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#BeltAndRoadInitiative – Time for some European realpolitik

Guest contributor



“The BRI comes closest to a plan to help mitigate existential threats to the developed world,” Sir Douglas Flint said at a recent talk hosted by British think tank Asia House. The UK’s Special Envoy to the BRI emphasized that this includes “climate change, population growth, and economic inequality”, writes Oliver Stelling.

Today (5 MAy), a few weeks later, he might have added another threat: pandemics. With the terms of its future relationship with the European Union (EU) up in the air, Britain will say what it must to attract Chinese investment but the point is well made. The New Silk Roads between China, Asia, Africa and Europe are not just about movement of goods.

They also offer communication lines, stronger people-to-people bonds, academic exchange and closer cooperation in research, including food security, climate change and public health.  For sceptics this just validates their concerns. An initiative that uses a catchall phrase to reassign hundreds of existing and new projects under this scheme is hard to pin down or be held accountable, causing unease about the CCP’s true geopolitical intentions and growing control of transportation and logistics routes.

President Xi acknowledged deficits in openness, fair tendering and commitment to financial and environmental sustainability at the 2nd Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in April 2019. He specifically pledged the pursuit of more highquality development and debt sustainability, abiding by national and international laws and regulations on open, transparent and non-discriminatory public procurement procedures, and more efforts to combat corruption.

Some commentators called this a ‘rebranding’, suggesting it’s all about optics. But this is not just propaganda. Too much is at stake for an economy that was already slowing before the coronavirus outbreak. As Sir Douglas put it at Asia House: “China, I believe, recognizes that gaining international financial support for BRI is dependent upon confidence around the integrities, sustainability and economic validation of individual projects.”

Public discourse about Belt and Road has evidently turned into a tale of two worldviews, dividing stakeholders along geographic and ideological lines. However, a prolonged impasse is not a foregone conclusion.

In Bridges to Everywhere – Connectivity as Paradigm, Parag Khanna makes the argument for connectivity as a word-historical idea like liberty or capitalism. China is placing Belt and Road in that same realm, portraying the BRI as eponymous with connectivity and in line with its stated vision of building a community with a shared future for mankind.

That also correlates with thoughts by renowned Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei (quoted by Parag Khanna): “Historical models of order have been built on spheres of influence, but a stable global society today must be based on co-creation across civilizations. Such a balanced system is what […] Zhang Weiwei describes as asymmetrical rather than hierarchical. It is one in which maintaining stability requires self-restraint and mutual trust among diverse powers.”

Part of this is a call for the West to show respect and accept China’s rise. Chinese intellectuals have long insisted that the past 200 years were an anomaly and that China only reclaims its rightful place on the world stage. While no power is entitled to its status based on historical merits, China’s phenomenal rise over the last forty years certainly deserves respect. China is now a key global actor and no longer a developing country. But it is still lagging behind in global discourse power. Belt and Road was supposed to change that and it still might.

If connectivity is right up there with liberty or capitalism then it sure won’t go away anytime soon. Belt and Road is its proxy and failure not an option. Given the escalating tensions with the US and the fact that most belts and roads end in Europe, the EU has a role to play in the reset of the BRI.

Europe should reassess its stance and seek an active role in shaping Belt and Road 2.0. Unlike Trump’s isolationist ‘America First’ agenda, Prof. Zhang’s idea of co-creation, self restraint and mutual trust looks instantly compatible with deep-rooted European values. Europeans also favor a more measured response to China’s rise and hold greater sway in persuading Beijing to uphold the rules-based international order and continue opening its system.

The question is how committed would China be to those principles if put to the test?

A reality-check:


In the years following Xi’s announcement the BRI was seen as ambitious and visionary but also loosely defined and ever expanding. China addressed that lack of a cohesive policy by creating more than a hundred think tanks dedicated to the study of Belt and Road. Beijing also invited global academics, commentators and policy-makers to fill “the amorphous construct” of the BRI with content. This is where the idea of co-creation takes root.

At national level, the concept is firmly embedded in the daily administration of the BRI, which has no formal institutionalized body but one overseeing authority that operates under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). A number of governmental agencies and ministries are in charge of guiding, coordinating and implementing all work and almost all provinces in China have their own BRI implementation plans.

Belt and Road is not about absolute control but guidance and shared responsibilities. And contrary to popular belief modern China has a highly adaptive and consultative mode of governance that allows for flexibility that could be extended to co-creation “across civilizations”.

The EU already acknowledged that the bloc must adapt to the changing economic realities when dealing with China. Both have entered a strategic partnership called the ‘EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Co-operation’, an open and dynamic framework for dialogue and collaboration in line with the progression of EU-China relations. This provides a platform for the review of all Belt and Road challenges and opportunities.

Co-creation of the BRI would have to be based on clearly defined interests and principles and a commitment to a more inclusive Belt and Road that meets EU standards. Whatever risks remain should be outweighed by the advantages, not least the collaboration on joint initiatives on public health.


China’s shift to more assertiveness has been a matter of debate for years. Since Beijing managed to contain the virus its self-confidence has surged again, with some official statements raising more than a few eyebrows around the globe. The US is not holding back either. The insults and provocations hurled at China by the President Trump and his Secretary of State Pompeo lack civility and seriously undermine the US’ global standing.

Europe, the US and China must work together to defeat the virus and the EU is best placed to take the lead in bringing all parties together. For China this is of particular importance as the ongoing tit-for-tat could further erode international support for its flagship initiative. Belt and Road cannot afford that. Those who stuck with China so far tend to take a more long term view of the BRI and remain convinced that the fundamentals have not changed, that Belt and Road is the engine of regional integration, people-to-people connectivity and a facilitator of economic opportunity for millions along the New Silk Roads. It might even hold the keys to resolving humanity’s shared challenges.

Such patronage is highly valuable but shall never be taken for granted. It is therefore vital to tackle any perceived or real negative feelings head-on. “Support for the initiative will not come without first addressing negative sentiments”, Sir Douglas said at Asia House. That requires a little humility and self-restraint.

Former president and architect of modern China Deng Xiaoping foresaw the backlash. His advice for China was to lie low as it grows economically. “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”, Deng famously said. That rule still applies.

Mutual trust

Co-creation and self-restraint are trust-building measures in themselves but it takes more: the assurance of factbased, open and transparent communication. If Belt and Road is ever to get back on track, the first priority must be to remove all uncertainty about the origin of the coronavirus and the reasons behind the delayed initial response – full disclosure to get closure.

Next on the list: a verifiable approach to the pledged greater transparency around Belt and Road. This could also help remove the confirmation bias – a major obstacle to broader advocacy. When perceptions of those who seek out information and data are influenced by everything that confirms their pre-existing notions then China can’t win, even if it does the right thing. Take spending for instance.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Heritage Chinese Global Investment Tracker put total spending on the BRI at roughly $340 billion during 2014–2017.

According to Bloomberg spending was slightly less, “just $337 billion” or one third of $1 trillion, the most common estimate of total infrastructure investment, in the period until November 2019. The “just $337 billion” may be factually correct but insinuates something else: the BRI is failing. To recap, this is about a staggering $337bn spent to date. Compare that with the US.

More than three years after winning the election on his promise to remake America, the US president’s infrastructure plan is still on halt. Trump’s latest push lacks revenue sources for almost half the assigned $1 trillion amount – roughly $450 billion proposed for roads, bridges, public transit and much more. Even US Republicans are unconvinced it will ever pass Congress. But no one argues the infrastructure plan is a failure per se. Such sentiment is reserved for Belt and Road and its architect China.

In a multipolar world, cooperation on shared challenges is the only sensible path forward. Although not perfect, the BRI might just be mankind’s best chance to get started and improve as relations evolve. Zhang Weiwei provided the academic foundation and Europeans are beginning to chart the political course along similar lines: “We face enormous challenges when dealing with China. That is why we need a China strategy. Ideally a Western, but at least a European one, which treats China as partners, competitors and rivals,”

Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German Committee on Foreign Affairs, said at a recent speech before the Bundestag.
The resemblance is striking. Co-creation is the product of collaboration in the spirit of true partnership. Self restraint is the favored conduct among competitors who pursue common goals. Both are within instant reach. It’s only mutual trust that remains to be a real challenge between strategic rivals. This demands a commitment to hard work, tolerance, open dialogue and a measure of political pragmatism combined with the aforementioned commitment to fact-based, open and transparent communication.

The EU and China should see the opening in this crisis and re-engage on the greatest connectivity project ever envisioned. The time is now. As the Chinese saying goes: ‘The whole year must be planned for in the spring.’


China-EU relations face challenges, Xi tells Germany's Merkel





President Xi Jinping told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday (7 April) that he saw “various challenges” in relations between China and the European Union and hoped the EU could “independently” make correct judgements, a Chinese government statement said, writes Michael Nienaber in Berlin.

The statement quoted Xi as saying during a phone call that the EU and China should respect each other and “eliminate interference”, adding that China is willing to work with the global community to promote “fair and reasonable distribution” of COVID-19 vaccines and opposes vaccine nationalism.

Last month, the EU imposed its first significant sanctions against Chinese officials since 1989 over alleged human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region. Beijing, which denies the allegations, hit back by blacklisting some EU lawmakers and entities.

The United States, Britain and Canada also sanctioned Chinese officials over Xinjiang, and the row threatens to derail an EU-China investment pact agreed in late 2020 after years of negotiations.

German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said Merkel and Xi had discussed international efforts to produce and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, deepen economic cooperation and steps to protect the climate and biodiversity.

She said the leaders agreed to deepen bilateral ties in Sino-German government consultations planned for late April.

“The Chancellor stressed the importance of dialogue on the full range of ties, including issues on which there are different opinions,” Demmer said, without giving details of the areas where Germany and China differ.

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The Belt and Road in Italy: Two years later

Belt & Road News Network



On 23 March 2019, Italy officially became part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Two years since the first G-7 country became part of the controversial Chinese project, it is time to make an initial assessment of Italy’s highly contested membership in the BRI, writes Francesca Ghiretti.

Three important elements, two external and one internal, have been fundamental in shaping the development of the BRI in Italy. The two exogenous elements are the increasing tensions between the China and the United States, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The former has translated into more U.S. engagement with Europe, including Italy, to secure alignment in policies toward China. A sample result of this effort was the cancellation of a potential collaboration between the Italian Space Agency (ISA) and China National Space Administration (CNSA) to build habitational modules for the Chinese space station Tiangong 3. Another result, which falls in line with steps taken in other EU countries, regards changes that curtail the possibility of Huawei participating in development of the Italian 5G network.

Admittedly, neither example cited above directly relates to the Memorandum of Understanding signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Italy in March 2019. However, both are examples of a change of Italy’s position toward collaboration with Chinese entities, whether public or private, following pressure from the United States. The collaboration regarding the Chinese space station, interestingly, was abandoned soon after March 2019.

The second external element is the outbreak of COVID-19. Last year was meant to be very important for the relationship between Italy and China. In 2020, Italy and China celebrated the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relationship and were meant to celebrate the Year of Tourism Italy-China, now postponed to 2022. A line-up of events and celebrations had been organized for both, which had to be cancelled amid the pandemic. Furthermore, as the first year after the signing of the MoU, 2020 should have seen the initial materialization of the agreements signed on the occasion of Xi’s state visit. It is difficult to say whether in the absence of the pandemic, most of the BRI-related agreements would have materialized, but it can be confidently stated that without the pandemic we would have witnessed further developments. In fact, even with the pandemic, a series of deals materialized, and a limited number of new ones were reached, although mostly among private actors, at least on the Italian side.

The internal element shaping the BRI’s development in Italy is the numerous changes to the Italian government in the past two years. When the MoU for the BRI was signed, Italy was governed by a populist coalition formed by the Five-Star Movement (5SM) and the far-right League. The latter would rediscover its transatlantic call shortly before Xi’s state visit. Within this coalition, a mixture of rejection of Italy’s traditional alliances, Euro-skepticism, naïveté, and interests that pointed in favor of China led to the decision to sign the MoU. In September 2019, however, that government was replaced by a new coalition, which saw the 5SM being joined by the mainstream center-left Democratic Party (PD). The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, remained the same.

The new coalition did not necessarily have a less favorable view of China. Historically, Italy’s left has cultivated very positive relations with China. However, it adopted a less sensationalistic approach and placed Italy back into its traditional alliance systems. Notably, after September 2019, Italy adopted a very European approach in its dealings with China. Italy quietly maintained a rather positive relationship with China, while joining with the other EU countries in occasional critiques of China, and, as already mentioned, adopting a response to 5G similar to its fellow Europeans: excluding Huawei without imposing a blanket ban.

At the beginning of 2021, Italy underwent another change of government. It is now led by Mario Draghi and is even more embedded in Italy’s traditional alliances than the previous government. Given that this government has not been in power long, the assessments that will be made here mostly relate to the government of Conte II, when the 5SM governed with PD.

Keeping in mind what has so far been said, the examples that follow will show that the great majority of MoUs signed between Italy and China were either an expression of intentions that were rarely materialized or the consolidation of an already established relationship.

A notable lack of materialization can be found in the MoUs signed between the port of Genoa and the port of Trieste with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). In brief, so far, there has been a lack of developments in the collaborations in this sector and it seems there will not be any in the future. The new BRI terminal of Vado Ligure, near Genoa, is the result of an agreement that long predates the MoU of March 2019. It dates back to the creation of the joint venture APM Terminals Vado Ligure Spa back in 2016. Furthermore, the joint venture does not involve of CCCC, the signatory of the MoU, but of COSCO and Qingdao Port. In other words, so far, the only development in the maritime sector linked to the BRI involves a project that is not part of the MoUs of March 2019.

Another example is the collaboration between the Italian Space Agency and the China National Space Administration for the mission “China Seismo-Electromegnatic Satellite 02” (CSES-02). This project is also predated the signing of the MoUs. It represents phase two of an already ongoing collaboration between ISA and CNSA on CSES-01. The collaboration in the energy sector between Ansaldo Energia and both China United Gas Turbine Technology Co. and Shanghai Electric Power Corp. was also established before 2019. Other examples of already existing relationships that were formalized by signing MoUs in March 2019 are those of Cassa Depositi and Prestiti, Eni and Intesa San Paolo with Chinese counterparts such as Bank of China and the city of Qingdao.

Some successful developments of the MoUs have been the restitution of 796 archaeological artifacts from Italy to China, which occurred in March 2019. There was also collaboration between the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) and the Alibaba Group for the creation in 2020 of an online Made in Italy Pavilion for Business to Business (B2B) commerce. Finally, one notable successful MoU has been that between the Italian news agency Ansa and its Chinese counterpart Xinhua. Despite the relationship again predating March 2019, it was only after March 2019 that news from Xinhua translated in Italian began to appear on the website of Ansa, labelled as Xinhua News.

All in all, Italy has undeniably witnessed the developments of many of the MoUs signed in March 2019. However, as anticipated, most of the MoUs were the result of collaboration that already existed before 2019 and thus, arguably, Italy would have witnessed the same type of developments even without joining the BRI, with some exceptions. Furthermore, if the BRI is analyzed uniquely as a connectivity and infrastructure project, then only a handful of the examples presented above can be considered as being part of the BRI.

However, the mere fact that alongside the signing of the BRI MoU, other MoUs belonging to diverse sectors were also signed means that not only for China, but also for Italy, the BRI is about a lot more than just connectivity. The BRI is a way to frame the relationship between a country and China. In both cases, one can easily say that yes, the BRI has not been as successful as one would have thought, in Italy and elsewhere. But it is not dead. Authors

Francesca Ghiretti is a research fellow at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), where she specializes in the Italy-China relationship, Europe-China relationship and Chinese foreign policy. She is a Leverhulme doctoral fellow at King’s College London, looking at Chinese FDI in the EU.

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China: Bomb attack in Mingjing kills 5

EU Reporter Correspondent



A man detonated a homemade bomb blowing up four other people besides himself in Mingjing, a small village in Guangzhou on 22 March. Jeimian, a news website, shared a video of the aftermath, a destroyed office, with blood splattered on the walls and at least two people motionless on the ground.

The Guangzhou Panyu Security Bureau confirmed the bomb blast on its Weibo account. Investigations into the explosion are still ongoing. Xinhua, China’s news agency, described the blast as an ‘act of sabotage’, while several others are attributing it to an ongoing dispute due to the forcible land grab by the government that is causing hardship to the residents. Meanwhile, the blast was claimed online by a pro-TIP telegram channel. The message indicated the blast as the result of the oppression of the Uyghurs by China. It urged more attacks on government buildings and officials across China. The message ended with a shout out call to all Uyghurs to make their voices heard.

However, this is not the first time such a blast has happened in Guangzhou. In 2013, a similar blast had happened in a storehouse for shoe-making materials, in Baiyun district, killing 4 people and injuring 36. The coercion  of Uyghurs is causing a lot of resentment and the brunt of this resentment has been borne by Beijing (2013) and Kunming (2014) as well.

Guangzhou has been witness to several such incidents which have highlighted the simmering resistance in the society. Guangzhou is a commercial hub and hosts a lot of industries. The labour in these industries is sourced from Xinjiang. This serves the twin purpose of changing the demography of Xinjiang and providing for cheap captive labour. Studies have pointed out that between 2017-2019 alone, 80,000 Uyghurs have been relocated from Xinjiang to other parts of China. Footage of these Uyghurs being transported to remote parts of China as forced labour (CBN News, Channel 4 News, BBC) confirms this. The policy involves a high degree of coercion and is designed to assimilate minorities by changing their lifestyles.

Guangzhou by virtue of being an industrial hub has afforded more opportunities for the expression of this angst. Guangzhou hosts a large number of people from Africa and Middle East, who demand halal meat. This is provided by ethnic Uyghur restaurants in the city. The increasing crackdown on Islam in China initially forced these restaurants remove the Arabic signage’s, which brought a dip in their business. Added to this was the ousting of foreigners by the Chinese government to rein in the corona virus spread has resulted in hardships to these Uyghur eateries.

The forced relocation and the restrictive employment opportunities have added to the frustration of the Uyghur minority. This oppression has formed the bulk of the propaganda for Uyghur militant groups such as TIP. Last year, the TIP chief Abdul Haq Turkistani, had appealed to the Taliban and Al Qaeda to support the Uyghur cause. It is not surprising that inspired by the success of the Taliban, the Uyghurs are emboldened to stand up for their rights. A pro-TIP telegram channel claimed the blast as retribution for the injustices met out to the Uyghurs. It further warned of similar attacks across China.

The growing restlessness and insecurity amongst the Uyghur is a cause for concern. Irrespective of the justification and success stories that the government peddles to support its education camps, the fact remains that denying the Uyghurs right to religion and freedom of expression is not only a violation of the Chinese constitution, it is also repression of the human rights. The government will have to rework its policy and ideate on a more heterogeneous approach to the issue.

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