China's Geopolitical Ambitions in Europe: Dead End or New Beginning?

In my last article, I tried to emphasize how an evolving wall-to-wall confrontation between the Atlantic Bloc and Russia concerned not so much the situation in Eastern Europe, but rather is a larger scheme to counteract Chinese ambitions. This puts the Russian Federation and other countries at a crossroads. During June 2021, starting from the G7 Summit, many hypotheses have begun to crystallise and confirm what was previously advanced in a speculative way.

The first "concrete" episode emerged during the G7 summit, during which the American President Joe Biden made it clear that USA will join, with huge funding, on the "Build Back Better World" or "B3W" program. While on one hand it is true that the basic idea had little to do with the contrast to the Chinese "Belt and Road Initiative", in fact it was much more about encouraging private capital to invest in developing areas or with serious infrastructural deficiencies, no one has undertaken to deny the idea that this project represented the West's response to an uncontrolled strategic eastern expansion.


Indeed, on the contrary, starting from its first steps, in 2019, the program focused on the development of the so-called "Blue Dot Network", first of all involving Japan and Australia. It aims of creating a sort of alternative model to the financing and creation of Chinese infrastructure within the Indo Pacific area, based on the "Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment" endorsed during the G20 summit in Osaka in 2019, and which concern specific areas (climate, health, digital technology, and gender equity) in which to mobilize the private sector through substantial financial aid.


The June 16 meeting in Geneva between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin was equally full of implications. Reactions ranged from "positive" to "disturbing", and such a wide range of opinions ended up ignoring the facts, as usual. Although apparently from the meeting no apparently noteworthy statement came out, the fact that the two heads of state each stuck to their own positions remains a fact. An identical positioning means that the lines drawn will follow their path: the United States will continue its path with or without Russia, which, for its part, seems to have opted for immobility. This implies an increasingly rapid descent into becoming a "branch" of the People's Republic of China.


Although the United States seems more active,the European Union, with due distinction, seems to have taken an identical direction aimed at limiting the influence of Chinese capital in member countries or in those that are considered closer in terms of geopolitical relevance.


It is no coincidence that the second "slap" came from inside the forum for the "Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries" also known as "17 + 1", an initiative put in place by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote cooperation and investments between the Asian giant and some countries of Central and Eastern Europe (EU members such as Greece or external ones such as Serbia). Lithuania, through the voice of its Foreign Minister Landsbergis, defined the initiative as "divisive at European level", proposing to keep it but with a extended to all EU countries (renaming it "27 + 1"). If there is one thing that China (but not only China) does not like is to see its bargaining strength drastically reduced. Obviously, it is one thing to deal with some "selected" countries, another is the whole of Europe bringing its strength into play. Although the Union may suffer from internal divisions of all kinds, the weightge of the parties changes radically.


It is worth noting one fact, which is linked to the pattern of EU - China - Russia relations: the most "anti-Russian" countries, so to speak, are those who are committed to pursuing the new Atlantic strategy which frames China as the principal opponent as opposed to Russia, while the more "undecided" countries have the same attitude in both cases. In this sort of triangulation, as usual, many of the internal dynamics of the European Union are reflected, which is increasingly far from having a common line:

  • The more pro-European countries know that the US strategy is the one to follow (for good and for bad) but they would like to do it without appearing to be subordinates, and, above all, preserving relations with many of those countries that have their "heart in Russia and their wallets in Europe";

  • Others, within the EU but with a relationship that has brought them closer to NATO than anything else, have moved firmly by following the US, trying to derive as many advantages as possible from the new American foreign policy (the Baltic countries are the example), taking advantage of what is still seen as the main threat, namely Russia;

  • Finally we have those countries in the balance, such as Italy, which pay the price of the nefarious policies of the past years, trying to take advantage of this moment of internal truce to remedy some very relevant issues, before the parliament is renewed (but this is another story).

Another example of how relations are changing is represented by the "case" of Montenegro. The small Balkan country has agreed with the Chinese government a loan of almost 1 billion dollars for the construction of infrastructure (specifically a highway that crosses it, connecting together the numerous villages otherwise dispersed in the mountainous landscape) and in recent months the government realized how the initiative was certainly not a charity, and how repaying the lenders would have led the country to bankruptcy. Although Montenegro is not yet a member of the Union, and considering the guilty disinterest that is generally reserved for the countries of the Balkans, something went differently. As soon as the disastrous financial situation (a.k.a debt-trap diplomacy) became evident, the EU countries rushed to set up a special fund aimed specifically at repaying the huge debt incurred by the country: it’s the first time something like that happened.


It should certainly be noted that many attitudes in the geopolitical field are changing very rapidly, or at least it is apparently so. Those who deal with these things know well, or at least should, that with rare exceptions nothing happens overnight. Every event we witness is generally a culmination of events that often remain hidden, as they are not immediately framed and not "spectacular" enough to get a place in newspapers and magazines, even specialized ones.


For its part, the People's Republic of China certainly did not stand still: the Politburo (Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China) is very clear on what is happening, and has certainly understood the change in world politics. Not surprisingly, while the United States is abandoning Afghanistan (but more generally, the abandonment concerns the Middle East as a battleground, a question that perhaps deserves a specific study), the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, is working to ensure that a new political referent replaces the US (and, paradoxically, also Russia, whose "interests" in the area, if until months ago they seemed inalienable object of contention with the West, today they no longer seem so central).


While the Taliban effectively take over the country, the emissaries of Beijing are trying to secure their support - and, in turn, in all likelihood, that of Pakistan as well. Although to some it may seem like "strange comrades", in this case their interests converge perfectly: China seeks more than anything else the stability of the region, trying to avoid that the internal conflicts that have occurred in recent years do not affect economic interests in Central Asia, while the Taliban faction, defeated during the invasion of Afghanistan by the Americans, seeks a new legitimacy in view of a total or partial return to power. The PRC in this sense is the ideal partner, as it has enormous economic possibilities and a strong sense for Realpolitik. On the sidelines there are two other things to note: the first is how the Taliban do not care about their Uyghur "Muslim brothers", persecuted in East Turkestan by their new friends of the Beijing government. It seems that "International Jihad" and all the rhetoric of the last twenty years can be bought at the right price. The second issue is, as already mentioned before, the fact that Moscow does not "strike a beat", on the contrary, it willingly offers itself as a mediator of agreements that in one way or another relegate it to a secondary role, another sign unequivocal of how rhetoric was and has remained such: a question of image and nothing more.


(Gianmarco Bertocci is an independent historian and researcher who deals in particular with the development of post-Soviet countries and the world after the collapse of the USSR. Reach him at g.bertocci@unpredictablepast.com, and connect with him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/gianmarco-bertocci-1ba6ab177 . Read his blog at www.unpredictablepast.com )

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