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The BRI in EU-China Relations: Geostrategic Stakes

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The BRI in EU-China Relations: Geostrategic Stakes

Insights from Benjamin Barton.

The BRI in EU-China Relations: Geostrategic Stakes
Credit: Pixabay

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Benjamin Barton, assistant professor in the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, is the 272nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the context of EU-China security cooperation. 

EU-China security cooperation has largely remained rhetorical in form, despite sporadic instances of actual practical cooperation/coordination. The BRI could potentially unlock further avenues for bilateral security cooperation given the high stakes of security risks which could derail its progress and also the fact that its land and maritime routes traverse regions where the EU shares overlapping security concerns with China. There is a sense that even if the EU is not a signatory to the BRI, the latter could nonetheless drive Brussels and Beijing to explore the possibility of further security cooperation in and around the Silk Roads, especially since China is already looking to mutualize the protection of BRI projects with the signatory states.

All of this, however, remains speculative for now as the prospects for their cooperation is rigged by structural disagreements pertaining to the interpretation of what constitutes a security threat, differences over political values  ̶  notably state sovereignty in China’s case and the promotion of liberal values in the EU’s case  ̶  the agency of local actors, or even the simple fact that the EU (as a whole) continues to remain an outsider to the BRI.  

What is the correlation between this bilateral security cooperation and the BRI in Central Asia? 

The stability and security of the Central Asian region is primordial for the successful rollout of the BRI in light of its central geographic role within the Silk Road Economic Belt. Yet, as shown by the 2016 blast at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, or the ad hoc attacks on Chinese engineers working on projects in the wider region, the BRI does not exist in a security vacuum. Although the EU has historically been a bit-part player on security matters in Central Asia, its credibility was boosted by the implementation across the region of a couple of relatively large-scale border management and anti-trafficking (narcotics) capacity-building programs. Beijing and Brussels actually have overlapping security interests in the region and have jointly produced policy documents officially declaring an interest to work more closely together on some of these issues. One would imagine that the backdrop of the region’s importance to the BRI would only further emphasize the need for greater bilateral activism in this regard.

Identify the BRI geostrategic stakes for Beijing, Brussels, and Berlin in EU-China security cooperation along BRI trade corridors.  

For the EU, its member states, and China, the hottest topic of a geostrategic nature located along an identified BRI trade corridor obviously concerns developments in the South China Sea (SCS) where the naval forces of certain EU member states, such a Germany and the Netherlands, are now being deployed, as a means of sending a clear signal to Beijing regarding its claims over the SCS. To a lesser extent, the potential for a growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean via the upgrades to the PRC’s so-called “logistics facility” in Djibouti, or the potential exploitation of BRI port investments for military purposes, could spill over into some form of geostrategic jostling.

This prospect, however, remains more fiction than truth for now, when gauged against the tone characteristic of the EU’s recent Indo-Pacific strategy paper, in addition to the generally cooperative nature of their bilateral engagement in the fight against Somali piracy. On land, geostrategic contentions do exist in relation to BRI trade corridors running through the wider Middle East but here, too, the contentions are not clear-cut, as a result of shared security concerns and past efforts to coordinate their respective stances, notably on Iran’s nuclear program.

Describe the U.K.’s post-Brexit approach to China and London’s BRI strategy. 

Against the tumultuous backdrop of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rise to power in July 2019, with Brexit talks stalling and the promise of “Global Britain” ringing hollow at the time, the Conservative government continued with its recent tradition of attributing special praise to its relations with China. Consequently, devising a role for the U.K. within the spectrum of the BRI was to serve as a key linchpin to the Conservative government’s attempted post-Brexit revival. However, the deleterious impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with rising anti-China sentiment amongst the British public, similar to patterns observed in other Western countries, brought a temporary reprieve to the government’s infatuation with the BRI. Instead, the message coming out of Whitehall would suggest that the U.K. is looking to play a part in the anticipated counter-strategy on infrastructure financing/construction designed to rival the BRI. I find it nonetheless difficult to believe that we’ve seen the end of the U.K.’s flirtation with the BRI in its new post-Brexit reality.

Assess the impact of EU-China security relations on transatlantic relations as well as U.S., EU, and Japanese attempts to offer an alternative to BRI. 

Washington’s feelings with regard to the prospects of EU-China security do tend to weigh heavily on the minds of EU decision-makers whenever the prospect of such cooperation is brought up with China. I would go so far as to posit that in the few instances where the EU and China have either cooperated in practice (e.g. in the fight against piracy) or coordinated their positions (e.g. on Iran’s nuclear program), EU leaders have acted knowing that they had Washington’s implicit avail. This largely explains why EU-China security cooperation has not really left any chinks on the armor of the transatlantic alliance. As for developing a viable alternative to the BRI, I’m not certain that the dynamics of EU-China relations are a real impediment here. The challenge, rather, will be for the U.S., the EU, Japan and others to develop an efficient and competitive package which is tailored to the demands of emerging/least developed economies, satisfies the profit margins of private sector actors involved, and finds traction amongst domestic constituencies. That is enough of a tall order in itself.