As China presses ahead with its controversial Belt and Road initiative, international attitudes towards the country hardenby Shashank Joshi / February 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Theresa May returned from her January trip to Beijing on a sour note. Her visit is part of a larger pattern of hardening European attitudes towards China’s economic and geopolitical ambitions.
Officials in the UK and China have spent recent years heralding a supposed “golden age.” In March 2015, George Osborne and David Cameron took the surprise decision to make the UK a founding member of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), prompting an apoplectic response from American officials. A lavish state visit to the UK by Xi Jinping followed later that year.
But the tide is now turning. Theresa May marked her first month in office by delaying plans for a Chinese-built power plant at Hinkley Point C. She allowed the deal to pass a few months later, but only after making it clear that she did not trust China to wield influence over British energy supplies. Now, during her recent trip to Beijing, she seems to have drawn another line in the sand, refusing to formally endorse China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $4trn collection of connectivity and infrastructure projects stretching from Asia to Europe. The scheme, announced in 2013, touches every aspect of Chinese foreign policy and was even written into the Communist Party’s constitution in October.
With May’s government teetering on the edge and the UK confronting a future adrift from its major trading partners, this was a brave decision. Chinese officials, hoping that May would become the first G7 head of state to endorse their flagship project, unsubtly turned the screws—according to one report, even refusing to return British diplomats’ phone calls. But the prime minister stood firm. She kept open the possibility of cooperation, but demanded that BRI meet “international standards,” implying it doesn’t do so at present. Cameron will have taken particular notice: in December, he accepted a role as head of a $1bn UK-China investment fund backed by both governments.
Theresa May’s cautious approach is likely to have been informed by wider international shifts. When China held the (unfortunately named) Belt and Road Forum (BARF) last May, it attracted a glittering cast of visitors, including 29 world leaders, the heads of the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and even a senior official from the Trump administration. India was the most notable absentee, giving a stinging public rebuke to the project, whose Pakistani leg cuts through Indian-claimed territory in Kashmir.
But soon, the United States and Japan began echoing Indian concerns in ever-more forthright language: BRI was saddling small countries with unsustainable debt, benefiting Chinese companies rather than those in smaller states, and masking political and military ambitions rather than simply economic ones. In October, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed that the US and its Asian partners had begun a “quiet conversation” on developing new financing mechanisms that might give smaller states alternatives to Chinese capital. (Japan and India have already begun collaborating on such efforts, such as a $200bn Africa-Asia Growth Corridor). His counterpart at the Pentagon, James Mattis, launched a separate attack. “In a globalized world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘One Belt, One Road,’” said Mattis, referring to an alternative name for the BRI.
“Theresa May’s wariness of BRI reflects a growing consensus amongst liberal states”
Then, Europeans found their voice too. BRI “isn’t merely a historic trade-related reminder of Marco Polo, but at the end of the day a geostrategic concept which China is using to enforce its own ideas of order,” cautioned German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel in December—adding, forebodingly, “ultimately maybe also militarily.”
French president Emmanuel Macron was even more candid, warning during his January trip to Beijing that the roads of the BRI “cannot be those of a new hegemony, which would transform those that they cross into vassals.” Macron also alluded to China’s unfair trade practices, which encourage Chinese forays into Western markets, often in strategic and sensitive sectors, while imposing draconian restrictions on foreign firms in China. “If they are roads,” said Macron, “they cannot be one-way.” Here was the arch-centrist appropriating the language of the populists, declaring that China had rigged the system. It would have been difficult to imagine French and German leaders speaking in these terms a few years ago.
The past year has seen a swaggering China, buoyed by Xi Jinping’s extraordinary consolidation of power as well as unforced errors by the US in areas such as trade, climate change, and the handling of alliances. But this swagger has also provoked a growing backlash to Chinese power.
In Australia, concerns over China’s covert influence operations have sparked a national debate and even led to new laws. In November, the United States, Australia, Japan, and India re-activated an old forum, the “Quad,” united by their concern over Beijing’s behaviour. European diplomats are increasingly open about their uneasiness with China’s growing influence in places like Hungary and Greece, which has already led to the dilution of EU statements on China’s behaviour in the South China Sea.
Theresa May’s wariness of BRI reflects a growing consensus amongst liberal states, within and beyond the west, that China’s economic and political ambitions can no longer be easily separated, and that the strategic consequences of trade and investment need closer attention. Had the prime minister broken ranks, this would not only have driven a wedge through the transatlantic relationship, but would also have raised eyebrows in Paris and Berlin—at exactly the time that the UK is seeking to persuade Europeans that it will remain a key partner on strategic issues.