WASHINGTON, DC — Communist China is using its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other tactics to expand its economic and political clout in Europe at the expense of the U.S.-led liberal international world order and “America’s way of life,” experts told House lawmakers on Thursday.
The expert witnesses also sounded the alarm on a growing China-Russia nexus that some of them believe is converging in Europe, noting that the two U.S. strategic rivals are trying to weaken democracy to accelerate the decline of Western influence.
During a hearing Thursday held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, Andrea Kendall-Taylor from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) think-tank, declared in her written testimony:
China’s growing economic influence in Europe will translate into political leverage. As China’s economic and political influence grows, it is likely to impact … U.S. prosperity and competitiveness. … China’s rapidly increasing political influencing efforts in Europe and the self-confident promotion of its authoritarian ideals pose a significant challenge to America’s way of life.
Although China’s economic investments address a genuine demand for infrastructure, Beijing’s strategy is designed to lay the foundation for an alternative order and is already eroding international norms and standards.
Kendall-Taylor and fellow witness Philippe Le Corre from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned against the rise of the Russia-China nexus in Europe, noting that it is particularly problematic for democracy.
The CNAS expert explained:
Russia’s assault on democratic institutions, including electoral interference, the spread of corruption, and disinformation campaigns, weakens some actors’ commitment to democracy. But it is the alternative model of success that China provides and, more importantly, the revenue it brings to struggling governments that give weak democracies the capacity to pull away from the West.
In a similar way, China’s engagement would likely be less potent without Russian efforts to weaken democratic institutions and loosen commitment to democracy. As China and Russia continue to pursue their shared values and goals, Western democracy will be tested.
In recent months, the European Union has “grown more attuned to and concerned about China,” Kendall-Taylor acknowledged.
Echoing language in U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS), which refers to China and Russia as top rivals, the EU finally acknowledged in March that China is “an economic competitor” and a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”
Consistent with the testimony from other expert witnesses, Le Corre told lawmakers that China’s growing political and economic influence in Europe presents implications for the United States and its alliance with European countries.
He noted in his written testimony:
Economic relations between Europe and China have expanded dramatically over the last decade. The EU is now China’s largest trading partner, and China is the EU’s second-largest trading partner after the United States. … Beijing has been making political inroads in several European countries, with implications for the U.S., NATO, and cohesion on security issues.
Le Corre cautioned that China’s BRI could compromise the United States and NATO’s use of strategic European ports, hindering their ability to contain Beijing’s rise.
He told lawmakers:
NATO as an organization is only starting to look at China as a part of its reflexion, but the bigger question is whether the Alliance is the ideal forum for this new strategic orientation. In one respect of military salience, the emergence of a Russia-China nexus directly affects NATO’s primary mission. The Sino-Russian relationship should not be exaggerated, but the two countries have been conducting joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean, Black Sea, and Baltic Sea. Their military leaderships have increased their exchanges.
On the other hand, intra-European divisions on China may translate into lower effectiveness of NATO, making it a weak platform for pursuing a cohesive strategy to contain China’s ability to project power.
Italy, one of the EU’s founding members, signed on to China’s BRI in March, becoming the first G7 nation to sign Memorandum of Understanding with China in March 2019. The BRI seeks to connect Beijing to Europe and the Western Hemisphere through a massive network of land and sea routes.
At least 24 European countries have endorsed BRI, the Carnegie expert testified.
Echoing Le Corre, the CNAS expert pointed out that although China does not represent a direct military threat to NATO, the alliance will have to address Beijing’s’ growing presence in Europe.
China’s investment in European infrastructure has the potential to interfere with NATO mobility — the ability for NATO to move its troops, tanks, and other equipment across Europe — which is a critical issue that NATO Allies are working to improve. … China’s investment in other infrastructure, like rail, could also diminish NATO mobility.
All experts agreed that China’s political and economic influence is growing in Europe, presenting a threat to America and its relationship with its Western allies.