View from abroad: As Europe and US tackle internal dilemmas, China dominates global conversation

Updated October 06, 2018

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Chinese President Xi Jinping. — File Photo
Chinese President Xi Jinping. — File Photo

FOR the next year or so, the future of Europe, its many internal dilemmas and unresolved challenges will dominate the headlines.

There is much to fret about. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declining power and “lame duck” status. The Brexit mess. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s “Dancing Queen” routine at the Conservative Party conference was fun but hardly reassuring. Months of fierce wrangling lie ahead.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s crazy rants and rambling don’t appear to be running out of steam, making the world a more perilous place.

So it’s a relief to fly to Asia for a few days to meet with colleagues in Singapore for a discussion with European and Asian experts on how best to deal with “Global China”.

The question is on everyone’s mind. The once poor country of over one billion people, cultural revolutions and famines is now a global power which is both admired and feared. No more junior partner, China is very much a leading regional and global actor.

And it’s scaring everyone — especially in the United States. And to a lesser extent in Europe. Asians, meanwhile, are struggling to find ways to deal with their most powerful neighbour.

China’s move from “calculated modesty” to a new sense of confidence requires everyone to readjust. China’s focus is on “Eurasia”, not the US, says a veteran and much-respected Singaporean scholar.

China’s vision of a connected Eurasia is reflected in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) unveiled by President Xi Jinping five years ago, he says. The blueprint envisages a huge free trade area including Africa. “It’s a deep down longing” in China and explains Beijing’s interest in Europe.

The BRI is motivated by a mix of geopolitical and geo-economic factors, say other experts, pointing out that China needs to open up new foreign markets and production bases, address issues of China’s over-capacity in steel and spur the development of the country’s less-developed regions.

In addition, the blueprint is part of China’s efforts to bolster its soft power, showcase the wisdom of China’s way of doing things and increase its voice on the global stage.

But the reality doesn’t always live up to the ambition. Even Pakistan, widely viewed as an obedient and unquestioning friend of China, is beginning to have second thoughts about some projects being implemented as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Typically, reports about Pakistan’s stance on CPEC are confusing and confused. Is Saudi Arabia in or out? Are Pakistani business leaders for or against? And does anyone care what civil society representatives think?

The news from Malaysia is clearer as the new/old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad voices doubts about the huge sums of money the previous government has invested in BRI projects. Governments in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are engaged in similar self-reflection.

US views on China, meanwhile, are hardening by the day. For many experts, the US-China trade war is about much more than commerce, it’s about Washington seeking to curb the rise of China and to engineer an economic “decoupling” of the US and China.

America would like other countries to share its scepticism of China. But while the world is certainly not rushing into China’s arms as it did a few years ago, no nation wants to get caught into the Sino-American crossfire.

India, while unhappy with several aspects of the BRI, is not at all anxious to endanger its fragile friendship with China. And while it was initially opposed to the BRI, Japan has now voiced a readiness to cooperate with China on the initiative.

Certainly, Europe shares some of America’s concerns about China. But it is seeking to forge an independent China policy.

Europe has watched with a mixture of confusion, curiosity and concern as China has embarked on the BRI, worldwide but also within Europe. The EU’s recently unveiled connectivity has been called a response to the BRI — but it is more than just that.

The EU strategy with its focus on “sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity” and projects which comply with international environmental, labour and fiscal standards, provides China with a useful rule book on how best to make some the more abrasive aspects of the BRI compatible with international norms.

Also, if “marketed” properly, the EU plan could be a godsend for baffled Asian, African and Latin American nations, which are looking for help in negotiating infrastructure projects with China.

The Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels on Oct 18-19 will certainly discuss the BRI but also the European and other connectivity plans.

A “sustainable connectivity index” expected to be endorsed by the ASEM summit will provide a full picture of the different types of connectivity projects which already exist or are being planned.

The world certainly needs better infrastructure, transport, trade, energy, digital and people-to-people links. China has the cash — but it needs the experience, knowledge and know-how of Europe and other partners to make the BRI a success.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2018