Over the past decade, amidst China’s phenomenal economic and military growth—a far cry from the so-called “peaceful rise” of the early years—the world’s focus has turned to Asia, especially the Indo-Pacific. Much of this focus has been dominated by infrastructural connectivity needs. A 2017 Asian Development Bank (ADB) report estimated Asian infrastructure needs between $22.6 trillion to $26 trillion through 2030. The idea that regional dominance will be won via infrastructural connectivity has been gaining ground since the announcement of China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, which only accentuated global threat perceptions and competition.
Existing Alternatives to BRI
Several initiatives have been introduced to offset and offer alternatives to the BRI. Asian economies like Japan, via the Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI, initiated in 2016), and India via the Security and Growth for All (SAGAR, launched in 2020) have sought to build alternatives, and not counters, to the BRI, knowing that they cannot alone match the BRI’s massive investment capital. Although the United States launched its “pivot to Asia” in 2011 with infrastructure in mind, it took the United States eight years to launch the infrastructure-focused Blue Dot Network (BDN) initiative with Japan and Australia as a potential counter to China’s growing influence. The newly resurrected Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has upped the efforts to challenge China, with its recently launched new infrastructure partnership. Quad partners have already financed over $48 billion worth of regional infrastructure since 2015.
Such multilateral ventures have experienced steady growth in the past five years in a bid to potentially offset the BRI and fiscally match it. For example, in 2021, Western democracies announced three major long-term plans: the Group of Seven’s (G7) Build Back Better World (B3W)—an “affirmative initiative” to provide alternatives to Chinese investments by meeting the demand for infrastructure in low and middle-income countries; the United Kingdom’s Clean Green Initiative—a key part of its contribution to the G7 B3W—to support sustainable infrastructure and green technology in developing countries with a £3 billion commitment over the next five years; and the European Union’s (EU) Global Gateway strategy in December. How does Global Gateway fare vis-à-vis the BRI, and what are its key objectives?
Inside EU’s Global Gateway
In June 2021, the EU implemented “a set of high impact and visible projects and actions globally.” In September, European Commission (EC) president Ursula von der Leyen, in her State of the Union address, introduced the Global Gateway as a soon-to-be-launched “connectivity strategy”—not an initiative. She outlined its aim as creating “links and not dependencies” by building partnerships focused on “investments in quality infrastructure, connecting goods, people and services.”
In December 2021, the EU officially launched its Global Gateway strategy to build resilient connections across the world. However, the strategy is not an altogether new creation; it builds on the 2018 EU-Asia connectivity strategy and connectivity partnerships with Japan (2019) and India (2021). It will mobilize €300 billion in investments between 2021 and 2027 “in both hard and soft infrastructure” across digital; climate and energy; transport; health; education; and research sectors, creating an “enabling environment guaranteeing a level playing field.”
Global Gateway envisions boosting connections within Europe—by implementing a Team Europe approach to bring together EU member states and their financial and development organizations—and beyond, by engaging with international partner states to “promote sustainable connectivity investments.” It also aims to strengthen international stability and cooperation, and show “how democratic values offer certainty and fairness.” Global Gateway is also based on “equal partnerships”—a principle effectively directed against the BRI, which has been accused of encouraging excessive dependency via its “debt traps.”
Through the Prism of Rising EU-China Tensions
The Global Gateway strategy must be viewed in the context of deteriorating relations between the EU and China. Although bilateral ties were expanding with the signing of an in-principle Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), in December 2020, the relationship took a turn for the worse in March 2021 as the EU (alongside the United States, UK, and Canada) imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials and a company over human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. China retaliated by sanctioning several individuals (including European lawmakers) and institutions—universities, think tanks, and research institutes across the EU, the United States, the UK, and Canada. Soon after, the EU reportedly called out China’s “authoritarian shift” under President Xi Jinping and acknowledged fundamental differences between their ideologies. In May, the European Parliament voted to freeze the ratification of the CAI, stalling the deal that had been in the works for seven years, deepening the rift in EU-China relations.
Further, in December 2021, before the EU connectivity strategy was announced, a briefing by the European Parliamentary Research Service identified the BRI as an opaque venture that threatens the “traditional model of multilateral infrastructure financing,” and presented the “rationale for a joint Western alternative to BRI.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that China welcomed all initiatives that help developing countries boost infrastructure development, but Chinese state-owned media described the strategy as a “rubber check” that is “prone to fail,” and the EU as a “loosely-bound grouping” with doubtful intent.
Challenging China within Europe and Beyond?
Unmistakably, Global Gateway is designed to counterpoise China’s $1 trillion to $8 trillion BRI, which seeks to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe via land and maritime networks. China has significant economic influence in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Western Balkans. Its cooperation framework with CEE and the Balkans, called the 17+1 (now, 16+1 after Lithuania withdrew), aims to boost investments in regional infrastructure and trade and promote cultural ties. Therefore, Global Gateway will first target regions in its periphery, including CEE. In Africa, too, the strategy will envision filling the investment gap created by China’s misguided “bigger equals better” approach. The EC president has already promised to discuss Global Gateway with African leaders during the February 2022 EU-Africa Summit.
The strategy plans for projects across the globe, competing with BRI not only in Africa and Europe (including the Arctic), but also Latin America and the Indo-Pacific. It is aligned with the B3W vision, the UN’s Agenda 2030, and the Paris Agreement. Thus, Global Gateway could be “a true alternative”—a unified Western response to the BRI. Its aim to invest in both “hard and soft” infrastructure will serve it well against the BRI, which covers an expansive scope both in terms of geography and areas of investment.
Overcoming Divisions within Europe?
The EU is worried about China sowing more discontent in Europe through its BRI reach and 17+1 (or 16+1) initiative. Individual member states also face the inherent dilemma between short-term benefits and long-term dependency on China—which the rest of the world’s results do not promote optimism. As recently as 2018, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel had warned against China’s growing influence and interference in Europe, even as Germany’s foreign policy allowed for a pragmatic approach to China. Global Gateway, if executed right, could play a key role in identifying the gaps and needs in the various European sub-regions, allowing it to strengthen connections through its Team Europe approach and create more opportunities for the European market.
Furthermore, post-Brexit—EU-UK relations have continued to be strained. In a bid to assert its post-Brexit ambitions, the British government has laid out its “Global Britain” agenda. In March 2021, the UK outlined its role in the world over the next decade. One of the critical points of this document is the UK’s “Indo-Pacific tilt,” an attempt to intensify its role as a key European power in the Indo-Pacific. Concurrently, the EU also intends to strengthen its own role as a geopolitical and economic actor in the region, outlined in its recent Indo-Pacific strategy. Notwithstanding their difficult relationship and their need to build their own autonomous gateways into Asia, can the EU and UK cooperate in the Indo-Pacific? Global Gateway, with its unifying call for building “resilient connections,” might serve as an option.
Rebuilding Transatlantic Ties?
The announcement of the Australia-UK-U.S. (AUKUS) security pact in September 2021 revealed the growing chasm between the EU and the United States. The deal created deep resentment in Paris (for undercutting France by abruptly canceling the Franco-Australian submarine deal) and Brussels (over secrecy and lack of consultation). The timing of the announcement, coinciding with the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, was also suspect. Finally, with the haphazard withdrawal of NATO-U.S. troops from Afghanistan, leading to the return of the Taliban, trust in Europe’s long-time ally, the United States, reached an all-time low.
AUKUS served as a wake-up call for the EU, making it question its dependence on the United States and encouraging calls to decouple from Washington to maintain strategic autonomy and “pause and reset” the EU-US relationship. The thaw began as the new EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council (TTC) held its first meeting amid the diplomatic churning. Thus, Global Gateway can be a unifying factor. Not only is it “Europe’s contribution to narrowing the global investment gap,” but it also has a transatlantic vision because of its alignment with the B3W as “mutually reinforce each other.” Therefore, the strategy could accomplish a two-fold purpose: to repair the rift in transatlantic ties and continue to build strategic autonomy.