[Translate to English:] Geldscheine verschiedener Nationen hängen an einer Wand

The West has long had its own "Silk Road"

China is propagating its "Belt & Road Initiative" as a development initiative for the Eurasian continent, thereby pursuing geopolitical ambitions. Yet Europe need not feel small in light of China’s efforts. As a comparison of Western and Chinese financial flows reveals: The West is investing just as much in countries of the so-called "Silk Road" and is the better partner for many countries.

China is using its "New Silk Road" to promote itself to the world. Since 2013, Beijing has made every effort politically to propagate its Belt & Road Initiative as a new development model for emerging markets. Western states are concerned about China’s economic and geopolitical ambitions and are calling for a response to the Chinese strategy.

Our study shows that the West can take a more confident stance vis-à-vis the Chinese initiative. The reason is the study’s comparison of financial flows, which reveals that, despite what is commonly believed, Western nations are investing at least as much in most Belt & Road countries.

Comparison of official financial flows from China and Western sources to the Belt & Road region, 2013-2017, in billions of US dollars

Between 2013 and 2017, there was a total inflow of approximately $290 billion from the West to the countries examined in the study, compared to roughly $285 billion from China. An analysis of individual countries even shows that for a sizeable majority (16 out of 25 countries), the financial flows from the West have been more significant than those from China – e.g. for India, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Egypt and Nigeria. China has been the more important partner for only five countries, above all for Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Laos.

One important reason for this is that China’s actual Belt & Road expenditures have lagged significantly behind the amounts originally announced. In contrast, the flow of investments from Western nations to the countries in the study has been ongoing. The West’s position would be even more favorable if the totals included financial flows from before 2013.

The West is underselling its own engagement. What we can learn from China is how to present ourselves as a good partner for development.

Bernhard Bartsch, Asia Expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung

The West could benefit more from the project

China is also trying to gain support for its Belt & Road Initiative from EU members. This is something political players critical of the EU find useful, since they like to present China as the better partner. Yet the example of Hungary reveals that the numbers contradict the rhetoric: Compared to transfer payments and investments from Western countries, especially the EU, Chinese investments play virtually no role in the Eastern European nation.

Relative significance of financial flows from China, the EU and DAC countries for Hungary, 2013-2017 in millions of US dollars

In view of the considerable funding provided by Western players, particularly the European Union and Germany, the EU can act more confidently as a partner to emerging markets. The discussion of infrastructure creation and investment should not only take place as a reaction to the Belt & Road Initiative.

The European Union and Germany can present their own institutions, technologies, business models and values as alternatives to China’s offerings in the Belt & Road region to a much greater degree than they have in the past. They can also derive greater public and diplomatic benefit from positive examples. The European Union’s Connectivity Strategy, launched in 2018 to promote connections between Europe and Asia, offers an initial platform in this regard. Europe does not need to adopt a fundamentally opposing position to China’s Belt & Road initiative. There are numerous areas within the initiative in which China and Europe are pursuing the same or similar goals. Europe should rather strive to set standards in third countries that would then also apply to Chinese financing. This would allow both sides to join forces and engage in joint projects.

At the same time, China’s Belt & Road Initiative and the attention it is receiving should motivate the West to get much more involved in emerging markets. Relative to its economic strength, China’s engagement is 3.7 times that of the West’s.