Jasper Roctus / Aug 2020
China’s foreign policy under the controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been subject to ample academic and popular scrutiny in China since its very inception in 2013. During the early phase of the project (2013-2016), a large quantity of BRI-related discourse showcased an increased sense of self-confidence among Chinese scholars and policymakers. This gave rise to an intent to “reinvent the wheel” by proposing that BRI might pose as an alternative to the Western-dominated world system. After 2016 however, readjusting itself to the election of Donald Trump to the White House, the Chinese leadership has attempted to position itself as a protector of globalization and sustainable development. This transformation also had due consequences for BRI-related discourse, which frequently started to include themes like multilateralism, green development, and anti-protectionism. Concurrently, the reinventing the wheel rhetoric was significantly toned down.
Similar to the general transformation of BRI’s goals and scope, the project’s relation to the EU has also evolved over the last seven years. Chinese scholars and policymakers initially showed strong preference for a bilateral approach aimed at individual EU member states. This was an application of the “taking a case or two as an example for the rest to follow” theory put forward by Xi Jinping in 2014, where successful collaborations under the auspices of BRI were expected to attract the attention of third nations. Under this strategy, the Chinese government largely ignored Brussels, and instead opted to entice the rest of Europe by “setting an example” in countries like Serbia, Greece, and Hungary.
Except for limited successes in tempting said “example countries”, China’s bottom-up approach in convincing Europe of BRI’s advantages has not been entirely successful and has mostly given rise to fears of divide-and-rule in the EU. To counter this, Chinese discourse has recently shown a partial realignment to top-bottom (multi-layered) cooperation with the EU as a whole, taking account of both Brussels and the individual member states. A sharp contrast is thereby visible with the aforementioned “reinventing the wheel” discourse, which perceived BRI as a novel framework bound to supersede the established Western order, and opted to ignore established structures such as the EU.
While Brussels gradually has become part of BRI’s scope, the content and goals of the project vis-à-vis the EU remain ambivalent at best. China’s “empty” approach to BRI might nevertheless very well be deliberate, or at least, culturally embedded. An argument could be put forward that the cultural differences in approaching long-term strategical thinking between China (“collectivistic, inclined to start with constructing a grand narrative”) and Europe (“individualistic, inclined to start with making clear and feasible plans”), have caused certain misunderstandings surrounding BRI’s objectives—or lack thereof.
To employ a famous allegory, Chinese long-term strategical thinking on BRI somewhat resembles the ancient game of Go, with stones (Hungary, Kazakhstan, etc.) being placed seemingly randomly until a pattern eventually appears, hereby posteriori giving strategical significance to the initial seemingly random moves. Western strategical thinking might instead simulate Chess, with many specific and clear short-term—a priori—set pieces giving meaning to a predefined long-term result. This is visible through the divergent approaches of Brussels, which would like to see a clear roadmap for BRI with defined geographical boundaries, and Beijing, which initially opted for Xi’s “to take a case or two” to pragmatically define BRI’s contents.
As one of the final actors of the developed world still enjoying somewhat cordial relations with China, the EU should be aware of its strong terms of trade vis-à-vis the country. In face of the strategic emptiness of Chinese scholars and policymakers, who have lost part of their initial confidence in promoting the initiative as a novel and superior structure, Brussels should be aware they are the frontrunner in filling said void. As the union recently has been aiming to engage more actively in realpolitik since it declared “principled pragmatism” as the prime guiding principle for its foreign and security policy, it could step up to the plate and actively engage with BRI to remold it to a more desirable form.
EU policymakers should be aware of China’s internal narrative shift on BRI, take notice of the union’s strong terms of trade towards China—Brussels being the country’s last developed strategic partner, and highlight the union’s own connectivity platforms to pragmatically shape BRI’s form. While limited pragmatic concessions toward China, such as a partial stop to the union’s earlier focus on values-based diplomacy—i.e. a short-term push for democratization, can be made, an end to divide-and-rule in the EU’s periphery should remain an unconditional red line. At the same time, the union must equally pragmatically convince its “BRI-enticed” member states such as Hungary and Greece that a unified approach to BRI is more beneficial than merely serving as one of China’s “Go-stones”.