There has been a lot of clamor in the European Union (EU) for Italy signing infrastructure projects, potentially including projects in four major Italian ports. French President Emmanuel Macron went on to say that ‘time of European naïveté towards China was over’ and that because of Europe’s ‘uncoordinated approach’, ‘China took advantage of our divisions’.
However, Italy is not the first EU country to make trade agreements with China; 13 others including Poland, Estonia, Portugal, Belarus, Germany and Greece have made commitments under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with China previously. In fact, the Chongqing-Duisburg railway line started in 2011 from China to Germany; it passes through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland before entering Germany. This rail link has made Duisburg, Germany’s China City. Global companies like Hewlett-Packard, Acer and Apple have production sites in Chongqing, which has allowed high-end products to be exchanged on both ends.
The truth is that the EU is more alarmed with the growing symbiosis between Germany and China, then of any other country. Germany’s history inside Europe is indeed a complicated one and explains why Germany, being the center of the European economy, has diverged from it the most. In the two World Wars oddly Germany was a central European state against whom Britain, France and even Russia allied; not just in repulsion of German egoism in their self-portrayal as a master-race, but because Germany was surpassing Britain and France in technology. These developments took place at a time when Britain and France had enslaved people around the world while Germany was expanding inside Europe. Oddly enough, Germany allied with the Ottomans in World War 1 and with the Japanese Empire in World War II. This was done so because in both cases the Germans felt that there was no place for Germany to expand when the whole world had already been occupied by Britain and France, the two imperialists, who had to be curtailed if Germany was to find its true place in the world. For that it had to forge alliances with their enemies.
The truth is that the EU is more alarmed with the growing symbiosis between Germany and China, then of any other country. Germany’s history inside Europe is indeed a complicated one and explains why Germany, being the center of the European economy, has diverged from it the most.
With this goal in mind, Germany has espoused this tendency of often making friends with those despised by its neighbouring powers. With China it goes back to the time when between World Wars I and II, China was going through its own communist revolution. In Germany with the empowerment of Adolf Hitler, a pragmatic foreign policy was taken up, and alliance was made with US-backed Chiang Kai Shek to counter Russia-backed Communist Party of China. It was under German advisors that the Kuomintang (KMT) forced the Communists to withdraw from their bases in Southern and Central China into the mountains in a massive military retreat known as the Long March. Though later the KMT defeated the Communist Party of China (CPC), and the socialists regained power after Hitler’s death; the humiliation of the defeat in World War II and the concealed revanchism became a latent factor in German conscience that was always to be nullified in international diplomacy. With such context surrounding German history, the country has re-emerged as the biggest economy and technological giant in the EU; a giant that wants to extend ties around the world with no strings attached to a stagnating EU economy, especially building ties with China and Russia.
For China, wooing the Germans is exactly the right strategy that will lead to a weakened EU, and thus a weakened North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But there is more to Europe for China, then just Germany. Since 2012, China has made and been a part of the 16+1 format between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC). This is an initiative to expand ties in investments, transport, finance, science, education, and culture between the two sides. China’s trade volume with CEEC was $67.98 billion in 2017 and is increasing every year. CEEC includes 11 EU members and five Balkan states, but the interesting thing about CEEC is that it has all the members of the Warsaw Pact except East Germany in it. A quick view of the map will show this is the complete belt of East Europe, and it feels that what NATO took away from Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe, China is trying to take that back in double.
China’s growing relations with Russia also reflect this notion. Since 2001, when the two signed a friendship treaty, China’s import of Russian oil and gas has surpassed that from Saudi Arabia. This relentless flow strengthens Russia amid ongoing economic sanctions and lowered oil prices. Russia presents a neutrality in the South China Sea dispute, with Putin’s stance that ‘interference of a non-regional power in the dispute over the South China Sea could only hamper the solution’; as China complements it by staying neutral in matters pertaining to Ukraine and Crimea, including when it abstained on a vote on Crimea. All this points to a silent underlying fraternity between the two states, that helps them consolidate their powers, and the absence of which would hinder them from being regional powers in their own ways. This also means that Russia must have an understanding with China, when it expands its BRI projects to Ukraine through Russia to solicit previous Warsaw Pact states.
CEEC includes 11 EU members and five Balkan states, but the interesting thing about CEEC is that it has all the members of the Warsaw Pact except East Germany in it. A quick view of the map will show this is the complete belt of East Europe, and it feels that what NATO took away from Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe, China is trying to take that back in double.
The tri-nation visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in March 2019 to Italy, Monaco and France, is a furtherance of EU’s premonition that China is trying to influence its periphery states. A Report in 2017 by the European Council on Foreign Relations stated this fear, saying that ‘Europe’s biggest liability lies in the potential divergence of interests between its core and the periphery – whether this periphery is the austerity-marred south, the under-regarded east, or the somewhat complacent north’ and the report candidly adds that ‘China practices “pick and choose” in its relations with the EU, focusing on its direct interests, and often ignoring EU norms in its proposals. There is no question that the 16+1 scheme is part of a broad “divide and rule” practice’.
And this can be true indeed – already China is acquiring investments in port facilities in Italy, Monaco, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Netherlands. For now, it is all about trade. Soon enough, China could also possibly become a security provider against piracy. However the blame cannot be cast on China alone, when the EU itself has been utterly failing in saving its members and Europe generally from crisis after crisis. Italy, though a G7 member and among the world’s top 10 largest economies, too has been hit by a recession since 2018, and perhaps has exercised foresight in not putting all its bets on an EU that has been as inefficient in Italy’s financial balancing as the country itself.
Aneela Shahzad is a geopolitical analyst who frequently writes for Express Tribune and Daily Pakistan Global. She serves as an editor at Maritime Study Forum.