Con­ver­sa­tion should be look­ing be­yond trade

China Daily European Weekly - - COVER STORY - By SHADA IS­LAM The au­thor is the direc­tor for Europe and geopol­i­tics at Friends of Europe, a think tank in Brussels. The views do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect those of China Daily.

Ties will ben­e­fit if Brussels and Bei­jing work to­gether con­struc­tively on the global stage and are pre­pared to tackle dif­fi­cult is­sues

China’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive has the po­ten­tial to spark a more am­bi­tious and truly strate­gic Euro­pean Union-China con­ver­sa­tion on cru­cial is­sues of global peace, se­cu­rity and eco­nomic gov­er­nance.

Europe has so far fo­cused on the ob­vi­ous trade, busi­ness and con­nec­tiv­ity dimensions of China’s “project of the cen­tury”. That is un­der­stand­able: In a world hun­gry for more in­fra­struc­ture, Belt and Road is cer­tainly about mas­sive in­vest­ments in roads, rail­ways, bridges and ports. It is also about dig­i­tal con­nec­tiv­ity and ex­pand­ing fi­nan­cial and cul­tural links. Busi­nesses in Europe are right to ex­plore just how they can se­cure a piece of the cake.

The EU-China con­nec­tiv­ity plat­form has an im­por­tant role to play in fa­cil­i­tat­ing such a con­ver­sa­tion.

Europe should not make the mis­take, how­ever, of view­ing Belt and Road solely through a nar­row trade and busi­ness prism. As EU lead­ers pre­pare to meet with Pre­mier Li Ke­qiang for the 19th EU-China Sum­mit in Brussels on June 1 and 2, the EU should widen its view of the Belt and Road, see­ing it as not merely as an eco­nomic project but as a re­flec­tion of Bei­jing’s am­bi­tious vi­sion of its role in a rapidly trans­form­ing world.

China’s blue­print ar­tic­u­lates its self-con­fi­dent repo­si­tion­ing in a time marked by un­cer­tain­ties about the United States’ en­gage­ment with the world. As such, Belt and Road cre­ates an ar­ray of hith­erto largely un­ex­plored op­por­tu­ni­ties for a deeper EU-China dia­logue on is­sues rang­ing from peace and se­cu­rity to cli­mate change, Africa and the United Na­tions’ 2030 Agenda for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment.

In re­cent months, EU and Chi­nese pol­i­cy­mak­ers have un­der­lined that un­cer­tain times de­mand their joint re­spon­si­bil­ity to work for a strong rules-based mul­ti­lat­eral or­der.

“We are liv­ing in times of grow­ing ten­sions and geopo­lit­i­cal unpredictability, so our co­op­er­a­tion has never been so im­por­tant,” EU for­eign af­fairs chief Fed­er­i­caMogherini said af­ter a re­cent meet­ing with Chi­nese State Coun­cilor Yang Jiechi.

The chal­lenge now is to turn such state­ments into joint ac­tions.

It should not be too dif­fi­cult. While trade and in­vest­ments con­tinue to form the back­bone of the EU-China re­la­tion­ship, both sides al­ready meet for regular high-level strate­gic dis­cus­sions on global and re­gional chal­lenges. The vast scope and many facets of the Belt and Road pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to strengthen and deepen the strate­gic con­ver­sa­tion as a first step to launch­ing pos­si­ble joint ac­tions.

Three im­por­tant ar­eas de­serve pri­or­ity at­ten­tion.

First, given their joint in­ter­est in Africa, the EU and China should use the op­por­tu­ni­ties opened up by Belt and Road to ex­plore ways of work­ing to­gether to boost the con­ti­nent’s vastly un­tapped de­vel­op­ment po­ten­tial. Europe may once have viewed China’s grow­ing eco­nomic in­flu­ence and out­reach in Africa with a de­gree of wari­ness and sus­pi­cion. But the mi­grant cri­sis has made EU gov­ern­ments more acutely aware of the need to in­ject more funds into Africa’s quest for jobs, growth and de­vel­op­ment. Co­op­er­a­tion with China on is­sues of Africa’s de­vel­op­ment as well as the achieve­ment of the sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment goals is now def­i­nitely in the EU’s in­ter­est.

Sec­ond, China’s new blue­print pro­vides room for a stronger EU-China con­ver­sa­tion on global eco­nomic gov­er­nance, in­clud­ing in the vi­tal area of cli­mate change lead­er­ship as well as mul­ti­lat­eral trade lib­er­al­iza­tion and fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion. With US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump still un­de­cided on whether the US should stick with the Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change, the ini­tial fo­cus should be on EU-China co­op­er­a­tion to main­tain the Paris ac­cord, even ifWash­ing­ton pulls out of the deal.

Third, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s de­scrip­tion of Belt and Road as a “road for peace” and the EU’s re­cent steps to strengthen its de­fense iden­tity open up op­por­tu­ni­ties for more pro-ac­tive EU-China co­op­er­a­tion on is­sues of global peace and se­cu­rity, in­clud­ing in the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea, Iran, Syria and Ye­men, as well as coun­tert­er­ror­ism.

The EU-China re­la­tion­ship will ben­e­fit greatly from a wider, be­yond-trade con­ver­sa­tion that looks out­side purely bi­lat­eral ties to ways in which Brussels and Bei­jing can work to­gether con­struc­tively on the global stage. Such in­ter­ac­tion can go a long way in cre­at­ing more trust be­tween the two sides. It can also help to cre­ate a more sta­ble re­la­tion­ship an­chored in a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of each other’s pri­or­i­ties and con­cerns.

Over the com­ing months, as projects are iden­ti­fied, in­vest­ments are lined up and work starts in earnest, China will have to en­sure that Belt and Road be­comes more trans­par­ent, pro­cure­ment rules be­come more rig­or­ous and projects fit in with the global sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment goals.

The­way ahead is go­ing to be com­pli­cated and dif­fi­cult. China will need to learn how to deal with com­plex de­mands and pain­ful facts on the ground in itsmyr­iad part­ner coun­tries. Europe can help make the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive a suc­cess by shar­ing its know-how and ex­pe­ri­ence.

At the up­com­ing EU-China Sum­mit and af­ter­ward in other con­ver­sa­tions, China and the EU should seize op­por­tu­ni­ties for co­op­er­a­tion, ask ques­tions— how­ever dif­fi­cult— and seek clar­i­fi­ca­tions and ex­pla­na­tions. With Belt and Road, China has em­barked on a long jour­ney and set it­self many am­bi­tious goals. But it can­not do it alone.

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