One Belt, One Road Between Three Seas: China’s Soft-power Policy Towards ‘New’ EU Members

ORCID: Bartosz Dziewiałtowski-Gintowt: 0000-0002-4546-4031

Pages: 93-114

Edition: Lublin 2019

DOI: https://doi.org/10.36874/RIESW.2019.3.6

Citation method: B. Dziewiałtowski-Gintowt, One Belt, One Road Between Three Seas: China’s Soft-power Policy Towards ‘New’ EU Members, „Rocznik Instytutu Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej” 17 (2019), z. 3, s. 93-114, DOI: 10.36874/RIESW.2019.3.6

Abstract: China’s soft-power practice in its international activity boils down to four areas: culture, education, diplomacy, and economy. The most important element of China’s soft-power policy seems to be the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Announced in 2013, the BRI is a complex, long-term and large-scale strategic political and economic project by the Chinese government with an infrastructure character. In this way, China is seeking to invest its capital surpluses in resurrecting the ancient Silk Road to create railroad and maritime networks with its most important trading partner – the European Union. In these circumstances, in September 2015, the presidents of Central and Eastern EU member states announced the establishment of the separate Three Seas Initiative (TSI), a political and economic project bringing together 12 EU states, including 11 ‘new’ members and Austria. These entities constitute an informal bloc of states between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black seas, though without a permanent secretariat but with rotating leadership. In addition to the lack of a formal structure, the TSI region, located mainly in the EU’s eastern part, is characterized by a weaker infrastructure network than Western Europe, lower GDP (except Austria), and high dependence on gas supplies from Russia (except Croatia). To overcome these disparities, the TSI has developed a catalogue of 48 investment priorities in three economic areas: energy, transport, and digitalisation. China’s soft-power policy towards the ‘new’ EU members may be decided by the American patronage of the TSI and the fact that one of the flagship projects is the North-South Gas Corridor, which will enable the sale of American LNG in Central Europe, which has been dependent on gas supplies from Russia, China’s partner in the BRI. In the context of the US-China trade war, White House planners recognise Central Europe as both a peripheral and key area for their policy and seek to strengthen the Three Seas project, which may lead to limiting areas of cooperation under the ‘17+1’ format, involving CEE countries and China. On the other hand, the development of better energy, transport and digital connections in the EU’s east clearly intersects with China’s idea of building a New Eurasian Land Bridge under the BRI to connect the most economically developed edges of Eurasia. The new U.S. strategy towards the countries of the CEE seems to boil down to involvement in specific energy-related projects. Instead of blocking or diminishing BRI-related infrastructure projects in China, they seem in fact to complement the Chinese activity in the CEE. Increased investment by American enterprises in the region may allow the administration in Washington to maintain control of Chinese infrastructure investments, and the US involvement may even lead to the participation of American companies in projects originally started by Beijing.

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