China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has the potential to spark a more ambitious and truly strategic EU-China conversation on crucial issues of global peace, security and economic governance.

Europe has so far focused on the obvious trade, business and connectivity dimensions of China’s ‘project of the century’. That is understandable: In a world hungry for more infrastructure, BRI is certainly about massive investments in roads, railways, bridges and ports. It is also about digital connectivity and expanding financial and cultural links. Businesses in Europe world are right to explore just how they can secure a piece of the cake. The EU-China connectivity platform has an important role to play in facilitating such a conversation.

Europe should not make the mistake, however, of viewing BRI solely through a narrow trade and business prism. The EU should widen its view of BRI, seeing it as not merely as an economic ‘project’ but as a reflection of Beijing’s ambitious vision of its role in a rapidly-transforming world.

China’s blueprint articulates its self-confident repositioning in an uncertain era marked by erratic American engagement with the world. As such, BRI creates an array of hitherto largely-unexplored opportunities for a deeper EU-China dialogue on issues ranging from peace and security to climate change, Africa and Agenda 2030.

In recent months, both EU and Chinese policymakers have underlined that uncertain times demand their “joint responsibility” to work for a strong rules-based multilateral order. “We are living in times of growing tensions and geopolitical unpredictability so our cooperation has never been so important”, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said after a recent meeting with China’s state councilor Yang Jiechi. The challenge now is to turn such statements into joint actions.

“China and the EU should seize opportunities for cooperation, ask questions and seek clarifications and explanations”

It should not be too difficult. While trade and investments continue to form the backbone of the EU-China relationship, both sides already meet for regular high-level strategic discussions on global and regional challenges. The vast scope and many facets of the BRI provide an opportunity to strengthen and deepen the strategic conversation as a first step to launching possible joint actions.

Three important areas deserve priority attention.

First, given their joint interest in Africa, the EU and China should use the opportunities opened up by BRI to explore ways of working together to boost the continent’s still vastly-untapped development potential. Europe may once have viewed China’s growing economic influence and outreach in Africa with a degree of wariness and suspicion. But the migrant crisis has made EU governments more acutely aware of the need to inject more funds into Africa’s quest for jobs, growth and development. Cooperation with China on issues of Africa’s development as well as the achievement of the sustainable development goals is now definitely in the EU’s interest.

Second, China’s new blueprint provides room for a stronger EU-China conversation on global economic governance, including in the vital area of climate change leadership as well as multilateral trade liberalization and financial regulation. With President Trump still undecided on whether the United States should stick with the Paris agreement on climate change, the initial focus should be on EU-China cooperation to maintain the Paris accord even if Washington pulls out of the deal.

Third, President Xi Jinping’s description of BRI as a “road for peace” and the EU’s recent steps to strengthen its defence identity open up opportunities for more pro-active EU-China cooperation on issues of global peace and security, including North Korea, Iran, Syria and Yemen as well as counter-terrorism. This also puts the onus on China to ensure that BRI projects such as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) do not exacerbate regional tensions.

“The way ahead is going to be complicated and difficult”

The EU-China relationship will benefit greatly from a wider, ‘beyond trade’ conversation which looks outside purely bilateral ties to ways in which Brussels and Beijing can work together constructively on the global stage. Such interaction can go a long way in creating more trust between the two sides. It can also help to create a more stable relationship anchored in a better understanding of each other’s priorities and concerns.

Over the coming months, as projects are identified, investments are lined up and work starts in earnest, China will have to ensure that BRI becomes more transparent, procurement rules become more rigorous and projects fit in with the global sustainable development goals.

Significantly, also as the initiative gains traction, China will inevitably have to conduct itself as a ‘traditional’ development partner, abandoning its ‘non-interference’ policies for a stance that is more concerned about the domestic affairs of its partner states, including on issues like governance and terrorism.

The way ahead is going to be complicated and difficult. China will need to learn how to deal with complex demands and painful facts on the ground in its myriad partner countries. Europe can help make the BRI a success by sharing its knowhow, knowledge and experience.

China and the EU should seize opportunities for cooperation, ask questions – however difficult – and seek clarifications and explanations. With BRI, China has embarked on a long journey and set itself many ambitious goals. But it cannot do it alone.

This article was first published in China Daily on 26 May 2017.

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