China makes new EU inroads despite fears

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic unveiling a plaque to mark the completion of the first phase of construction of the Peljesac Bridge, which is being built by a Chinese company, in Brijesta, Croatia, on Thursday.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic unveiling a plaque to mark the completion of the first phase of construction of the Peljesac Bridge, which is being built by a Chinese company, in Brijesta, Croatia, on Thursday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Visit part of broader effort to reassure increasingly sceptical European nations

BRIJESTA (Croatia) • China's Premier Li Keqiang last week declared that a long-sought bridge over Croatia's Mali Ston Bay, which is being built by a Chinese company with Chinese workers and financed in large part by European Union money, will be a "rainbow on earth".

The reassuring language last Thursday despite cloudy skies and rain while Mr Li was surveying the Peljesac Bridge was part of a broader effort to convince increasingly sceptical European nations that China comes in peace.

Fresh from a summit meeting with European Union leaders this week, Mr Li, who as premier is China's second-highest official after President Xi Jinping, arrived in Croatia for the annual meeting of an economic bloc that China has forged with 16 Central and Eastern European nations.

The thickening ranks of China's economic allies have left European officials increasingly wary.

Last month, Italy formally signed on to China's vast Belt and Road project, a new Silk Road into Europe.

Last Friday, the summit meeting was capped by Greece's announcement that it had joined too.

That does not mean that all is roses even between China and its newly forged economic allies in the group.

 
 
 

But by aggressively courting the nations on Europe's eastern and southern flank, Western officials worry that China is stoking division within the European Union.

Mr Li has tried all week to allay those concerns, promising progress on fair trade issues with Europe, even as he pursues deeper cooperation.

The 16-plus-1 Group was formed after then Premier Wen Jiabao's historic visit to Poland in 2012.

At the time, many countries in the region felt left out of Brussels' negotiations with China.

The grouping was framed by Beijing as an opportunity to give them a greater voice.

Sceptics immediately suspected that China had other intentions, but the economic benefits of trade with China have been hard to resist.

China has already moved ahead with plans to make the Greek port of Piraeus the "dragon head" of its infrastructure push, and it has stepped up investment in Greece, which is still smarting from the austerity measures imposed by its European partners.

China's presence is no longer a novelty in this part of Europe, where its track record is decidedly more complicated than it was when the economic bloc was formed.

Last year, there was more than US$19 billion (S$26 billion) in direct Chinese investment in Europe, a decline of 40 per cent from 2017, and more than 50 per cent from the 2016 peak of around US$42 billion.

And this was before the European Commission published its report, EU-China, A Strategic Outlook, last month, labelling China a "systemic rival" and a "strategic competitor".

Mr Li used the summit meeting to push back against those who accuse China of not playing by the same set of rules as other nations.

"The bridge is a pilot project not only for 16-plus-1 initiative cooperation, but also for our cooperation with the EU," he said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 14, 2019, with the headline 'China makes new EU inroads despite fears'. Print Edition | Subscribe