Conversation should be looking beyond trade
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.