Posts Tagged ‘China-EU’

LONDON, 19. MAY, 11:56

Chinese leader Xi Jinping trumpeted his foreign policy vision – the Belt and Road – to great fanfare this past week.

Yet a consistently discordant note was heard from European reporting around the event, with officials talking to press about their lack of understanding of the project. While some of their concerns were understandable, there was an element of missing the point.

  • The symbolic first arrival of a Chinese train in Germany (Photo: DB Schenker)

Xi Jinping may talk in terms of a project, but in reality what we are seeing laid out is a grand vision: one that Beijing is using to re-shape its engagement with the world.

For Europe, it is important to figure out exactly what this means. Otherwise, it could both miss out on an opportunity, and create a series of potential problems with a relationship that will continue to be important going forwards.

First, it is important to dispel what the Belt and Road is not. It is not a giant aid project. Nor has China particularly ever pretended that it was.

Leadership will get caught up in grandiloquent language about how the project is a great gift to humanity. However, in reality, it is a vision of re-connecting the world in a manner that will support Chinese trade flows and help Chinese companies go out into the world.

At its core, it is about helping to develop China’s underdeveloped regions – parts of the country that are deeply disconnected from its bustling ports.

Second, it is important to understand what is actually happening. Not all of the strands of the Belt and Road are new, nor are they all the same.

What has been happening in Central Asia for almost two decades, re-branded as Belt and Road, is not the same or as important domestically to China as newly advanced projects in parts of Africa or Eastern Europe.

At the same time, some corridors seem to be advancing far more slowly: the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM) is one that has been talked about since the late 1990s, but has only now actually moved into clear action across its entire route.

The point is, while the Belt and Road is discussed by Beijing in the same light, the reality on the ground is very different in each and every case.

Third, it is a vision with a long timeline. China is thinking to a very long horizon. In typical fashion for a centrally planned economy, it is considering things into the future and not the short- to medium-term eye-line with which most Western governments operate.

So, when the country looks to build train links across the continent that make little economic sense now, it could be that the lens we are looking at them through is too short.

Once China is able to develop its western regions and create industrial and manufacturing bases out there, it might suddenly become more economically sensible to put goods on trains across the continent.

Fourth, not everything is expected to work – this is a leadership vision and not a project.

The Belt and Road was first christened by Xi during a set of speeches in Astana and Jakarta. Laid out then, they were outlined as a pair of concepts that would slowly catch on and become the defining foreign policy concept that Xi Jinping would offer the world.

Conceptual Nature

The illogical nature of a Belt being over land, while a Road went to sea highlighted the conceptual nature of what was being laid out. In fact, the seeds of the concept could already be found in previous administrations – Jiang Zemin had his “Develop the West” concept, and Hu Jintao’s administration was the one that started up the idea of refocusing on Xinjiang and developing its relations with its neighbours.

Both of these served as ideological godfathers to the Belt and Road, which in essence took this model and internationalised it.

But the point is that none of these were specific projects. They were rather broad policy directives that were launched out of Beijing which were then followed up and pushed out by the many institutions in China, to varying degrees of success.

The BCIM was born under Jiang Zemin and went nowhere, and while the Hu Jintao initiative with Xinjiang and Central Asia was more successful, there are a few projects along the route that have failed to deliver as they were intended.

None of this is that surprising, as, ultimately, the leadership’s announcements should be assessed as a central policy direction rather than detailed plans.

Initially, when the speeches were delivered, there was no specific policy planning behind them.

Now that the concepts have firmly caught on, almost everything has become Belt and Road – in part this is because the concept is so broad (so everything fits under it), but also it is a way for everything to try to connect with the bright vision laid out by the leadership.

This includes ideas and projects that have a very limited connection to the actual Belt and Road – there is an almost inexhaustible list of Chinese regions that have defined themselves as the crucial points on the Belt and Road.

Within this, not everything is going to work (because it never does). But this is not a concern, as ultimately what has been offered is a concept rather than a project, meaning that it will not ultimately fail, as no specific parameter for success has been laid out.

EU Engagement

All of this is essential for European policymakers and thinkers to understand.

If they are to properly engage with the vision, they need to first understand it in granular detail – something that is eminently doable through the numerous reports that have been published, or by undertaking research themselves.

They then need to appreciate what the vision actually is and the timelines to which it is operating, and then finally focus on which aspects do correspond with their specific interests.

China’s biggest problem with this vision is that it requires considerable support, consent and contributions from the countries along and at the end of the routes, and those that are more likely to succeed are those with supportive partners.

Consequently, Europe can choose which aspects it wants to engage with and simply ignore the others. This will not necessarily stop them from happening, but they are not realities Europe has to engage with if it does not want to.

The key in all of this is for Europe to decide exactly what its strategy towards China is going to be, and what it is that it wants to do to engage with this century’s rising power. In the Belt and Road they are facing Xi Jinping’s foreign policy legacy.

Given that the conceptual outline is focused on the Eurasian continent, Europe has an opportunity to re-craft its relations with China in a way that connects with the leadership and potentially has a game-changing impact across the continent the two powers share.

It is not enough for European officials to simply tell the press they do not understand the Belt and Road – the vision is clear enough, but the point is to decide how to engage with it.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute,a think tank in London

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And final catch up post, this time for a think tank I worked for a while ago, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), with whom I am still doing some things. This is a post for their site which focused on some of the issues of the ‘Belt and Road’ strategy and what they need to do to get greater European cooperation on it. This is a topic that is very rich and has lots of work in the pipeline around it.

This aside, to catch up on some media conversations, spoke to The Times, Reuters and La Liberation about the leak of ISIS documents, to Newsweek about al Shabaab targeting aviation and training Boko Haram fighters, to Buzzfeed about Brexit and national security questions, to The Independent about Prevent issues in the UK, to the Press Agency about the attacks in Ivory Coast, to the Associated Press about the latest round of talks in Afghanistan the Chinese are helping with, and a presentation I did recently in Washington on China-Russia in Central Asia got a write up in the Diplomat.

Building Support for the Belt and Road

Xi Jinping has laid out what is going to be the defining foreign policy vision of his leadership in the form of the Belt and Road. An all-encompassing initiative, it is something that repeated Chinese leaders have said they want to engage with foreign partners on, in particular with European capitals given the vision is one that starts in China and ends in Europe. Yet, there is still a lack of clarity around exactly what this initiative actually looks like and how it is that foreigners can engage with China on this project. Beijing needs to lay out more clearly what it needs and wants from the world to implement this vision.

Seen from the outside, the Belt and Road initiative is one that appears to in essence be about building economic and trade corridors emanating out from China. Through the development of transport links – be they rail, road, ports or airports – and the construction and rehabilitation of pipelines, markets, economic zones and more, China aims to open Eurasia while reconnecting China to Europe across the wide landmass they share. The potential impact is a game-changing effect on a wide swathe of Eurasia, something that has not gone unnoticed in Europe where policymakers spend lots of time thinking about how to develop their continent. Yet, connecting on the initiative has so far proven difficult. If China genuinely wants greater cooperation on this strategy, then a number of key things need to happen.

First, Beijing needs to clarify where the routes of the Belt and Road will actually go. At the moment, all of the maps that have been produced are ones that are done by enterprising journalists interpreting official statements. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the body responsible for the vision, has so far not expressed a view or produced a map. This is problematic as it means people are unable to know exactly which Beijing’s priorities are and what specific routes Europe should focus on developing to support and work with China’s plan. For example, generally it is clear that the Silk Road Economic Belt will pass through Central Asia, but which specific road or rail projects is China going to focus on first?

Second, China needs to understand that if they want to maximise external support on the vision, then Chinese led funding initiatives need to be open to foreign contractors. European investment structures like the EBRD or EIB (as well as international ones like the ADB) are very keen to work with China on this vision, but need to ensure that the subsequent project contracts to emerge from investments are put out to open tender. This ensures that the best possible contractors will undertake the projects and ensures that the vision gets carried through in the most effective way possible. This is something that extends beyond simple financing terms and contract procedures: it needs to be made clearer that there is a role for others in Chinese led projects. The key point here is that China needs to be open to working with others in very practical terms to try to advance this vision.

Third, China needs to find ways to discuss sensitive security questions with outsiders. Through the Belt and Road, China is going to increasingly find itself becoming one of the most consequential players on the ground in large parts of Eurasia. With such power will increasingly come a greater regional role, including on sensitive security questions where Beijing will find itself having to try to broker negotiations and agreements between sides in open conflict with each other. This is already happening in Afghanistan, and as time goes on Beijing will find itself ever more involved in such discussions across the continent. Europeans have some experience and understanding of some of these questions and would be willing to share their intelligence and experience with China if Beijing showed an equal level of openness in discussions. Genuine cooperation and deeper understanding come from a full and frank exchange.

There are clearly a great deal more detailed issues that need to be discussed, but these three overarching points need to be addressed before greater detail can be gone in to. China needs to understand that many in Europe are keen to cooperate on this vision, but they need some greater clarity to able to find practical ideas for what cooperation can look like in practice. By offering a more detailed outline of what this initiative physically looks like and what projects Beijing is prioritising, opening up to the idea of making joint investments, and being willing to participate in more frank and open security discussions, Beijing will find receptive doors across Europe. All of which will be essential to ensure President Xi’s vision turns into a long-standing foreign policy legacy reconnecting the Eurasian landmass along the old Silk Roads.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Not the actual title of my latest article for Oriental Morning Post (东方早报), but instead the title of an article in the Telegraph that quoted my recent ISN piece. Wen’s trip to Europe also elicited an interview with Reuters, which they used a small quote from that was picked up in a variety of places. In any case, here is the link to the Dongfang Zaobao piece (in Chinese), and below is the text I drafted in English.

Premier Wen Jiabao returns from his latest European trip with a raft of new deals and contracts with old European friends. In contracts geared to bring benefits to both sides, Premier Wen’s trip led to the signing of deals worth $15 billion in Germany (part of which was a purchase of some 88 Airbus planes), $4 billion in the UK and $1.8 billion in Hungary. He also announced the establishment of $2.8 billion fund to support cooperation between Small to Medium sized Enterprises (SME) in China and Germany and a special loan of $1.4 billion to support similar relations between Chinese and Hungarian firms. But while these deals show the strength of the Sino-European relationship, the fact that they are the big issues to come away from Premier Wen’s trip to Europe shows the relatively immaturity of the EU-China relationship. This is not a “strategic partnership” with any depth.

The blame for this is two-fold. On the one hand, Europe has not managed to clarify its decision-making processes yet. The selection of Herman van Rompuy as President of the EU and Catherine Ashton as Foreign Minister was a conscious choice by the member states of the European Union to maintain authority over Brussels, the traditional seat of power in the EU. Neither are known as being aggressive leaders, and the member states have continued to use Brussels when it is useful and ignore it when it is not. The result has been to confuse matters with outside partners uncertain of whether they should focus their efforts on the member states or Brussels when they are looking for a partner to talk to in Europe.

But at the same time, China remains a hesitant actor on the world stage. Unless dealing with obvious trade or economic questions or issues that are seen as “core interests,” China is not a very certain actor in international relations. The traditional policy is one of “non-interference”: but as a Chinese colleague put it to me the other day this can also mean, “not doing anything.” The end result is that as China’s interests in the world are expanding, its capacity and ambition to do anything have not matched this growth. This has led to trips like this latest one to Europe, where big trade deals have been signed while there has been little serious discussion about anything else.

This is unfortunate, as both China and Europe share interests in the world beyond trade. To look at Libya, both suffered greatly as a result of Colonel Gadaffi’s slow strangling of his nation and the subsequent chaos that it caused. China lost unknown billions in investment and had to suddenly evacuate tens of thousands of citizens. Europe had to evacuate less people, but nevertheless lost a major energy supplier and an equally substantial investment. While now there is some divergence on how to address the problems that the chaos in Libya has thrown up, there is clearly a joint interest in making things better and in establishing ways that such situations can be avoided in the future.

And beyond Africa, both China and Europe clearly have a keen interest in making sure that things in Afghanistan and Pakistan calm down considerably from their current tense tempo. While clearly it is the US that is the lead actor in AfPak at the moment, both China and Europe have active interests in ensuring stability prevails and some discussion of what they want to do there in the longer term might be a good idea. And it is not only geopolitical questions that are important: climate change remains an crucial issue to both, but aside from discussions of developing green technologies, there was surprisingly little conversation between China and her European interlocutors on this topic this time around.

All of this is a missed opportunity, as clearly China is coming to a period of reconsidering its position in the world, while Europe is figuring out how to do more with fewer assets. A moment that would lend itself to more comprehensive consultations between Chinese and European leaders than the trade and economics show that just took place.

The point is simple: trade between nations will always take place. In a globalized world, men will always sell things to each other across borders. If we want to make this into a truly “strategic partnership” however, then we need to deepen the seriousness of our discussions beyond this realm. In this way, the EU-China relationship can live up to its long-missed potential.