by Raul Mckenzie
A conference titled ‘European Union and OBOR’, hosted by the Brussels-based South Asia Democracy Forum (SADF), was held in the European Parliament (EP) on May 5, 2017. The objective of the conference was to discuss and understand the China-initiated ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR)project, Beijing’s economic, geo-political and strategic motivations behind launching this initiative, and best responses by countries in the EU, to it. Moderated by Paulo Casaca, Executive Director of the SADF, among those who participated in the event were Ryszard Czarnecki, MEP and Vice-President of the EP, Fulvio Martusciello, MEP, Siegfried Wolf, Senior Researcher on OBOR at the SADF, and Mehran Marri, Baloch representative to the EU.
In his opening remarks, Casaca spoke of the need for greater clarity on OBOR, in view of its still ambiguous nature, and the rapid pace at which it was being used by China to make economic and strategic inroads into Europe.
Providing a perspective, Siegfried Wolf described OBOR as the most ambitious foreign policy initiative undertaken by China since 1949, and highlighted the fact that through this mega-project, China aimed to build a multi-polar world conducive to its national interests, using its economic prosperity over the previous decades to create more political and strategic space for itself, internationally. Discussing the various components of OBOR, he stated that while China describes it in relatively altruistic terms, namely as being based on the principles of mutual benefit and win-win, many of the participating countries and partners like the EU, remain sceptical. Identifying the drawbacks of OBOR, he stated that it had no formal institutional structure, China preferred to negotiate though bilateral arrangements with individual states rather than multilaterally, there was a lack of transparency in decision-making, leading to corruption, and China preferred negotiating with the national elite in the countries concerned, to the exclusion of local actors, leading to resistance from within. He also highlighted the fact that OBOR had long-term geo-political and strategic implications for Europe, creating political and economic dependencies, accompanied by the real threat of poorer EU states succumbing to the political leverage exercised by China, through massive infrastructure investments.
In his address, Ryszard Czarnecki, MEP, cautioned European countries not to take at face value, Chinese claims that OBOR would result in a win-win situation for all partners. He drew specific attention to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship OBOR project being implemented on the ground, which had run into deep opposition from locals, who saw it as a means of further exploiting their resources, in keeping with the Chinese track record in Africa. In his remarks, Fulvio Martusciello, MEP, referred to the currently stalled Belgrade-Budapest railway project, and stated that the unscrupulous methods adopted by China only further confirmed suspicions about the long-term objectives of OBOR. He opined that through OBOR, China would not only acquire companies in Europe, it would also try and impose Chinese regulations, standards and gradually increase its influence over countries in the region, making their economic growth dependent on China.
In his remarks, Mehran Marri referred to the first-hand experience of local Pakistani communities and the Baloch people, through whose lands the CPEC was passing, and highlighted their suffering and repression at the hands of the Pak army. Holding up the mirror to countries in Europe hoping to benefit from OBOR, he stated that as the CPEC experience clearly showed, China was not driven by any altruistic motives, and was not promoting OBOR to improve the lives of the local people. On this occasion, a short film on opposition to the CPEC in Pakistan, was also screened.
The event, held days ahead of the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing, witnessed a lively discussion, and was attended by MEPs, diplomats, academics, opinion-makers and journalists.