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Belt and Road

Austria warns about China's rising influence in Europe

Beijing is a geopolitical, not merely economic, player, says foreign minister

Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl speaks in Tokyo. (Photo by Shinya Oshino)

TOKYO -- Austria's top diplomat expressed deep misgivings over China's economic inroads in Europe that have now brought Italy, a Group of Seven power, into the Belt and Road club.

"China is getting influence in Southeast Europe. I am watching with great concern," Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl told Nikkei during a visit to Tokyo. She said the rest of the European Union must recognize the risks and deal with Beijing's expansionist wallet diplomacy.

Her remarks come days after Italy and China signed a suite of agreements on Saturday while President Xi Jinping visited Rome. Through its investments, China is outpacing the EU in gaining influence in Serbia, Montenegro and other nations in Europe's southeast that are lagging in development, Kneissl said.

"It is a vacuum," she said. "I am very concerned about it."

Kneissl believes that China's activities in Europe are strategic in nature. "China is not only an investor; China is acting as a geopolitical player," she stated.

Kneissl acknowledges, however, that her sense of urgency is not universal. "Our efforts are not shared by all EU members," she said.

To push back against China's influence, Kneissl said the EU should do more to be involved in the Balkan nations. "From Brussels' point of view, nobody was really interested in bringing these countries closer to the European Union," she asserted.

Kneissl's views align closely with the far-right, anti-immigration Austrian Freedom Party, which is part of the governing coalition in Vienna and nominated her for foreign minister. The growing migrant populations in France, Italy, Germany and other countries have fueled the rise of such populists across Europe. It is widely expected that anti-immigrant parties will make gains in the European Parliament elections in May.

This rightward trend "is nothing new, but it is much harsher now," said Kneissl. She cites the U.S.'s turn toward protectionism under President Donald Trump as a principal catalyst. "Major countries are putting into question the need for multilateral format," she said.

"Everybody, in all kinds of professional layers, is afraid that somebody nearby can do their work for a lower price," she added.

Kneissl holds that people's desire to "get back control" as they fear losing their jobs to immigrants helps explain the U.K.'s decision to exit the EU. London and Brussels have agreed to extend the Brexit deadline as long as the British Parliament can agree to a withdrawal plan. But like many others, Kneissl is uncertain whether a compromise will be reached.

Tensions remain high between the EU and Russia, but Kneissl is known to be personally close with President Vladimir Putin, even dancing with the Russian leader at her wedding last year. She said that Putin's diplomatic aims are not guided by economic returns, unlike Trump's.

"He is not a businessman; he is a man of geopolitics," Kneissl said of Putin.

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