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The New Silk Roads: European Perceptions and Perspectives

By Karine Lisbonne de Vergeron, Associate Director & Head, Europe Programme, Global Policy Institute


The focus of this article is on European perceptions and attitudes towards the New Silk Roads or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The New Silk Roads is neither a formal policy nor a clearly defined geographical or geopolitical strategy, rather it is an evolving narrative. These perceptions have been partly shaped by the importance of the EU–China bilateral relation as well as European plans towards Asian connectivity. Europe’s developing strategic approach towards Eurasia has also affected these views as well as national prerogatives. Since 2017, a more coordinated European approach has evolved. The EU greatly welcomes Chinese initiatives of increasing investments in cross-border infrastructure with the view that it should adhere to market rules, international financial and environmental norms. Through BRI, China has focused more on Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Mediterranean region. Some of the projects have led to concerns over the possibility of diluting European political unity or investments rules. There is, however, much room for greater political coordination among European countries, notably by being more proactive in promoting, for example, the infrastructure projects which the EU has already financed in CEE and by generally seeking to promote the EU–Asia connectivity plans.


The New Silk Roads is not a formal policy nor a clearly defined geographical or geopolitical strategy. It is meant to be and is being promoted by China as an evolving narrative, which has been deeply rooted in the historical context of the old trading and cultural routes linking China to Europe between the second century BC and the fifteenth century AD. The Belt and Road initiative (BRI) has gradually become an instrument of China’s foreign policy in both the regional and global dimensions and has been expanded beyond Eurasia to include, notably, Africa and Latin America with a view to become a new global reference framework (see also Ederer, 2016). To deliver further growth and maintain political and social cohesion internally, China is seeking ever greater access to new markets everywhere, but there is no doubting its special emphasis on forging a deeper relationship with its immediate Asian neighbourhood, for reasons which are increasingly framed in strategic and not simply economic terms. Thus BRI, which is seen by some scholars as an extremely ambitious initiative, serves several major Chinese objectives simultaneously: developing Chinese exports and international investment, promoting Chinese technology internationally, contributing to the economic development of West and Central China, and accelerating the internationalization of the renminbi (Larçon & Barré, 2017, p. 5). It is also linked, more globally, to energy and security concerns in the region. The main focus of the article is to capture European perceptions of the evolving BRI and its meaning for Europe’s developing strategy towards Asia. The findings are based on official publications, academic studies, media reports and commentaries as well as a series of in-depth interviews held under the Chatham House Rules with European policymakers, academics and business executives. The article addresses these perceptions both at country and European level and draws out recommendations for closer European cooperation.

The Context

European perceptions of the New Silk Roads have evolved gradually since the official launch of the so-called Silk Road Economic Belt project and that of the Maritime Silk Road by President Xi Jinping in 2013, now commonly referred to as BRI. There are clearly many challenges involved but if China fully succeeds in implementing the BRI in the long run, it will, undoubtedly, have the capability to significantly alter economic and social relationships across the whole of Eurasia and even reshape global trading patterns and dynamics. This is simply of paramount relevance for Europe because the EU is still China’s largest trading partner representing 15 per cent of China’s total trade in 2017, before the United States, and has also become China’s primary source of imports (13 per cent of all Chinese imports) ahead of South Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, China now represents one of the fastest growing markets for European exports and also accounts for 15 per cent of the EU external trade, second to the United States and up from 10 per cent in 2006 (European Commission, 2017). The deepening of the economic relationship between China and the EU has been, in fact, the defining feature of the bilateral relationship, now for well over two decades, notwithstanding the fact that the EU is a major trade and investment partner also for all Asian countries.

Moreover, when considering the full spectrum of the New Silk Roads, some estimate that it would cover over half of the world population and a quarter of global GDP (Kuo & Kommenda, 2018). There are at the same time increasing analyses pointing towards BRI as a possible bipolarization of the world, so-called 2.0 bipolarization, whereby two separate poles with their own infrastructure networks, the American and the Chinese ones, could coexist with two separate systems of norms and standards. This scenario is, however, only deemed possible if BRI is fully successful over the next few years (Ekman et al., 2018, p.7). This is notwithstanding the existing and developing European analyses and strategies towards connecting Eurasia, which the EU is putting in place.

The most significant response to the BRI by European governments at the beginning, notably France, Germany and the United Kingdom, had been to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) launched in 2014 and endowed with an initial capital of $50 billion to support the development, particularly of the new transport routes, although the bank is not a formal BRI institution and is not solely dedicated to its initiatives (see the Joint report by the European Think-Tank Network on China [Van der Putten, Seaman, Huotari, Ekman, & Otero-Iglesias, 2016, p. 8]). Aside of this, since 2013, China’s engagement with the EU on BRI has evolved primarily through bilateral discussions with individual member states rather than through EU institutions.

Although the EU has had a ‘strategic partnership’ with China since 2004, as evidenced, for example, by the creation of the High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue in 2007, the High-Level Strategic Dialogue in 2010 and the High-Level People-to-People Dialogue in 2012, national interests have, indeed, remained of dominant importance both from a European and Chinese perspective. Many European experts still express the concern that Europeans are not sufficiently unified in pursuing their global strategic interests and that China is too often able to play one member state against the other according to its interests. Or, that competition between core individual European companies in the Chinese market remains the rule, although national interests would benefit from a better coordination. This is also voiced when considering some member states’ answers to the BRI. Of particular relevance for Europe has been the signing by several EU member states of a series of memoranda of understanding (MoUs) within the framework of BRI, notably Hungary in June 2015 followed by Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovakia, before the joint position on EU common messages had been reached in 2017. To date, eleven EU member states in Central Eastern Europe have signed a bilateral MoUs on the New Silk Roads with China. A number of Balkan countries, which are not member of the EU, have also followed suit. In addition, a specific framework for cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries (the ‘16+1’ format) has been implemented since 2012 as a means to enhance the development of the BRI in this part of Europe.

Towards a Pan-European Approach

A truly coordinated European approach has nonetheless been gradually emerging. A European common position was reached in May 2017 through the member states’ embassies in China, which led to the release of the first European common messages towards BRI, in the wake of the first Belt and Road forum for international cooperation held in Beijing. The European presence at the summit was limited with only five heads of governments (Hungary, Poland, Greece, Spain and Italy) and the Czech President attending the event. The European common position here confirmed in particular that the EU welcomes China’s initiative to bring investments in cross-border infrastructures ‘at the centre of the debate’. Official documents stated that European and Asian economies are increasingly economically interdependent and

the EU supports cooperation with China on the BRI on the basis of China’s fulfilling its declared aim of making it an open initiative which adheres to market rules, EU and international requirements and standards, and complements EU policies and projects, in order to deliver benefits for all parties concerned. (European External Action Service, 2017)

All with a view to also increase interoperability between the existing and planned networks across Eurasia—be they maritime, land and air, energy or digital—and thus further facilitate trade benefits in both ways.

The 20th EU–China summit held in Beijing on 16 July 2018, thus saw the issuance of a joint statement with the two sides seeking ‘to continue to forge synergies between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the EU’s initiatives, including the EU Investment Plan and extended Trans-European Transport Networks, and to promote cooperation in hardware and software connectivity’. It further stressed that

such cooperation should abide by the shared principles of market rules, transparency, open procurement and a level playing field for all investors, and comply with established international norms and standards, as well as the law of the countries benefiting from the projects, while taking into account their policies and individual situations. (European Council, 2018, p. 3)

This is particularly relevant when considering the EU–China Connectivity Platform, which was initially established in 2015 with the intention to find synergies between the EU connectivity initiatives and the BRI. The 2016 EU strategy on China further highlighted that such connectivity platform should be used to pursue opportunities to improve transport, services and infrastructure links between Europe and Asia, ‘not least by working as a priority together towards an agreement on a list of pilot projects and identification of priority actions’ (European Council, 2016). This becomes increasingly important for the EU when considering that Asia will be facing a $26 trillion infrastructure gap by 2030—a momentum which is further reinforced by the Joint Communication on EU–Asia connectivity released in September 2018 with a view to develop a new EU strategy to connect Europe and Asia.

According to the European Commission trade estimates, Asia, with roughly 60 per cent of the world population, accounts for 35 per cent of the EU’s exports (€618bn) and 45 per cent of the EU’s imports (€774bn). The rationale for the new EU strategy is thus to acknowledge that by comparison to Asian infrastructure needs, the investment in the Trans-European network for transport in the EU should require around €1.5 trillion in the period 2021–2030. The challenge is both in terms of long-term investment and in ‘the rules, standards and practices needed to promote market access and the movement of goods, services, capital and people across borders along the next connectivity projects’ (European Commission, 2018, p. 1). Overall, the proposed strategy sets out that

the EU should work towards connecting the Trans-European Network for Transport (TEN-T) framework with networks in Asia. TEN-T comprises clear priorities and standards to promote cross-border and interoperable multi-modal transport, i.e. a combination of rail, sea and inland waterways. To achieve this objective, the EU could offer technical assistance as appropriate to help its partners plan their transport systems and ensure their interconnection and contribute to the financing of infrastructure wherever relevant. (European Commission, 2018, p. 4)

Based on this, the European Commission has set herself to take further steps towards building the European connectivity strategy including notably ‘developing a methodology to assess the levels of sustainable connectivity in Europe and Asia and its economic impact within the EU and its regions’, promoting the exchange of data for customs and digital transport corridors as well as considering new and innovative financing possibilities for forthcoming projects (European Commission, 2018, p. 11).

The Economic and Local Dimensions

There are overall two major components behind the shaping of European attitudes towards the New Silk Roads. First has been the primary focus of most European countries on direct economic national interests towards the initiative rather than initially considering a common European strategy. China has been, more specifically, targeting two regions in Europe: Central and Eastern European countries and the Mediterranean region with specific importance given to the Greek port of Piraeus, the Land–Sea Express Route between Greece and Central Europe, the China–Europe railway hubs in Poland and Belarus, the seaports of the Baltic states, and Madrid through France as the final destination of the longest China– Europe railway service. Of particular note in this framework has been in Central Europe the recasting of the existing Polish–Chinese projects under the BRI framework, in particular, the two cargo railway connections—the Lodz–Chengdu line, which was launched in April 2013, and the Warsaw–Suzhou line, which began in September 2013. The Lodz–Chengdu connection is probably the most strategic one because it is an open and regular line—trains depart regularly (once or twice a week) (see also Frankopan, 2015). By contrast, the French city of Lyon only welcomed its first delivery of freight from the Chinese city of Wuhan three years after, in 2016, marking the opening of a 15-days rail link over 11,000 kilometres, which builds on a trunk line opened in 2012 between Duisburg in Germany and Chongqing in China. Overall, there have been various levels of developments over time across the member states which partly explain the varying degree of commitment and attitudes to the BRI. As we have seen, some local governments have sought to benefit from what is viewed as an opportunity to attract Chinese investment (see also European Parliament, 2018) or to construct links with the Chinese market. Moreover, most projects in Europe have involved railways connections, which existed in some cases well before the official launch of the BRI narrative. For example, in Germany, the railway links connecting Leipzig to Shenyang and that connecting Duisburg to Chongqing, which were launched, respectively in 2011 and 2012, but labelled as Silk Road projects after 2013.

There are also diverging interests at city and port level when considering the maritime dimension of the roads. The port of Piraeus in Greece, leased by the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) since 2009 for a 35 years period, is the first component of the maritime part of the new Silk Road to European markets, the so-called ‘South Gate to Europe’. It shortened the time of transport of Chinese goods to Europe down by four to ten days, compared to alternative ports of Northern Europe such as Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp. Piraeus has become the fastest growing container port worldwide: the annual throughput of COSCO’s subsidiary Piraeus Container Terminal (PCT) nearly quadrupled (Glass, 2016) between 2010 and 2015 with a global ranking rising from 93rd to 39th in terms of container capacity over the same period of time. Thus, though many Northern European hubs expect new business opportunities from expanding links with the new BRI sea routes, they are also developing new strategies, in particular the port of Hamburg, to cope with this heavier competition from Southern Europe.

Some European experts further feel that Europe may not have that much to gain from the Maritime Silk Road, except for investment in port infrastructure that will only exceptionally constitute game changers for the foreign relations of the recipient country (Duchâtel & Duplaix, 2018, p. 8), especially outside of Europe where most of the investment is estimated to go to Chinese contractors (Kynge, 2018 ). Others point out that the Maritime Silk Road plans are in fact key to Sino-European trade. Most of the goods currently exchanged are transported by maritime routes reaching Europe through the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal. This being said, in the short and long run, overall member states’ perceptions of the BRI and of Sino-European cooperation along the new routes will increasingly depend on the quality and intensity of the cooperation at three different levels: the EU, the national, and the regional and local level and how these relate to a greater European common plan.

Second has been the increasing concern, notably in Western Europe, that the BRI could possibly dilute European political unity and investments rules by increasing competition to attract Chinese investments. As we have seen, the BRI has been perceived very differently by European member states depending on the degree of infrastructure developments and investments, especially in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) which is seen by China as a gateway into the European market. Obviously, the 16+1 format (of which 11 countries are member states of the EU) provides the framework in which such investments are fostered and promoted. At the core of this mechanism are the annual summits that involve China’s Premier Li Keqiang and the leaders of 16 CEE countries. China, thus announced in November 2017, over €2 billion of financial loans in the region and the development of a China–CEEC interbank association for infrastructure developments (see French Senate, 2018). A new railway line was opened between Riga and Yiwu in November 2016 whilst the planned motorway between Serbia and Montenegro could gain new impetus through the funding of China’s Exim Bank and ultimately link the port of Bar to the new roads. There is also the modernization of the Budapest and Belgrade railway line agreed upon in November 2015 under a Chinese loan covering 85 per cent of the costs.

Other mechanisms for cooperation have been put in place with the development of two permanent secretariat, one in Riga and one in Belgrade, to coordinate cooperation in transport and infrastructure developments. A secretariat for maritime affairs was launched in Poland last year and a range of centres across Lithuania, Rumania, Slovenia, Poland and Slovakia dedicated to technology transfers and also cooperation in the field of energy, culture and forestry have been put in place (French Senate, 2018). At the 2016 EU–China summit, Beijing also proposed the launch of new financing instruments to further fund new projects. Although the participation of Russia was mentioned, no decision on the issue has been taken so far (Eder, 2018). In this context, the main concern for the EU is that some issues pertaining to trading matters, standards and norms, which are normally under exclusive competence of the EU, could be raised within a separate format (the 16+1 summit), thereby potentially questioning European common positions.

Perspectives for Europe

There is, however, much room for greater political coordination among European countries on all of this. Chinese investments through BRI and the 16+1 format in CEE remains overall limited when compared to the European structural funds in the region. Estimates show that China would have invested $15 billion in all the 16+1 countries since 2012 (Kynge & Peel, 2017),5 whilst EU funds amounted to €86 billion for Poland alone between 2014 and 2020 and some €25 billion for Hungary (French Senate 2018, p. 59). A number of European experts also express the view that Europe should be more proactive in promoting the range of projects that the EU and the European Investment Bank (EIB) already finance in the CEE and the Balkans and be more forceful about its own contribution both at government and civil society level. Europe should launch a ‘positive marketing’ campaign about its own realizations in the region and link it to its future plans for greater EU–Asia connectivity to the benefits of both sides. Moreover, because the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) are both invited as observers to the 16+1 summits, they could be used by the member states as a springboard to define, whenever necessary, common European positions with a greater coordination among European countries.

The need for greater unity of strategic analysis and planning has also been further reinforced at member states level. Germany has been increasingly advocating the use of the EU–China Connectivity Platform to ensure the conformity of Chinese BRI-related investments and EU rules and standards and as a tool to co-design the new European-Chinese economic corridors (Gaspers, 2016). France also made clear references to the New Silk Roads, notably with President Macron’s speech in Xian on 9 January 2018 during his first State visit to China, which was also the first visit of a European leader since the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist party. Both Germany and France share the view that the silk roads’ fully-fledged success will eventually be determined by its ability to promote balanced cooperation and social, environmental, financial, and anti-corruption norms as well as the respect of intellectual property rights. There are also major opportunities to further cooperate in third countries on joint BRI projects at national level with China or, perhaps even also, with some degree of European coordination among EU member states willing to do so. It would indeed be of relevance for the EU to include a strategic analysis of European cooperation in third countries on dedicated BRI or connectivity proposals.

Last but not least, Europeans should fully take into account the immaterial dimension of the New Silk Roads, including digital infrastructures, people-to-people interactions as well as cultural exchanges (Lisbonne de Vergeron, 2015b) and the developments of wider networks and platforms of exchanges across a range of actors from local authorities, infrastructure, security and business ventures, to research and cultural participants to BRI projects. This will be particularly relevant given the constantly evolving nature of BRI across Eurasia, its remit and areas of developments, and thus will require for Europe to adopt a flexible approach and a strategic capacity to adapt in the short and mid-term.


European perceptions have initially been shaped by national views up until 2017. Since then a more coordinated European approach has emerged. It has been gradually evolving towards a more united message and position. These perceptions have also been shaped by the importance of the EU–China bilateral relation as well as European plans towards Asian connectivity and Europe’s developing strategic approach to Eurasia. The EU greatly welcomes Chinese initiatives through BRI of increasing investments in cross-border infrastructure and greater cooperation with China with the view that it should adhere to market rules, EU and international norms whether financial, environmental or based on access to public tenders. Within the EU also, there have been diverse BRI projects. Some of these have led to concerns over the possibility that the BRI-related initiatives could dilute European political unity or investments rules. There is, however, much room for greater political coordination including by generally seeking to promote the EU–Asia connectivity plans. The reduction in distance-related costs, which the BRI should induce, will in the long run have a major influence on the reorganization of the global value chain along the trade routes between China and Europe (Larçon & Barré, 2017). Chinese multinationals are expected to significantly gain from better infrastructure conditions to enter into European markets but it could also bring significant opportunities for European companies in the mid and long run. The New Silk Roads could indeed raise huge benefits with a clear geographical component: that of becoming the biggest single trading route on land in the world—a big shift in the re-emergence of continental powers through land and railway connections rather than mostly through maritime power projection. All of this will, however, increasingly require to seek to maximize common European interests and strategies at all levels of cooperation to the greater benefit of both Europe and China. And for Europeans to better promote their own vision, strategy and cultural values for global connectivity and exchanges.


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