneous to the EU-AU Summit, France and China agreed to extend their “demonstration projects in third-party markets” to a fourth round. The agreement will see companies from the two countries cooperate on seven infrastructure projects worth over USD 1.7billion in markets ranging from Africa to southeast Asia to eastern Europe. Apparently, EU-level rivalry is able to sit beside country-to-country cooperation.
But for Europe to offer an alternative to Belt and Road investment, as per von der Leyen’s vision, Europe needs to draw on what China can’t – friends and soft power.
Playing to Europe’s strengths
China’s friends are poor – Europe’s, rich and ready to spend. Japan pledged $110 billion for its “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure Investment” project in 2015. The EU-Japan Connectivity Partnership provides a ready-to-use framework on which to build to coordinate Global Gateway and Partnership investment. The G7’s Build Back Better World Partnership, led by the United States, has also promised hundreds of billions in new investment. Summed together, the picture of a lone, underfunded Global Gateway David against a Belt and Road Goliath begins to look profoundly different. In coordination, the European Union, Japan, and a United States-led G7’s infrastructure investment packages will pack the kind of economic punch that each lacks on its own.
Global Gateway should also draw on Europe’s wealth of global soft power. If it can’t beat out the BRI in dollars and cents, it can compete in hearts and minds. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has hinted at so much, declaring her desire “to turn Global Gateway into a trusted brand around the world.” To turn Global Gateway into the kind of all-encompassing brand the BRI has become, Europe needs to shed its reluctance to engage in the same kind of pageantry Beijing does. The EU should aim to construct an inspiring and unifying narrative for the project in the same way China has leveraged the alluring imagery of the Silk Road, which has captured the imagination of many across the world, including in the West in the early days of the project. Before the BRI, that might not have been necessary. Now it is, but it shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, the European Union and its member states are the world’s largest giver of development assistance. Half of the world’s total originates in the EU. And though the “language of power” that the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell has exhorted the bloc to use might be closer to Chinese than Danish or Italian, Europe is learning to speak it, however tentatively. Von der Leyen, elected to head the European Commission in 2019, has promised a “geopolitical Commission” that would prioritize “reinforcing the EU’s role as a relevant international actor.” It has done that, leading a new, more aggressive China strategy and intervening in Georgia’s recent political crisis to broker an agreement between the government and opposition.
Whether Europe likes it or not, this is a playing field it must compete on. Perception matters. The seeming ubiquity of China’s presence in the developing world has contributed to the sense that its rise to superpowerdom is inevitable. China isn’t the largest investor in Southeast Asia – Japan is by a factor of nearly two – nor is it the largest investor in Africa – Europe is. But Laotians and Zimbabweans wouldn’t guess that. For the Japanese, who have been wary of framing their infrastructure investments as meant to compete with the BRI, that’s intentional. But Europe, whose Global Gateway exists because of the BRI, should be vocal. This isn’t bad news. A uniquely humane and increasingly powerful Europe is well-positioned to chip away at the BRI’s position in the developing world.
Europe will meet a number of soft power challenges in the developing world, however, particularly in Africa, where resentment over its colonial legacy and history of grand plans that have proven to be “wishful thinking” still lingers. An anti-colonial brother in arms under Mao and then an investor pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the continent under Hu and Xi, China stands in stark contrast. While Europe is criticized for infantilizing the continent, China, whose leadership visited Africa nearly eighty times between 2007 and 2017, is praised by African leaders for treating the continent as an equal. That is reflected in public opinion polls of Africans, who do not see Europe as a more effective development partner than China.
The bumpy road to the Global Gateway
Problems abound. Global Gateway takes aim at a number of disparate goals, from civil society support to traditional hard infrastructure. It draws nearly a quarter of its funding from the European Union’s pre-existing Neighborhood, Development, and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI), which includes money for human rights defense, democracy support, and women and children’s empowerment. Nearly a third of NDICI’s funding has been set aside for the European Union’s so-called “neighborhood” – Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, the Levant, and North Africa – which has a combined total population only barely larger than Nigeria. The entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa receives only €10 billion more from NDICI, a funding skew which, if reflected in the rest of Global Gateway’s funding, will confine much of its influence to the Mediterranean and Black Sea, making it hardly able to offer an alternative to the world-spanning BRI.
And in dragooning funds meant to support European values like democracy and women’s empowerment, Global Gateway warps the European Union’s development budget to tacitly endorse China’s foreign policy model, which places infrastructure investment at the fore of influence campaigns – and just at a time when China’s once seemingly endless pool of development lending for megaprojects is on the decline and investments cooling significantly since pre-pandemic times. This is compounded by an even more central problem: the European Union’s lack of experience in investing in connectivity projects. Between 2014 and 2020, the EU invested 14% of its external budget – a measly €9.62 billion – in connectivity projects compared to the trillions Beijing spent on Belt and Road. Now, it will have to learn on the job.
Entering the Gateway
A successful Global Gateway, even a maximally successful one, will not displace the BRI, which will persist as the world’s largest and most ambitious infrastructure program. But with hundreds of billions of euros at its disposal – not counting cash from like-minded partners – it is positioned to chip away at Belt and Road’s influence and blunt the perception of China’s rise as inevitable and uncontested. The EU has already demonstrated geopolitical tact in unveiling one of its first two Global Gateway projects in Senegal, a country at the center of Chinese aspirations in Africa. Its focus on digital connectivity, education, and health at the recent EU-African Union summit was another reflection of prioritization from the EU. With a newly announced €150 billion for Africa in investment as part of Global Gateway behind those priorities, they may succeed. Accepting the imperative of properly marketing Global Gateway – and joining forces with like-minded partners – will make that much more likely.
Harry Seavey is a master’s student and Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He previously served as a trainee at the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington, D.C and a praktikant with Volt Europa, a pan-European political party, in Berlin. He graduated from Yale University in 2019 with a degree in global affairs.