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Asia

Sieren's China: A foothold in Europe

Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Belarus is meant as a strong show of economic interest in the region. But it's also a sign of the limits of its friendship of convenience with Russia, DW's Frank Sieren writes.

Chinese President Xi Jinping evidently likes to play both sides of the fence. First, he celebrated the end of World War II with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. But after that, he went straight to Belarus, where he met President Alexander Lukashenko.

The visit was a clear signal to Moscow: China wants to work closely together with you and would also like to buy your gas and oil. But in Eastern Europe, we have our own interests.

It was the first visit of a Chinese president to Belarus in 14 years, and Xi made no secret of what he wants from Lukashenko: economic cooperation. The visit led to a new contract for the planned "Great Stone" Chinese-Belarusian industrial complex. It's been on the drawing board since 2010, but companies can finally look forward to doing business there.

Xi described the Belarus industrial park as a "pearl" on a new Silk Road. This trading network, a key objective for Beijing, would connect China better economically with the rest of the world.

Big spender

China is prepared to invest vast sums in the Balkans to achieve its goal. Reliable infrastructure is required to safely transport Chinese goods. As is already the case with many of its Asian neighbors, China is glad to play the role of paymaster to Southern and East European nations who cannot afford such vast expenditures on their own.

While it is the non-EU nations that most need assistance, EU members in the region are also struggling. In the western Balkans alone, an estimated 110 billion euros is needed for infrastructure.

Frank Sieren

DW columnist Frank Sieren

It's hardly a surprise, then, that the Chinese offer has been widely welcomed. Chinese economic delegations in the region are being greeted with trumpets and fanfare. Since the first "16+1 conference" - a meeting of 16 regional states plus China - an average of more than 4 billion dollars has flowed into Central and Southeastern Europe each year. In 2013 China's trade with the region amounted to $60 billion.

Li said the previous 16+1 conference in Belgrade in December had also been a success, adding that over 80 percent of projects from the earlier meeting had already been implemented. As if to prove the point, he released 170 million euros for an expensive bridge over the Danube in Serbia.

A new project was also announced: Rail links between Belgrade and Budapest would be modernized at a cost of 1.5 billion euros. The flow of investment is not slowing, with talk of a 10-billion-euro credit for infrastructure projects throughout the region.

Competition for Brussels

China makes no secret of its ambitions. It wants trade with Europe to expand greatly. Where possible there will be Chinese industrial centers in Eastern Europe to minimize transport costs.

But more is at stake. By engaging with the region, China will naturally gain many friends who will put in a good word in Brussels for their generous sponsors.

Taken together, this is why Lukashenko stated last week that a closer relationship between his country and China would promote Chinese influence in Europe generally. He may be overstating his own value to the project, but he is not the only one thinking along such lines.

The EU's newest members are profiting greatly from Beijing's interest, in financial terms perhaps more than through their membership in the EU. Monies from Brussels flow only haltingly and when they do, are often intended to rebuild institutions or establish the rule of law.

There's no comparison with credit from Chinese banks, whose money lands in bank accounts faster and without strings attached. It's understandable that the EU is fearful of the competition.

DW correspondent Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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