Chinese scholars voice concerns over BRI developments in the Mediterranean
The latest edition of ECFR’s China Analysis series highlights Chinese perceptions of the risks and opportunities of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) developments around the Mediterranean.
Using official vocabulary, the analysts largely present the initiative as a series of bilateral win-win projects, with very little mention of the global order or Chinese ambitions. For example, Italy’s slow recovery from the global and euro crises have allowed China to buy world-class brands, and shares in pivotal national infrastructure assets, on the cheap. This is presented not as predatory investment but as ‘shared opportunity’, with China assisting Italy’s recovery through capital investment and access to Chinese consumers.
But Chinese authors are not blind to the risks of such ventures. On the Mediterranean’s southern shore, the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings has caused Chinese experts to rethink their plans for Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Political turmoil and social instability are naturally top of the list of risks, but also mentioned are slow visa processes and corruption. ‘Protectionism’ is a further concern, with many north African countries applying European standards and displaying national preferences for European firms. Overall, authors are still relatively bullish on investment in the region, citing ‘positive momentum of the market growth’, but also the need to ‘assess more precisely both investment opportunities and risks in the recipient country’.
In the Middle East, the authors note that China has become Arab countries’ second largest trading partner, and has contributed to several infrastructure projects there already. They are concerned about political instability and the volatility of relations among the main geopolitical forces. But Saudi Arabia and UAE are seen as possessing the requisite economic and social stability for BRI initiatives to begin. Gao Shantao advises China to develop ‘strategic fulcrums’ in these countries, before spreading out across the neighbourhood, while Tian Wenlin sees Iran as a potential ‘firewall’ to prevent religious extremism from penetrating into Xinjiang.
When it comes to developing BRI projects in Europe, Chinese scholars are more focussed on ‘those infernal rules’, as described by ECFR’s François Godement. Not being able to employ Chinese workers on their own terms is cited as a ‘major concern’. So too is ‘protectionism’ – referring to EU rules that favour domestic investors – yet the prospect of a possible investment treaty between the EU and China is never touched on by the scholars, as if it is a no-go area.