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The EU's Connectivity Strategy: An Answer to China's Belt and Road Initiative?

By Bart Broer

21 September 2018

A shortened version of this article was published by EurActiv on 19 September 2018

This week, the Commission adopted a new EU Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia. This Communication, which has been submitted for political endorsement by the Council, has potentially wide-ranging political and economic ramifications as it seeks to link the two continents closer together.

The key objective of the new strategy is to strengthen “connectivity” between Europe and Asia– an umbrella term used to indicate the wide array of physical, digital, energy and human connections within and between Asian and European states. In a nutshell, the adopted strategy aims to “improve connections between Europe and Asia, including through interoperable transport, energy, and digital networks.”[1]To that end, a series of proposals are made relating to the improvement and extension of air, road, rail and sea transportation networks; the proliferation and streamlining of digital systems which facilitate those physical connections; the strengthening of energy connections between Europe and Asia; and the reinforcement of connections between individuals (students, researchers, and the like). 

The strategy seeks to position the EU as a leading player in providing sustainable, credible and viable infrastructure investment. As such it will be regarded by some as a geopolitical challenge to China which has launched its own Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with substantial funding for investment in infrastructure.

I. What is connectivity, and why does it matter?

To arrive at an understanding of not only what precipitated this strategy but also of the geopolitical implications the strategy may engender, it is necessary to more closely consider the concept of “connectivity” along with its prominent rise on the agendas of policy makers worldwide.

Connectivity refers to the establishment of networks on the supranational, national or personal level. It holds that both states and individuals can only reap the full benefits of globalization when the world is connected through permanent and highly advanced physical and digital linkages. These linkages may be in the form of well-planned and well-maintained physical and digital corridors, as well as in the form of the harmonization of applicable procedures and systems facilitating these corridors (e.g. customs procedures, technical standards).

Connectivity is thus primarily, though not exclusively, about the availability of quality infrastructure. Infrastructure investment needs in Asia and Europe are vast. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has estimated that an astronomical amount of $26 trillion is required to meet all infrastructure requirements in Asia between 2016 and 2030, the majority of which will be required for energy infrastructure.[2]Connectivity hence engenders large economic promises. 

There are political incentives to invest in connectivity. Investments abroad may be used as a vehicle for the reinforcement of political influence and the realization of strategic objectives. The construction or acquisition of critical infrastructure, such as electricity or gas connections, ports, or of strategically located land routes by a foreign investor may bring about geopolitical implications. 

For example, Chinese investments into Dutch, Belgian, French, Spanish and most notably Greek ports and Portuguese energy companies have prompted the European Commission to propose an EU-wide investment screening mechanism. Similarly, Chinese investments into Sri Lanka’s southernmost port of Hambantota, strategically located at the crossroads of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, have led the government in Colombo to lease the port and surrounding acres of land to the Chinese until the early 22ndcentury – sparking concerns in Brussels, Delhi and Washington about the potential military usage of the premises.

Greece, having received significant Chinese investment into the port of Piraeus, inhibited the EU from taking a concerted position on Chinese human rights violations and on China’s conduct in the South China Sea. The Sino-led 16+1 forum, bringing together 16 Eastern and Central European States and China, has drawn criticism from EU officials for undermining the Union’s unity and for disrespecting the Union’s exclusive competences on trade and customs policy.   

In turn, political influence stemming from investments in connectivity may bring about security implications. In the case of China, BRI “helps to reinforce the emerging global narrative that China is moving to the centre of global economic activity, strength, and influence.”[3]In the Asian region, smaller states may feel compelled to prioritize economic or development cooperation with China over their security interests.[4]The changing balance of power in Asia may in turn reverberate on the global level, with the United States, another major connectivity player, feeling compelled to beef up its diplomatic or military efforts in Asia to, for instance, ensure the endurance of its present alliances in the region (such as the Republic of Korea or Japan) and ensure lasting freedom of navigation in the South Chinese Sea. 

Connectivity is not just about political might or economic benefits – it also extends to the harmonization of technical standards.A nation succeeding in moulding the relevant international technical standards to match its own, has a competitive trade advantage. 

Seeking to capitalize on the potential of connectivity, many states have adopted connectivity agendas. These documents, typically presented as “national strategies” or “connectivity plans” take a dualist approach. First, they put forward a package of loans, grants or guarantees to mobilize investment; second, they stipulate a set of criteria on the basis of which other countries are eligible for that funding. 

As such, the United States recently presented a Free and Open Indo Pacific strategy outlining the country’s economic vision for the Indo-Pacific. The presentation of that vision in July this year saw the announcement of an initial $113 million worth public funding for connectivity in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN adopted a “Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025”; and Taiwan presented a “Southbound Policy” to counterbalance PRC presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Needless to say, the largest connectivity initiative so far has been put forward by Beijing. Through President Xi’s landmark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s Charter, China provides financial capital for infrastructure investment throughout Asia and Europe. This week, in an increasingly tense geopolitical environment and in what seems to be an attempt to counter China’s BRI, the European Commission adopted its “Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia”. This strategy is an unequivocal demonstration of the EU and its Member States’ eagerness to step up their connectivity game to reap the innumerable benefits a better and more closely connected Euro-Asian continent. 

II. The EU’s connectivity strategy: a bird’s eye view

The Communication puts forward policy proposals in four key areas (transport, digital, energy and people-to-people connectivity). Its true significance however, lies not in these policy proposals per se, but rather in the concept that underpins them: sustainable connectivity. Sustainable connectivity encapsulates “the European way.”[5] 

In essence, the approach holds that connectivity must be sustainable from an economic, environmental, social, and financial point of view. Connectivity needs to make economic sense to drive productive and create growth and jobs; it should be environmentally sensitive and respond to the challenge of climate change; it should respect labour and human rights; and it should avoid the risk of debt distress.[6] The EU’s partners should follow the example the EU sets in its internal market in guaranteeing non-discrimination, a level playing field, equal access to infrastructure for businesses and in promoting an open investment environment while protecting its critical assets.[7]

 The EU’s approach to connectivity is furthermore “comprehensive” – it emphasizes the interoperability between different transport networks – and “rules-based” – it seeks to be in accordance with and reinforce internationally agreed standards, practices, rules, conventions and technical standards which enable the interoperability of networks and trade across borders.[8]  

On the basis of this “sustainable approach to connectivity”, the key actions proposed cover the following areas.

Transport connectivity

The EU’s Trans-European Networks for Transport (TEN-T) framework forms the basis of the EU’s transport policy. Most notably, the Commission proposes to “explore the possibility of” extending the mandate of the TEN-T coordinator to the entire Enlargement and Neighbourhood region.[9]This would allow for the transport networks of these countries to be integrated with the EU’s TEN-T networks. 

Furthermore, the EU will work towards the necessary long-term decarbonisation of sea and air transport in particular.[10]It will negotiate maritime transport agreements and aviation agreements to bolster trade and investment opportunities, and it will continue to work with the relevant international agencies issuing technical transport standards to promote the digitalisation and administrative simplification of transport, including through the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).[11] 

Digital connectivity

The EU will pursue its Digital4Development strategy in Asia to mainstream digital technologies and services into its development policy.[12]

Energy connectivity

The EU sets out to promote “regional energy connectivity platforms that focus on market principles, encourage modernisation of the energy system and the adoption of clean (decentralised) solutions, energy efficiency and support energy connectivity both between and with partners in Asia.”[13]

Human connectivity

The EU will continue to promote the international mobility of students and researchers through existing programmes (Erasmus; Marie Skłodowska Curie), and it will encourage city-to-city cooperation.[14]


The text also tables actions on using bi- and multilateral partnerships to leverage the EU’s approach to connectivity globally. The EU will streamline its approach to connectivity in the development and investment dialogues with its partners.[15]The EU-China Connectivity Platform, the usefulness of which was put into question after failing to deliver concrete results, is mentioned as an example. 

The most notable proposal made in the field of partnerships is the piloting of “regional connectivity cooperation approaches for Asia, providing an analysis of connectivity-related activities in specific regions, connectivity gaps and opportunities for cooperation.”[16]Such approaches would be highly instrumental in identifying opportunities for Europe’s private sector.


The strategy would lack credibility if the EU were to not include financial commitments in the form of loans, grants or guarantees to mobilize further investment. The strategy, however, seems to fall short of true financial commitments. The Strategy recapitulates the EU’s current mechanisms for external investments, most prominently featuring the European Fund for Sustainable Development (EFSD) – which primarily serves the Africa and the Neighbourhood countries. 

The text furthermore reiterates a series of Commission proposals on the revision of the Union’s external investment architecture,[17] and on the next multiannual financial framework (MFF)[18]in which the Commission placed significantly greater emphasis on sustainable connectivity and on the need to blend public and private loans, grants and guarantees to mobilize additional investment. 

The EU will strengthen its partnerships with International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), including the European Investment Bank (EIB), the ADB, and the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which play a crucial role in providing additional investment financing.[19]

Lastly, the EU will continue to press for a wider accession to the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement and on improving the transparency of export credit systems.[20] It will also establish a “Business Advisory Group for Euro-Asian Connectivity” to assist European businesses in identifying potential Asian markets and investment opportunities.[21]

III. Initial observations

The strength of the new strategy can be assessed in two ways: first, in terms of its normative strength, second, in terms of the effectiveness of its implementation.  

First, the proposition of “sustainable” connectivity is most certainly one of a normative character. From the notions of economic, environmental, social and fiscal sustainability flow the normative ideas that procurement processes should be open and transparent, that companies should enjoy a high level playing field, that connectivity initiatives must promote adherence to international norms and standards rather than lead to economic or political dependence. These notions and norms already reflect those embedded in the WTO, the EIB, the EBRD and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

The communication clearly stipulates the EU vision on connectivity, constructed on the idea of sustainability. It clearly lists the conditions on which the EU is willing to engage with its partners on connectivity, and on which it is open to seeking synergies with connectivity initiatives of its partners (most notably, BRI and the United States’ Free and Open Indo Pacific strategy (FOIP)). 

Normatively, the Communication may open up unexpected pathways for cooperation with countries such as Pakistan,[22] Sri Lanka[23] and Malaysia,[24] which have recently experienced negative ramifications of Chinese investments, such as involuntary transfer of equity or a rapidly rising national debt. These states may be welcoming an approach to connectivity that prioritizes long-term economic, environmental, social and fiscal sustainability over short-term economic benefits. 

Second, the effectiveness of its implementation will also influence the overall success of the new strategy. On this count, the outlook appears to be less positive. The extent to which implementation will be successful depends on a variety of factors.

Level of specificity

It is hard to overlook the rather low level of specificity and commitment of the Joint Communication. The vocabulary used to introduce actions (“should”, “could”, “may consider”, “explore”, “where appropriate”, etc.) may indicate the lack of willingness of various Commission Directorate-Generals to commit themselves to particular actions that they deem unnecessary, or, for which the current MFF has not provided the financing.

Many key actions appear rather nebulous or unsubstantiated. For an institution highly fundamental in attracting private financing, the EIB’s role in implementing the strategy remains comparatively vague. The strategy does not propose new programs to strengthen Euro-Asian connectivity, but rather seems to give an overview of what programs the Union is already undertaking. The level of ambition is set rather low. Apart from the establishment of a “Business Advisory Group”, the strategy does not create additional incentives for European businesses to contribute to the implementation of the EU’s strategy. 

Many of these weaknesses may be explained by the wish of the Commission to avoid pre-empting the Council’s current MFF negotiations. Nonetheless, the low level of specificity and the cautious, somewhat passive vocabulary used do not credibly position the EU as credible and sustainable provider of investment financing. 

On a positive note, the piloting of “regional connectivity cooperation approaches” for Asia is a welcome and necessary commitment. Such approaches can comprehensively map Asia’s connectivity needs, the presence of other players in the region, information about bidding procedures, and opportunities for EU businesses. The results of these mapping exercises, which may be conducted for countries or for larger regions, can serve as a platform for engagement with the beneficiary states. 


Given the absence of a catchy brand or title for the strategy, a sound branding or public communications strategy is essential. In order to compete with existing connectivity initiatives, most prominently of which the BRI, the EU will not only have to offer an alternative but also sell it. The strategy should be mainstreamed in the EU’s foreign policy undertakings, and the Commission may consider the appointment of a special envoy or special representative for connectivity in order to strengthen public visibility. 

Delegations of the EU and embassies of the Member States should be mobilized to engage with the EU’s partner on connectivity and point to “the European way” of providing connectivity financing. Existing fora relevant for connectivity such as ASEAN or Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) can be instrumental in such a public communications plan – the upcoming ASEM Summit in Brussels in October may provide an excellent opportunity for the EU and its Member States to leverage its approach by engaging with ASEM members on the topic of sustainable connectivity. 


A third, if not the most crucial, factor defining the strategy’s success is whether the Member States, as part of their discussions on the next MFF, can agree to include a strong emphasis on investment and sustainable connectivity. If the Council were to follow the Commission proposals for the next MFF, this would allow a significantly larger share of EU funds to be used to mobilize further investment into connectivity ends. This would render the EU’s connectivity strategy more credible, and would facilitate the attraction of additional MDB, IFI and private investment. 

Commission Services or the EEAS may want to engage in outreach to the Member States to ensure that sufficient funding in the next MFF is allocated for sustainable connectivity, infrastructure and investment. The pending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, as a result of which the EU loses a fair share of its budget, renders such an outreach even more urgent. 

Guarding the EU’s unity 

As discussed earlier, recent years have seen a select number of Member States depart from the EU common position on a series of China-related resolutions or policies. Member States that have received significant Chinese investments may feel compelled to exercise vigilance promoting this new strategy. Conversely, Member States such as Germany[25] and France[26] have expressed full support for the upcoming strategy and may wish to more proactively guard their respective economic and security interests in the face of a progressively assertive China.

Ensuring that the 28 Member States take similar positions on the strategy at home is not enough. Implementing the strategy also requires the Member States to coordinate their positions at international organizations (in particular at MDBs but also at intergovernmental organizations such as the World Bank, the IMF and the UN and standardization agencies). Unfortunately, the political sensitivities that arise with connectivity are not conducive to the common positioning of the Member States. The EEAS together with a number of likeminded Member States should take the initiative in ensuring well-prepared common positions at key international bodies. 

Seeking alliances

The EU will not be able to independently strengthen its image as a credible and sustainable provider of connectivity financing. It should seek the support of likeminded partners such as Japan, which has the financial means to invest in connectivity; India, which shares some of the European concerns regarding BRI; Australia; and possibly the United States. 

By focusing on multilateralism – and not bilateralism – as the preferred means to engage with the international community, the EU not only distances it from bilateral connectivity initiatives such as the BRI, but also commits to using its existing partnerships (such as technical standard-setting bodies) to further its connectivity cause. 

The EU can also use multilateral as a public space to hold its partners account to multi- or bilaterally agreed standards on sustainability. Both Russia and China, for instance, have agreed to a range of sustainability commitments in summits with the EU[27] and have subscribed to the ASEM definition of connectivity, which makes ample reference to sustainability.

Promoting secondary legislation

Lastly, the Communication is not a document on its own. Rather, it is part of a larger body of (proposed) secondary EU law to allow the Union to better defend its interests in the face of an increasingly competitive geopolitical environment. The on-going negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament on the investment screening mechanism are expected to conclude under the Austrian Presidency of the Council. The entry into force of this “internal” protection mechanism and the gradual rollout of the connectivity strategy will have mutually reinforcing effects. 

The success of this strategy will depend on whether the EU is able to credibly position itself on the global market as a viable, sustainable and welcome provider of financing for connectivity. The articulation of the “European way” of forging connectivity is in itself already a success, yet the EU must strengthen its unity and back up this vision with a credible financial picture, a full-fletched public communications strategy, and a broad bi- and multilateral outreach program to its partners.  

IV. Geopolitical implications

The adoption of this new strategy will have a number of geopolitical implications, most notably on the Eurasian continent. With the EU stepping up its Eurasian connectivity game, competition for connectivity projects in the region is set to intensify. 

Even though Commission officials have been quick to underline the neutrality of the communication, the new strategy is likely to increasingly position the EU in opposition to China.[28] The EU’s strategy is a consequence of as well as a testimony to China’s growing influence on the Euro-Asian continent. As such, China’s refusal to tackle the dominant position of its state owned enterprises led the EU to refuse to grant China market economy status. Beijing’s targeting of European technology has also led to plans for screening of Chinese investments in Europe. 

The major infrastructure investments under BRI have raised concerns in Brussels, as well as Washington, Delhi and other capitals about the implications of China’s approach. This spring EU ambassadors in China penned a report critical of the BRI for being economically, environmentally, socially and financially unsustainable. It also criticized China for discriminating against foreign businesses, the lack of transparent bidding processes and the limited market access for European businesses in China.

China’s involvement in the EU and its neighbourhood have also rung warning bells.In 2014, Montenegro concluded an agreement with China Exim Bank on the financing for 85% of a highway construction project, with the estimated cost equalling 25% of the country’s GDP. The IMF has repeatedly stated that construction should only continue on the basis of concessional funds. Many believe that a debt default is likely, which may result in the involuntary handover of critical infrastructure to China. 

Likewise, China’s entire or partial acquisition of ports in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and most notably Greece has not gone unnoticed. Without serious hindrance, China is buying up critical infrastructure in Europe, whereas European foreign direct investment in China is decreasing. 

Similarly, European officials have also questioned the environmental and economic sustainability of various Chinese connectivity projects. The planned construction of six coal-based power plants in Pakistan whose joint output capacity equals 27% of the country’s current capacity has been criticized as environmentally unsustainable. Sri Lanka has been unable to repay Chinese loans for the construction of the Hambantota port. As a result, the port and surrounding acres of land, strategically located at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, will now be under Chinese control until the year 2114. Malaysia and Myanmar are also seeking to renegotiate loans taken out under the BRI.

By putting sustainability at the heart of its connectivity approach, the EU implicitly denounces China’s BRI. Even though the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs stated that the BRI presents a welcome tool for engagement with China and that synergies between BRI and the EU’s connectivity projects must be sought,[29] this strategy is a clear signal that the EU will not engage with China – or any other partner – on the basis of their respective terms only. 

Notably, Russia is only mentioned once in the entire communication, and no references are made to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Given the geographic size of Russia, investing in connectivity in the Eurasian region seems impossible without its, or the EAEU’s, involvement. Understandably, the EU’s current stance on Russia is not particularly conducive to this end. Rapprochement seems unlikely but may be necessary for the EU’s new strategy to prosper. Even though alternative trade routes to Asia are opening up via Turkey, the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia, it is hard to imagine that true Euro-Asian connectivity can be achieved without e.g. the approximation of technical standards between the EU and Russia/EAEU. The striking absence of oil and gas pipelines in the communication is yet another indication of the EU’s internal political divisions as regards its Russia policy.

The emphasis the EU’s strategy places on sustainability and multilateralism may strengthen the EU’s alliances with a number of partners. For instance, Japan – caught by surprise by the deteriorating relationship with Washington – shares security-related and economic concerns about BRI,[30] India has voiced related concerns on the BRI[31] and so has Australia.[32] As for the United States, possible cooperation seems more complicated. Even though the US FOIP strategy does attach great importance to the sustainability of connectivity, the Trump administration has not been particularly keen on endorsing the multilateral system or the values enshrined therein. Although both the EU and the US have indicated their wish to find synergies between the EU’s connectivity initiative and the FOIP, cooperation with the US on connectivity in Asia should therefore not be taken for granted. A potential void in the “Quad”[33] brought about by Washington’s refusal to subscribe to the multilateral trading system, could hence be filled by the EU.  

V. Conclusion

The new strategy will give Asian and European states a much clearer idea on the basis of which the EU wishes to engage with them, and what they can expect. In order to successfully implement the strategy however, the on-going negotiations for the next EU budget will be crucial in allocating sufficient EU funds to connectivity financing in order to mobilize additional investment from private and multilateral investors. The strategy will also need unconditional and united support from member states, a solid public communications strategy, and broad bi- and multilateral outreach programmes to the EU’s partners. The rather loose nature of the commitments in the strategy must be compensated for by ambitious connectivity policies of the next European Commission, to be appointed in the autumn of 2019.   

Geopolitical competition in Eurasia is set to increase with China, Russia, the US and the EU competing for influence. The connectivity strategy of the EU has set down a marker that the EU is part of the Great Game. 

Bart Broer is a Research Fellow with the EU-Asia Centre.

[1]European Commission & High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HRVP), Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the European Investment Bank: Connecting Europe and Asia – Building blocks for an EU Strategy, JOIN(2018)31 final, p.1. 

[2]Asia Development Bank (ADB), Meeting Asia’s Infrastructure Needs, Manila, 2017. 
Of this $26 trillion, $14.7 trillion is required for energy infrastructure, $8.4 trillion for physical transport connections, $2.3 trillion for telecommunications infrastructure, and $0.8 trillion for water supply and sanitation.

[3]Ely Ratner, Geostrategic and Military Drivers of the Belt and Road Initiative. Statement before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 25 January 2018.

[4]As is arguably the case with the Philippines with its recent handling of the dispute over the South China Sea, see ibid

[5]JOIN(2018) 31, page 2.

[6]Ibid,page 1.

[7]Ibid,page 2; COM(2017) 487, Proposal for a Regulation of the EP and the Council establishing a framework for screening of foreign direct investments into the EU.

[8]JOIN(2018) 31, page 3. 

[9]Ibid,page 6. 

[10]Ibid,page 4.

[11]Ibid,page 6.

[12]Ibid,page 5; SWD(2017) 157 ‘Digital4Development: mainstreaming digital technologies and services into EU Development Policy’.

[13]JOIN(2018) 31, page 6.


[15]Ibid,page 7.

[16]Ibid,page 8.

[17]COM(2018) 644. Towards a more efficient financial architecture for investment outside the European Union.

[18]COM(2018) 321. A modern budget for a Union that protects, empowers and defends – the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027.

[19]COM(2018) 31, page 11.

[20]Ibid.,page 12.


[22]Saim Saeed, POLITICO, China’s plans to rule the seas hit trouble in Pakistan, 17 August 2017.

[23]Maria Abi-Habib, New York Times, How China Got Sri Lanka To Cough Up A Port, 25 June 2018.

[24]Blake H. Berger, The Diplomat, Malaysia’s Canceled Belt and Road Initiative Projects and the Implications for China, 27 August 2018. 

[25]Wendy Wu, Business Insider, China could be using ‘divide and rule’ tactics to gain influence in Europe, 2 March 2018.

[26]Michel Rose, Reuters, China’s new ‘Silk Road’ cannot be one-way, France’s Macron says, 8 January 2018.

[27]See, for instance, the joint statement of the 20thEU-China Summit of 17 July 2018 in Beijing, in particular point 10; EU-China leaders’ statement on climate change and clean energy of 16 July 2018 in Beijing, in particular points 3 and 4.

[28]Keegan Elmer, South China Morning Post, Is the EU trying to derail China’s European ambitions with its new connectivity plan for Asia?, 8 May 2018; see also Garima Mohan, German Marshall Fund of the United States, Europe’s Response to the Belt and Road Initiative, Policy Brief 014/2018.

[29]Strasbourg, 11 September 2018, Speech by HR/VP Mogherini at the plenary session of the European Parliament on the state of the EU-China relations.

[30]Forbes, Japan Is Committing To China's Belt & Road Initiative, But What's In It For Them?, 17 April 2018.

[31]Darshana M. Baruah, Carnegie India, India’s Answer to Belt and Road: A Road Map for South Asia, 21 August 2018.

[32]Tom Holland, South China Morning Post, What could be worse than belt and road? A copy of belt and road, 26 February 2018.

[33]The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia.