As China continues to project its presence, money, and influence into Western Europe, long-forgotten histories are resurfacing by way of analogy to the present challenge. Not traditionally of the sea, China has long been a continental power, only now attempting to make the difficult transition to a maritime superpower. Its militaries are not making a beeline for Europe. Beijing is promising greater trade and economic cooperation, not threatening war.
It is estimated that state-backed Chinese investors own at least 10 percent of all equity in ports in Europe, with deals inked in Greece, Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. This is in addition to a growing investment portfolio of at least 40 ports in North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South and Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific.
China’s interest in European ports is defined and driven by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While the BRI has both strategic and economic objectives, there is little prospect of a Chinese-invested port in Europe being turned into a military base for the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the foreseeable future. Neither a 35 percent stake in the Euromax terminal at Rotterdam, a 20 percent stake in the Port of Antwerp (Europe’s two busiest ports), nor even full ownership of Zeebrugge in Belgium is a precursor to Chinese militarism in Europe.
China is now applying its well-tested South China Sea approach – gradually asserting de facto control and dominance through incremental actions, each of which will not provoke a robust counter response – in Europe. Similarly, China is using a divide-and-conquer strategy to prevent the European Union from taking a common stance against Beijing, much as it has done by offering largesse to Cambodia and Laos to prevent ASEAN from speaking with one voice.
However, unlike in the South China Sea, Chinese economic and investment policies toward Europe are not militarily threatening, are mostly legal (even if they undermine important commercial rules of the road) and create some economic benefits for European partners, even if China will be the primary beneficiary. For these reasons, there is a legitimate economic role for Chinese firms, but with conditions. In crafting a response, the European Union should remember that its leverage is more considerable than China cares to acknowledge.
Even as a concept, the BRI would be greatly diminished without full European participation. China requires European cooperation to achieve Xi’s goal of China becoming a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021, when the country celebrates the 100th anniversary of the formation of the CCP, and to become a “fully developed, rich and powerful nation” by 2049, when China celebrates its 100th anniversary as the People’s Republic of China. At the least, EU leaders should demand economic “reciprocity’” in terms of equal access and opportunity with respect to economic interaction with China.
It is essential that the European Union respond to China’s divide-and-conquer approach and put pressure on countries such as Greece and Hungary to agree to a common set of guidelines with respect to screening investments – in ports and other strategically important assets – and how foreign-owned assets are run and operated. More broadly, all EU member states should take responsibility for protecting European interests, European rules, and international law, and the preservation of a regional and economic system which does not prioritize a China-centric view of globalization and entrench special advantages for China.
Ultimately, the BRI is attempting to create an Eurasian and Indo-Pacific region that takes a China-centric view when it comes to economic practices and political norms, and which excludes the United States. Just as its regional strategic and military approach is to weaken existing alliances and ease the United States out of Asia, the BRI seeks to weaken economic links between the liberal democracies on either side of the Atlantic Ocean and to coax Europe toward acquiescence of Chinese standards and approaches.
If the United States were to let that happen, it would be losing without even entering the fight. As for the European Union, while it cannot alone alter Beijing’s hierarchical view of the world and its perception of itself at the apex of that order, it can ensure Europe does not unwittingly help advance an alternative Chinese vision of economic globalization. Realization of that latter vision would have political, strategic and normative ramifications which would not be in Europe’s own interest.
‚China’s Trojan Ports‘ – Analysis by John Lee – The American Interest. (The Analysis can be downloaded here)