DUISBURG, Germany—The struggle between the U.S. and China for global influence has come to Europe’s gritty industrial backwaters, where China is steadily co-opting local economies starting with their railroads.
China overtook the U.S. as the European Union’s biggest trading partner for goods last year, a historic turning point driven in part by Europeans’ hunger for Chinese medical equipment and electronics during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Increasingly, those goods are arriving in Europe through a new trade corridor consisting of railroads, airport hubs and ports built with Chinese support, often as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the giant global infrastructure effort aimed at binding China more closely to the rest of the world.
By greasing the wheels of China-Europe trade, those investments have lifted long-neglected, rust-belt cities in places like Duisburg, Germany, and Liege, Belgium.
Western officials, including in the U.S., have accused China of using the Belt and Road to trap poor countries in debt. The Chinese government has denied those accusations.