M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 104
China's Rise as Geoeconomic Influencer: Four European Case Studies
Philippe Le Corre
Since the 2008 financial crisis, China has become a significant investor in Southern and Eastern Europe. Sectors include energy, transport, financial services, real estate, tourism, port and airport facilities, health, media and technology.
China has used its economic power to expand in some of Europe’s weaker countries including Greece, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Serbia. This paper is scrutinizing Chinese investments and influence in these four countries at the periphery of Europe.
From the Piraeus Harbor in Athens to the Serbian bridge of Zemun-Borca or EdP, Portugal’s main energy company, Chinese state-owned enterprises are now investors in some of Europe’s most critical infrastructures.
In some cases, this has led China to a considerable amount of influence in these European countries which, in most cases, have joined President Xi Jinping’s signature project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Clearly, these long-term investments are part of a Chinese strategy to expand across the European continent, the BRI’s key-target market for Chinese products and services. For European Union and NATO member-states in particular, there are geo-political implications to these fast-developing relationships.
With a combination of state enterprises, government-led financial institutions and sovereign funds, not to forget the strong support of Chinese embassies around the world, China is not a traditional investor. It is aiming at building a long-term presence to help its economy to continue to grow and expand internationally. This is what this research paper is about.
In addition, it is also looking at perceptions from the general public and from the elites of the targeted countries. The paper is partly based on data collected on the ground on China’s image, as well as personal interviews with local actors and analysts. By and large, there has been little debate about China’s rise and presence. Within Southern and Eastern European countries’ public opinions, lack of interest, apathy and pragmatism (“no one else came to our rescue”) dominate. In Serbia’s case, the limited hopes of joining the EU is throwing the country and the rest of the Balkans into China’s arms.
Beijing’s “soft power”, which has been part of the country’s offensive in Europe, has had relatively small successes in these countries, where the lack of alternatives has erased doubts on welcoming Chinese investors or proponents of Chinese influence. Still, the general public remains doubtful as demonstrated by our surveys.
Therefore, the need for alternatives coming from other parts of the world, especially the European Union and the United States, has never been more pressing. The newly-released EU-Asia connectivity strategy is a framework that will help European nations to connect with each other through infrastructures and digital facilities. It is hoped that European solutions can be developed and implemented in the near future.