The 1000th China to Europe freight train is loaded with cargo at a station in Zhengzhou, central China's Henan Province, on December 25, 2017 (XINHUA)
The leaders of France and the UK both undertook their first visits to China last month. On January 8, French President Emmanuel Macron announced in Xi'an, a city key to the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, that Europe and China must work together on the development of a modern-day Silk Road. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May, who arrived in Beijing on January 31, agreed with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in a press conference that the UK was "a natural partner" for the Belt and Road Initiative.
A gradual process
The two visits seem to have dispersed the argument that Western European countries are less interested, and thus play a less significant role than Southern and Eastern European countries in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Such an argument is not ill-founded. The Belt and Road Initiative is designed to be an open-ended one, and its geographical scope has never been totally clear. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Central Asia and Southeast Asia respectively in September and October 2013 to propose the initiative of collectively building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, Europe was not the intended audience. Europe's role remained largely ambiguous until March 28, 2015, when an official document titled Vision and Actions on Jointly Building the Belt and Road specified that "the Belt and Road runs through the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa, connecting the vibrant East Asia economic circle at one end and the developed European economic circle at the other, encompassing countries with huge potential for economic development." However, the document only mentioned two geographical parts of Europe, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, in elaborating on the specific regions involved. And according to a widely circulated list, the Belt and Road countries include none of the Western European countries, but all of the 16 Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs) who hold annual "16+1" summits with China.
Among the nations of Western Europe, the UK was originally the most high-profile player in the Belt and Road. In March 2015, the UK was the first in Europe to reveal its intention to join the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), causing a wave of European countries to join themselves. In October that same year, Xi visited the UK and together with then Prime Minister David Cameron launched a "golden era" of bilateral ties, with several flagship projects agreed upon as Belt and Road cooperation got underway. However, the Brexit referendum of June 2016 has dragged cooperation off track. While campaigning for a snap election, May, who came to power following the
referendum, did not attend the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in May 2017 as widely expected. In fact, Western Europe was not suitably represented at the forum, a high point of Belt and Road diplomacy. There were eight state or government heads from European countries in attendance including the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Serbia and Spain, but the Big Three—France, Germany and the UK—sent only envoys.
However, in recent months there has been a noticeable change in the level of interest shown by Western Europe in the Belt and Road. European Union (EU) institutions are pondering how to renew the synergy between Europe's connectivity platforms and China's Belt and Road Initiative. Officials from the major European countries have also been working to devise a real strategy which incorporates the Belt and Road. Discussions on the Belt and Road are also highly visible in the media and among think tanks, while business circles are more eager than ever to explore opportunities arising from the China-proposed initiative.
According to observers, there are three reasons behind this change. The first is that at the beginning the Europeans believed the Belt and Road Initiative to be but another empty slogan. Nevertheless, having seen the scale of effort and investment coming from the Chinese Government, they are beginning to take the initiative seriously. Secondly, a large number of academic conferences, policy discussions and media coverage on the Belt and Road Initiative, some sponsored by the Chinese Government, have led to more qualitative research results. Views that regard the Belt and Road Initiative as the exportation of surplus production capacity or as a regional scaling project have been replaced by more sophisticated interpretations which see the initiative as a reconfiguration of geoeconomic and geopolitical order and thus a potential challenge to Europe's own system. Thirdly, the Europeans are beginning to feel the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative at home. The "16+1" framework has been embraced by the CEECs, becoming an important platform for Belt and Road cooperation. This has provoked unease in the EU and Western Europe, imagining a Chinese plot to divide the region. The divergent attitudes of Western and Eastern Europe toward Chinese investment are easily felt in Brussels.
The best choice
West European countries are consequently paying more attention to the Belt and Road Initiative than before, but they will not sign up to the plan unconditionally. Macron and May's speeches during their respective visits to China mentioned their terms and conditions in equally diplomatic ways. Macron described how roads "cannot be one way" whilst May expressed her wish to ensure that the Belt and Road Initiative "meets international standards."
Yet despite the frictions of trade and investment, China's relationship with Europe remains one of the most amicable in the global arena, with Europe seeking to build a partnership with China on international affairs. There is consensus among Europe's elites that as the United States resorts to protectionism and its relations with Russia deteriorate, the best choice is to work more closely with China. The sum of this equation is that Europe shall cooperate with China on the Belt and Road Initiative, China's hallmark project reflecting its new thinking about the world.
The natural forces pulling for closer Sino-European cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative are strong. Nevertheless, there are three actions China can take in order to lubricate the process. The AIIB must be deployed to showcase that the Belt and Road can indeed be built on internationally accepted rules, while Chinese companies should learn about European rules of government procurement, competition, environmental protection, and property rights before they enter the European market. Actions related to Belt and Road cooperation initiated by European governments should also be welcomed, while Chinese diplomats should seek to understand counter strategies to the Belt and Road Initiative, when and where they arise. Lastly, by engaging various European actors, including local authorities, private businesses and regional organizations, the countries of Europe can be made to feel the project's tangible benefits, maintaining the dynamic of cooperation.
The author is an associate researcher at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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