By: Sofia Ammassari
China has recently announced its willingness to develop a Polar Silk Road as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, a project aimed at building an immense web of infrastructures all over the Eurasian continent which would allow a considerable increase in trade towards Eastern Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. This ambitious project already includes the Silk Road Economic Belt, which basically is a reproduction of the ancient Silk Road used by the Roman and Chinese Empires for their commerce; a Maritime Silk Road, which would connect the South China Sea to the Mediterranean; and more recently a Polar Silk Road, as – regrettably – global warming is increasingly allowing ships to cross the Arctic Sea.
Such a huge project, one of the biggest of its kind in the history of human infrastructures, would affect the economies of 65 states which represent 62% of the world’s population and more than one third of the world’s GDP; estimates from Beijing confirm that investments have already created 180 thousand jobs among some of these countries. But apart from economics, what are the geopolitical consequences of this initiative? Are the world’s borders changing? How can we insert this decision into the narrative which sees US and China competing for global hegemony, and what role must be played by the EU?
First of all, we should remind ourselves that Europe has always been connected to Asia, not only in geographical terms as a unique enormous landmass with no substantial barriers within it, but also in terms of history, culture, and trade. Therefore, it was easier for us to look eastwards than westwards.
Indeed, Eurasia has always existed and it still exists now: simply, Xi Jinping wants to give it a new outlook and to make it a huge powerful geopolitical entity again, as it had been for centuries before the US imposed its hegemonic vision on the post-WWII world, giving birth to constructed distinctions between two sides of the same land.
Now, this Chinese strategic move cannot be underestimated, as it could revolutionize the international order as we know it today.
On one side, we have this gentle giant, China, which since the end of the Cultural Revolution during the late 70s has been growing exponentially to then reach and eventually overtake the US in several aspects. China is the perfect example of a globalization that works just through opening up to the rest of the world, without denying one’s own historical and cultural roots or political beliefs. When the Cold War was over, so it seemed was the contest between capitalism and communism: the USSR fell, apparently determining the victory of the former. Now after three decades, guess what? China is offering an alternative model of growth not founded neither on a free market economy nor a liberal democracy, yet it is working, and not only there but also in Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore and many other developing states.
Furthermore, China is not trying to impose its developmental model on other countries. It hasn’t done so in the past when it was a rich empire that could easily expand throughout all of Asia, and it isn’t doing so now. In Africa for example, economic aid and investments are ensured without imposing formal conditions such as regime change, democratization or market liberalization as the US and the EU usually do. Win-win cooperation is the key, and involves mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence which embody the values upon which Chinese foreign policy is based- values that are allowing China to take over the US in the competition for global hegemony in an increasingly globalized world.
Moreover, China is perfectly aware that this competition, in the context of the XXI century, is measured in terms of trade, not military capacity. For instance, the US is trying to limit Chinese access to the sea through its military bases all around South East Asia. How to deal with this? Increasing military expenditure? Threatening the use of force? Not at all. China’s incredibly smart project of a Belt and Road Initiative will ensure its position as a major trade partner for more than one third of the world’s countries without directly threatening Uncle Sam’s interests, and without recurring to that hard power which nowadays is so out of date.
On the other side, we have the US: a declining power which with Trump’s administration has basically embraced its own death as a global hegemon, denying the course of history and going against the path of globalization. The withdrawals from the TTIP, UNESCO and Paris Agreement are just some examples of how the US President has compromised irreversibly the position of the States as the main provider of public goods to the rest of the world. Actually, various documents issued by the Pentagon and other DoD institutions are already talking about a “post-primacy” world in which the international order is changing and the US is inevitably collapsing.
The point is that Trump’s political and economic isolationism simply cannot work in our deeply interconnected world, where any war waged against globalization is going to fail miserably. The same can be said for the UK. In fact, Auntie May has recently visited China in a desperate attempt to save the British ship from a disastrous sinking. However, if China wants to build profitable partnerships in Europe, it’s hard to believe that it will look to that tiny and now insignificant island while knowing that this move will prompt a clash with the rest of the continent.
Therefore, in this context of transformation, what is the role to be played by the EU? Will the EU remain stuck in this outdated ideological and military alliance with the US, even though the unpopularity of the US President is increasing among European leaders and the public? Or will it take advantage of the Belt and Road Initiative to start looking eastwards, and eventually change global geopolitics permanently?
Now, the EU is deeply linked to its transatlantic ally by two main aspects. Firstly, by liberal democratic values. Secondly, by NATO. While the latter is not a big deal anymore in the sense that Trump himself has often criticized it as obsolete and European partners are deeply concerned about the ambiguous messages coming from the White House in this regard, the former liberal democratic values represent a tie between these two actors which is much more difficult to break.
A main problem in the relationship between the EU and China has always been the different views the two sides hold about human rights. For the former,they are seen as a fundamental pillar upon which the Union is built. For the latter, they are nothing but a tool used by Western imperialist powers to impose their ideology all over the world; a tool which cannot aspire to universality, as it was originated in a particular historical, cultural and social context.
However, what’s interesting here is that in 2016 the EU has changed its global security strategy, moving from an idealistic approach towards a more pragmatic one. “The best protection for our security is a world of well-governed democratic states. Spreading good governance […] establishing the rule of law and protecting human rights are the best means of strengthening the international order” is something that was written in 2003. The world has changed since then, and that optimistic view – finally – has faded away together with the false expectations it created, to turn into something more realistic. In fact, faced with this awareness, the strategy adopted two years ago has taken another path and the EU External Action since then is guided by “principled pragmatism”. Thus, there is less emphasis on democratization, regime change and the promotion of human rights and much more emphasis on strategic interests and one’s own priorities which for the EU include security, open markets, growth and environment.
At first sight, the interests of EU and China seem much closer than those between the EU and the US. In light of this momentous Chinese attempt to change global geopolitics, will the EU comply to its strategy and overcome ideological disputes to properly commit to this project?
At the moment, it looks like nothing can really stop the EU and China from working on this already existing entity – Eurasia- which has connected Europe and the East for centuries and could become again a powerful actor in a few decades. Here, ideologies and values don’t matter. Interests and strategy do.
As the West appears busy pursuing its path against history by choosing isolationism instead of globalization, maybe it is time for the EU to reconsider its ties to the declining transatlantic power, especially now that an occasion such as the Belt and Road Initiative is comming into play. Perhaps it should go back to its primordial roots, looking eastwards again: it really seems that much greater opportunities come from that side of the world.
Editor’s Note: In the print version of this article (which appeared in our February 2018 issue), the sentence ‘Here, ideologies and values don’t matter. Interests and strategy do.’ was written as ‘Here, ideologies and values don’t matter. Interests and strategy don’t.’ This was a mistake by the editing team, and we have apologized to Sofia and rectified the problem in our online version
Ahmed, N. (2017) Pentagon study declares American empire is ‘collapsing’, Insurge Intelligence. Accessible online at: https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/pentagon-study-declares-american-empire-is-collapsing-746754cdaebf
Bryant, N. (2015) The decline of US power?, BBC News. Accessible online at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-33440287
European Security Strategy (2003)
European Union Global Strategy (2016)
Rampini, F. (2017) Le linee rosse, Milano: Mondadori.
US Army War College (2017), At our own peril: DoD risk assessment in a post-primacy world, Carlisle: USAWC Press.
 Rampini, F. (2017) Le linee rosse, Milano: Mondadori.
 For some articles about the topic, see Bryant, N. (2015) The decline of US power?, BBC News. Accessible online at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-33440287 or Ahmed, N. (2017) Pentagon study declares American empire is ‘collapsing’, Insurge Intelligence. Accessible online at: https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/pentagon-study-declares-american-empire-is-collapsing-746754cdaebf
For an example of such documents, see US Army War College (2017), At our own peril: DoD risk assessment in a post-primacy world, Carlisle: USAWC Press.
 European Security Strategy (2003), p. 10.
 European Union Global Strategy (2016), p. 16.