By Andre Ishii
Nearly five years into its celebrated roll out, some in the European Union (EU) leadership class seem to have finally taken the proverbial ‘red pill’ and awoken to the substance of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – formerly known as One Belt One Road (OBOR).
The ambitiously massive economic-infrastructural connectivity project, officially unveiled in 2013 by now president-for-life Xi Jinping, seeks to hyper-connect Eurasian states via the continental Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and oceanic Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Morgan Stanley has noted that project will exceed $1 trillion in various infrastructural constructions through to 2027, spanning territories that are ruled by corrupt autocratic regimes as well as those that are junk or non-rated in regard to their sovereign debts. In January 2018, Beijing announced that it will consider establishing a ‘Polar Silk Road’ as well, extending its networks into the Arctic region – a natural resource gold mine.
While Zhang Ming, PRC ambassador to the EU, has passionately preached as though the cooperation of EU states with the BRI is only natural and even destined, there have been strong voices of criticism, including the former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel this past February at Munich Security Conference. He noted that the BRI project is being used as an instrument to promote values which are at odds with values of the West, and asserted that Beijing was creating divisions inside the EU and potentially undermining its domestic security. Gabriel was not under any illusions; he saw the BRI project as a dry, calculated geopolitical project to enhance China’s international status, despite its rhetoric of cooperation and mutual economic benefits for the participating states.
The strategy of a hegemonic state integrating transportation (particularly railroad networks) and trade corridors to extend domination is a principle formulated by the famed pioneer of classical geopolitics, Halford Mackinder. Beijing is engaging in this strategy unabashedly, with support being extended by 67 sovereign states to its core financial institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). According to testimony given before a US-China Economic and Security Review Commission hearing by Jonathan Hillman, fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 89 percent of companies contracted in the infrastructure projects are Chinese (while 7.6 percent are local to the area and 3.4 percent are foreign non-Chinese), expressing bluntly that BRI is a “China-centric effort.”
A warning regarding BRI-related danger to EU security has been issued in a report produced jointly by the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) and Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), both based in Berlin. In the February 2018 report Authoritarian Advance: Responding to China’s Growing Political Influence in Europe, five contributing analysts outline an entrenchment of Beijing’s policy making influence in the EU that is nothing short of astounding.
The report states: “China commands a comprehensive and flexible influencing toolset, ranging from the overt to the covert, primarily deployed across three arenas: political and economic elites, media and public opinion, and civil society and academia” and as a consequence “political elites within the European Union (EU) and in the European neighborhood have started to embrace Chinese rhetoric and interests, including where they contradict national and/or European interests.”
Certainly, such self-serving attitudes and positions of many figures in the insular Brussels bureaucracy was a major factor in the wide-spread revolt against the EU establishment unleashed in the wake of Brexit nearly two years ago. Unfortunately, however, the quest for autonomy, local sovereignty, or outright separatism under the veneer of nationalism – healthy nationalism or otherwise – by EU populist parties have themselves been the targets of influence operations by Eurasian revisionist powers attempting to secure their own interests. While popular discourse focus on Russian attempts at influencing EU groups (and West more in general, most notably Moscow’s attempt to influence 2016 US presidential election), the report notes that far less attention is being given to Beijing’s policy-influencing strategies within the EU.
As US organizations have aided “Color Revolutions” in the former Soviet Republics and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ to facilitate the toppling of Middle East and North African (MENA) regimes via US-manufactured social media tools, some may even be tempted to describe the phenomenon as a blowback ‘European Spring’ – a fire that was lit by Brexit, its flames are now being fanned covertly by Moscow and Beijing with a goal of upending regional systems supported by a US elite establishment.
The approaches taken by Moscow and Beijing bear some similarities. According to the report, Beijing has also been attempting to foment US/EU division to its own strategic benefits. The report explains that “Beijing realized early on that dividing the U.S. and the EU would be crucial to isolating the U.S., countering Western influence more broadly, and expanding its global reach.”
The strategies used in China’s EU operations include:
1) Weaponizing economic investments to court political support for Beijing’s policies (a strategy implemented particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, regions that were hit hard after the 2008 financial crisis). Even former prime ministers of Great Britain – David Cameron and Gordon Brown – have actively taken major roles in the BRI project.
2) Propagating the belief that authoritarian/illiberal policies are not contrary to fostering economic growth. The report asserts that the Czech Republic has turned from a harsh critic of PRC’s human rights abuse to it de-emphasizing the issue since the 2014 ascent of the Zeman administration. Xi Jinping has received the key to the city of Prague in March 2016. Kremlin-leaning President Milos Zeman – the former Czech Social Democrat Party (ČSSD) leader who began his second term in March 2018 – has previously noted that Xi Jinping is an ally in the fight for independence from Brussels bureaucracy.
3) Supporting EU candidates and staff that are friendly to the CCP policies and interests while ignoring or indirectly attempting to silence those who are critical of Beijing’s policies, especially regarding Tibet. Prominent EU figures have been retaliated against (often by means of downgrading level of diplomatic relations) by Beijing for meeting with the Dalai Lama.
4) Influencing EU public opinion by promoting historical-political narratives that are convenient to Beijing, which can take form of (but are not limited to) providing newspaper inserts reflecting CCP’s official position, improving media relations for content exchange, and financially supporting or buying up struggling EU media outlets to make them more amicable to China’s policies.
5) Just as the modern establishment media has become in many instances not only an information outlet but a consensus-building and mobilizing influence in civil society, academia is also increasingly functioning in a similar manner via the modern education system. According to the report, Beijing has also capitalized on this by attempting to exert influence in universities and think tanks to make these institutions bend to its interests. This strategy manifests in ways such as investing and creating scholarship programs for academic environments that are friendly to Beijing’s official positions, limiting freedom of speech by sanctioning ‘offenders’ and curtailing the range of debates, and establishing Confucius Institutes (which have been described as “an arm of the Chinese state” and the FBI has recently recognized them as an infiltration mechanism and thus a national security concern).
6) Exploiting Chinese diaspora communities in the EU by feeding them propaganda and attempting to turn them into agents to promote Beijing’s interests.
As one can easily recognize from these elements noted in the report, the attempt to mold the EU into a political entity conducive to Beijing’s interests mirror Moscow’s strategy of weakening the EU in order to promote its own geopolitical interests. The warnings provided by the report come at a time when the post-Cold War order has already been in flux for a decade, with the shifts accelerating after the 2008 financial crisis, which many strategists around the globe view as the dusk of US global dominance. Crises have broken out on key points of the Eurasian continent, and resurgent revisionist powers have taken advantage of them to start building a new and still-emerging multipolar order.
Beijing’s intervention in EU policies seems to be yet another manifestation of our current geopolitical convulsions. This certainly should receive wider public attention by the very media outlets that wear the mantle of ‘guardians of democracy.’ This is especially true when the major topic broadcasted by the establishment media is that of Russian meddling attempts. Yet according to the report: “Beijing’s political influencing efforts in Europe are bound to be much more consequential in the medium- to long-term future than those of the Kremlin.” The establishment media’s coverage of this issue is next to negligible. If this doesn’t change, it would be yet another moment in history when the common citizenry of the West, who should have been alerted by the so-called ‘gatekeepers of liberty’ (currently on the receiving end of numerous accusation of ideological bias and politicization), are tossed and swayed in what could become an irreversible geopolitical course in the near future.
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