A few weeks after Xi’s speech in Astana, the Silk Road concept started to evolve from neighborhood to the remote regions, including Central Europe. This was especially visible during Li Keqiang’s visit to Romania in November 2013, where he took part in the 2nd China-Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) summit. In the joint document, both sides declared the intention to construct an international railway transport connections and establish preferential economic areas along them. Li announced that China, Serbia and Hungary have signed an agreement to jointly build a railway between Serbia and Hungary, while in April and October 2013 two direct railway cargo connections were launched between Poland and China: Łódź-Chengdu and Warsaw-Suzhou.
The Silk Road has been also extended to Western Europe. The best example was the Chongqing-Xinjiang-Duisburg cargo rail route, opened in 2011, seen now as a part of the Silk Road. Xi Jinping, during his trip to Germany early this year has visited Duisburg where he witnessed the arrival of a cargo train at the city's railway station from Chongqing.
But is the Silk Road beneficial for Europe and Europe-China ties? It seems that this concept might be especially profitable for Central and Eastern European countries which focus on strengthening relations with the PRC after years of mutual insignificance and strive for balancing huge trade deficit and attracting Chinese investments. Let’s have a look at Poland – former socialist state, “new” EU member and the biggest CEE country. Briefly, Poland perceives the Silk Road as a chance or tool for real implementation of “strategic partnership” with China, launched in late 2011.
First of all, the Silk Road might be a tool for increasing bilateral trade, especially rise of Polish exports to China and attract Chinese investments as the concept indicates setting up economic zones along transport corridors with an aim to create manufacturing facilities of Chinese enterprises.
The Silk Road creates also a chance for closer cooperation with Western China – as this part of the PRC is the gateway to Europe and has higher economic growth than China’s average annual GDP. This part of China presents more economic opportunities for Poland than cooperation with the eastern provinces, where there is strong competition from companies from the U.S. and Western Europe.
The Silk Road concept may also facilitate cooperation between local governments as many projects are implemented locally – e.g., Łódz-Chengdu direct rail freight service has been initiated by a Polish private company and then supported by Łódź provincial authorities. This local idea resulted in opening the Łódz Office in Chengdu.
Moreover, the Silk Road might be a tool to upgrade infrastructure in Poland, which still needs restructuration. New logistic lines might be an opportunity to set up Chinese distributors centers for sending goods to China. Poland is very interested in setting up transport/communication hubs which enable more convenient transshipment and more rapid transport to the other “inland” destinations e.g., to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, etc.
What is more, being an important part of the Silk Road, or even the European frontline and bridgehead for China, Poland may upgrade its position in the EU and enhance cooperation with the PRC.
But despite miscellaneous potential benefits, there are challenges and question marks. The Silk Road is a Chinese idea based on Chinese interests, which means that e.g., Chinese efforts would be to raise its exports, not necessary imports.
So far, the Silk Road is mostly a one-way initiative. The best example of small profits are Łódź-Chengdu and Warsaw-Suzhou railway cargo connections. They are used mostly to import products from China and trains return almost empty to the PRC without Polish products. Among the reasons is the fact that China subsidizes these railways connections to Europe to dispatch its overcapacities and secure its own exports.
Chinese initiatives and offers based on Chinese interests and conditions are not always beneficial for European countries and/or not convergent with EU law. Best examples are the $10 billion credit line China offered the Central and Eastern European countries, which favorites Chinese companies and demands a Chinese workforce, and a pledge to establish special economic zone in each country dedicated only to Chinese investors.
The Silk Road concept is still unclear and concrete tools are unknown. In that sense, there is a possibility that Chinese initiatives under the Silk Road might be undertaken to fulfill local government criteria – such as export volume, dispatching Chinese labor force abroad, gaining experience in a specific area – without paying attention to economic benefits for China and European countries.
But overall, there are more potential benefits than threats. It seems that most of European countries, especially CEE states, share aforementioned view on the Silk Road. Despite the fact that European/EU countries pursue their own policies towards China and in that sense may compete with each other, there is a room for joint European “win-win” cooperation. The Silk Road if used jointly and wisely, may contribute to whole Europe-China relations. For example, Chinese direct railway connections with Europe, which pass several European states, as well as potential Chinese investments under the Silk Road concept may help in catching up and narrowing the development gap between Western and Eastern Europe, and as a result enhance Europe’s cohesiveness and improve Europe-China and intra-Europe connectivity. But to take advantage of the Silk Road, European side should focus on reciprocity with China and closely cooperate with each other e.g. through joint projects (e.g. between European bordering regions on trans-border infrastructural/transport projects) under the Silk Road concept.
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