By Raffaello Pantucci
First published in EU Observer, May 19, 2017
Chinese leader Xi Jinping trumpeted his foreign policy vision – the Belt and Road – to great fanfare this past week.
Yet a consistently discordant note was heard from European reporting around the event, with officials talking to press about their lack of understanding of the project. While some of their concerns were understandable, there was an element of missing the point.
Xi Jinping may talk in terms of a project, but in reality what we are seeing laid out is a grand vision: one that Beijing is using to re-shape its engagement with the world.
For Europe, it is important to figure out exactly what this means. Otherwise, it could both miss out on an opportunity, and create a series of potential problems with a relationship that will continue to be important going forwards.
First, it is important to dispel what the Belt and Road is not. It is not a giant aid project. Nor has China particularly ever pretended that it was.
Leadership will get caught up in grandiloquent language about how the project is a great gift to humanity. However, in reality, it is a vision of re-connecting the world in a manner that will support Chinese trade flows and help Chinese companies go out into the world.
At its core, it is about helping to develop China’s underdeveloped regions – parts of the country that are deeply disconnected from its bustling ports.
Second, it is important to understand what is actually happening. Not all of the strands of the Belt and Road are new, nor are they all the same.
What has been happening in Central Asia for almost two decades, re-branded as Belt and Road, is not the same or as important domestically to China as newly advanced projects in parts of Africa or Eastern Europe.
At the same time, some corridors seem to be advancing far more slowly: the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM) is one that has been talked about since the late 1990s, but has only now actually moved into clear action across its entire route.
The point is, while the Belt and Road is discussed by Beijing in the same light, the reality on the ground is very different in each and every case.
Third, it is a vision with a long timeline. China is thinking to a very long horizon. In typical fashion for a centrally planned economy, it is considering things into the future and not the short- to medium-term eye-line with which most Western governments operate.
So, when the country looks to build train links across the continent that make little economic sense now, it could be that the lens we are looking at them through is too short.
Once China is able to develop its western regions and create industrial and manufacturing bases out there, it might suddenly become more economically sensible to put goods on trains across the continent.
Fourth, not everything is expected to work – this is a leadership vision and not a project.
The Belt and Road was first christened by Xi during a set of speeches in Astana and Jakarta. Laid out then, they were outlined as a pair of concepts that would slowly catch on and become the defining foreign policy concept that Xi Jinping would offer the world.
The illogical nature of a Belt being over land, while a Road went to sea highlighted the conceptual nature of what was being laid out. In fact, the seeds of the concept could already be found in previous administrations – Jiang Zemin had his “Develop the West” concept, and Hu Jintao’s administration was the one that started up the idea of refocusing on Xinjiang and developing its relations with its neighbours.
Both of these served as ideological godfathers to the Belt and Road, which in essence took this model and internationalised it.
But the point is that none of these were specific projects. They were rather broad policy directives that were launched out of Beijing which were then followed up and pushed out by the many institutions in China, to varying degrees of success.
The BCIM was born under Jiang Zemin and went nowhere, and while the Hu Jintao initiative with Xinjiang and Central Asia was more successful, there are a few projects along the route that have failed to deliver as they were intended.
None of this is that surprising, as, ultimately, the leadership’s announcements should be assessed as a central policy direction rather than detailed plans.
Initially, when the speeches were delivered, there was no specific policy planning behind them.
Now that the concepts have firmly caught on, almost everything has become Belt and Road – in part this is because the concept is so broad (so everything fits under it), but also it is a way for everything to try to connect with the bright vision laid out by the leadership.
This includes ideas and projects that have a very limited connection to the actual Belt and Road – there is an almost inexhaustible list of Chinese regions that have defined themselves as the crucial points on the Belt and Road.
Within this, not everything is going to work (because it never does). But this is not a concern, as ultimately what has been offered is a concept rather than a project, meaning that it will not ultimately fail, as no specific parameter for success has been laid out.
All of this is essential for European policymakers and thinkers to understand.
If they are to properly engage with the vision, they need to first understand it in granular detail – something that is eminently doable through the numerous reports that have been published, or by undertaking research themselves.
They then need to appreciate what the vision actually is and the timelines to which it is operating, and then finally focus on which aspects do correspond with their specific interests.
China’s biggest problem with this vision is that it requires considerable support, consent and contributions from the countries along and at the end of the routes, and those that are more likely to succeed are those with supportive partners.
Consequently, Europe can choose which aspects it wants to engage with and simply ignore the others. This will not necessarily stop them from happening, but they are not realities Europe has to engage with if it does not want to.
The key in all of this is for Europe to decide exactly what its strategy towards China is going to be, and what it is that it wants to do to engage with this century’s rising power. In the Belt and Road they are facing Xi Jinping’s foreign policy legacy.
Given that the conceptual outline is focused on the Eurasian continent, Europe has an opportunity to re-craft its relations with China in a way that connects with the leadership and potentially has a game-changing impact across the continent the two powers share.
It is not enough for European officials to simply tell the press they do not understand the Belt and Road – the vision is clear enough, but the point is to decide how to engage with it.
Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute,a think tank in London