By: Lesley Brown
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The New Silk Roads
Paris, 10 January 2019: the room was packed at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters for a one-day conference under the banner ‘The New Silk Roads’. A meeting that should have been called, according to the translation recommendations clearly stipulated in the press kit: ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road for the 21st Century’!
A panel of Chinese and French speakers participated in deciphering the challenges and ambitions of this pharaonic project. The cultural gap in their talks, Chinese and European, was striking. The Chinese proved convincing chamions of the initiative, with their discourse very much aligned along pronouncements such as “economic development”, “factor of peace, stability and cultural exchanges”, while the Europeans questioned the new world order created by this initiative, warning of the debt trap for the countries through which the ‘Roads” pass, or the lack of attention paid to the environment.
Difficult to gain an overall picture in such a context. In Europe, have we lost the ability to get fired up? Is Europe too old and fragmented to fully grasp how the world is changing? Is China concealing hegemonic ambitions behind the rhetoric?
The Belt and Road initiative: a ‘grandiose cause’!
Zhao Jianguo, international communications director, information office, Chinese Council for Foreign Affairs, points out that, to date, “106 countries and 29 international organisations have signed over 150 agreements as part of this initiative!” He explains how the initiative is built on a win-win logic, the idea being to “harvest together”, and concluded his talk with the saying: “a better path leads to a better life”.
For his part, Qu Xing, deputy director general, UNESCO, hopes the new Silk Roads can “pave the way for harmonious and sustainable development, guarantee peace and harmony between populations”, in a global context “under great tensions” – as cultures draw closer, there is a growing temptation to become inward-looking, at both individual and community levels.
Hegemonic temptation for China?
Central to the debate were questions over whether behind this ‘Belt and Road’ project conceals a desire for hegemonic control by the Chinese government.
Song Luzheng, a researcher at the China Research Institute, Fudan University, presents the emerging Chinese model as a proponent “of equality, of sharing, to promote peace and prosperity in the world.” He compares this with the hegemonic expansion model chosen by the US and the former colonialist expansion model favoured by Europeans in its day. “The rise of China will not create conflicting positions.”
For Bertrand Badie, university professor at Sciences Po, “this is a fascinating topic because it confuses our organisation of international relations”. The highly evolved and pragmatic nature of the initiative “is disrupting the traditional rules of international relations.”
Indeed, the project initially wanted to reach 60 countries, yet today over 100 countries are involved, i.e. “four billion inhabitants”, according to Christian Cambon, senator and chairman of the French Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and the Armed Forces. Thirty European metropolises will be linked to China, including Lyon in France. “We are being introduced to the mobility of geography,” declares Mr Badie. At first it was an economic project; now it encompasses political, cultural, and technological dimensions. It was only land-based and now includes a maritime facet. “We are witnessing an idea in transformation,” he explains.
For Mr Badie, “it’s more a question of a Chinese view of a global world where China is claiming its centrality, as part of a non-hegemonic vision.” He then went on to question whether this position is sustainable for the coming two decades…
A Europe between two positions
“For this project, the European Union is walking on two legs: a cooperative leg and a defensive leg,” explains Elvire Fabry from Institut Jacques Delors – Notre Europe. A remark that leads Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former French prime minister, president of the Fondation Prospective et Innovation, and special representative for China, to remark that in such a position, “moving forward can’t be easy, then!”
On the one hand, Ms Fabry acknowledges the promising elements of the project. Five years after the 2008 crisis, this initiative began with the idea of lowering transport costs between China and Europe, while opening up the countries of Central Asia. Five years later, the project has expanded to include countries in Africa, the Middle East, and even Argentina in South America.
For Song Luzheng of Fudan University, “this project will help Europe develop by facilitating access to Chinese technologies and products.” It will also “reduce migratory pressures from African countries by providing a solution based on peace and economic development.”
On the other hand, Elvire Fabry raises some concerns: the issue of Chinese companies being financed to give them too much of a competitive edge; the issue of market transparency and opportunities for European companies to access markets; issues over the debt or even the over-indebtedness of countries, a potentially destabilising factor; issues over the sustainability of the management model for the transport infrastructure (work force? Environment?).
Depending on China’s response to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the face of various European initiatives, especially the vision presented by high representative/vice president Federica Mogherini, the European Union might decide to favour one or the other of its ‘legs’.
Jean-Pierre Raffarin is worried that Europe is proving slow to position itself: “What is Europe’s capacity to be a powerful international player?” He believes “finding the new multilateralism before unilateralism has completely killed multilateralism” is an absolute must! He thus urges all parties involved to “identify cooperation strategies by working on concrete projects”, referring, by way of example, to Keolis and its strategic partnership with Shanghai Shentong Metro Group, which has enabled the French transport company to operate in China.