Europe casts a wary eye on China’s Silk Road plans

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PARIS Depending on who you ask in Europe, China's colossal East-West infrastructure programme is either an opportunity or a threat - and when French President Emmanuel Macron visits next week, Beijing will be watching to see how keen he is to jump on board.

Since China launched the New Silk Road plan in 2013, the hugely ambitious initiative to connect Asia and Europe by road, rail and sea has elicited both enormous interest and considerable anxiety.

"It's the most important issue in international relations for the years to come, and will be the most important point during Emmanuel Macron's visit," said Mr Barthelemy Courmont, a China expert at French think-tank Iris.

The US$1 trillion (S$1.3 trillion) project, known in China as "One Belt One Road", would see gleaming new road and rail networks built through Central Asia and beyond, and new maritime routes stretching through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

Beijing would develop roads, ports and rail lines through 65 countries representing an estimated 60 per cent of the world's population and a third of its economic output.

Mr Macron, who started a three-day state visit to China yesterday, will notably be accompanied by some 50 company chiefs keen to do business with the Asian powerhouse.

So far France has been cautious on the Silk Road plan, but Mr Courmont said Chinese leaders were "waiting for a clear position" from Mr Macron at a time when they view the young leader as an "engine" for growth in Europe.

"If Macron takes a decision on how to tackle the Chinese initiative, all of Europe will follow," Mr Courmont predicted.But he acknowledges that Europe is divided on what to make of China's ambitions.

The continent could potentially benefit handsomely from increased trade over the coming decades, but in some corners there is suspicion that it masks an attempted Beijing influence grab.

"They are notably asking themselves about the geopolitical consequences of this project in the long term," Ms Alice Ekman, who covers China at the French Institute of International Relations, said of France and Germany.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the programme has been met with altogether more enthusiasm, given the huge infrastructure investment that China could bring to the poorer end of the continent.

"Some consider the awakening of China and Asia as a threat," Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban told a summit in Budapest in November which gathered China with 16 Central and Eastern European countries.

"For us, it's a huge opportunity," he said, with Beijing using the summit to announce three billion euros of investment in projects, including a Belgrade-Budapest railway line. - AFP