Germany’s foreign minister has rejected China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, warning that it is not in the interests of democracy or freedom, and that the West needs to offer an alternative.
In a blunt speech Sigmar Gabriel also accused China – alongside Russia – of “constantly trying to test and undermine the unity of the European Union”, seeking to influence individual states with “sticks and carrots”.
He said China was using its $5 trillion One Belt, One Road (OBOR) infrastructure fund to promote a value system different from the West.
It was Gabriel’s last major speech as foreign minister – he will lose the role in the proposed new German coalition government despite being one of the country’s most popular political figures.
He was at the Munich Security Conference, the pre-eminent annual gathering of defence and security policymakers, which was also attended by Chinese government officials.
Gabriel said China’s “increasing global leadership” was, alongside Russia’s claims to power and the resurgence of nationalism and protectionism, “leading to massive shifts in our world order with unpredictable consequences”.
“The initiative for a new Silk Road is not – as some in Germany believe – a sentimental reminder of Marco Polo. Rather, it stands for the attempt to establish a comprehensive system for shaping the world in Chinese interest.
“It is no longer just about the economy: China is developing a comprehensive system alternative to the Western one, which, unlike our model, is not based on freedom, democracy and individual human rights.”
Gabriel said he was not reproaching China – it was “currently the only country in the world with a truly global, geo-strategic idea”, and it had the right to develop such an idea.
However the West was to blame for not having a strategy of its own “to find a new global balance”.
“The liberal order which reformed our world after the devastation of two world wars is certainly not perfect,” he said. “But where the architecture of the liberal order crumbles, others will begin to move their pillars into the building. In the long term the entire building will change. I’m sure in the end neither Americans nor Europeans will feel comfortable in this building that is being rebuilt.”
Gabriel said the European Union should launch its own initiative to promote the development of infrastructure from Eastern Europe to Central Asia and also in Africa, with European money, and with European standards.
This would involve seeing Africa as an opportunity rather than a problem.
“China, for example, has been investing in Africa for years, without having to worry that even a single African refugee will reach China,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel’s sentiments were backed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, who both spoke at the summit of growing challenges to Western liberalism.
Philippe said Europe “cannot leave the rules of the new Silk Road to China”.
In September last year Junkcer announced in his annual ‘state of the union’ speech the EU would implement a “framework for investment screening” that would scrutinise any foreign state-owned company’s bid to buy a European harbour, part of its energy infrastructure or a defence technology firm.
Last month British Prime Minister Theresa May disappointed her hosts on a trip to Beijing by refusing to formally endorse OBOR.
OBOR has met resistance in many parts of the world – including Asia, where India is its chief opponent.
However, it also has enthusiastic supporters, such as Pakistan.
China promoted OBOR heavily at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, where Politburo member Liu He delivered a well-attended speech.
“One Belt, One Road is going to be the new WTO, like it or not,” said Joe Kaeser, chief executive of German industrial giant Siemens, according to the New York Times.
Hungary was the first EU member state to join OBOR. Last May Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Central European countries would be “ideal pillars” for OBOR.
“Our gene pool has always made us interested in the question of how to replace confrontation between East and West with cooperation,” he said.
He hailed China’s policy as a “new model of globalisation”.
And Greece has also embraced OBOR, with nearly half a billion euros invested into Piraeus, near Athens, making it the Mediterranean’s busiest port. Chinese state-owned shipping group Cosco now controls the entire waterfront through a majority stake.
Earlier this month former Slovenian president Danilo Turk said OBOR could help bridge the development divide between east and west within Europe.