In the past few weeks, we have witnessed a mini ‘Belt & Road’ unfolding across the northern Middle East – linking Iran to Iraq, to Syria, and to Lebanon – a ‘Belt and Road’ that, it is envisaged, ultimately will be assimilated into China’s greater BRI project. And – as telling – Lebanon, the eternal weathervane for the Middle East wind direction, seems to be cutting a 500-year-old umbilical linking it to Rome and Europe, to look rather to Moscow (to protect the regions’ Christians, to get its Syrian refugees home to Syria, and to move under President Putin’s protective ‘wing’ in preventing Bolton and Netanyahu from detonating chaos on their patch) – and to China. More recently, the New Silk Road infrastructure initiative landed squarely in Italy, potentially giving some real substance (i.e. infrastructure) – especially in the case of Sicily – to the notion of a Mediterranean commonality.
Both these events are linked by a single motive: How to return autonomy to these states; how to recover at least a modicum of decision-making – and to break free from the strait-jacket of economic stagnation, and the deadweight of stale political shackles. As Christina Lin has noted: “China for one takes the view that security follows economic development, and has made it clear that reconstruction comes before political settlement. It is adopting a regional approach to the Levant and now views Lebanon as a platform for reconstruction in Syria and Iraq” (emphasis added).
The EU naturally frets about China. The EU always has assumed to itself rather, the mantle of being the ‘coming global economic behemoth’. But now, the EU has been seized by a very real apprehension at the rise of this other ‘civilisation state’, China, which eventually is likely to spell the end of the West's dominance in every sphere: economic, political and cultural – but more especially, since demographic trends show Europe aging, shrinking and controlling a smaller, and smaller share of the world economy.
And this what has been on display in the northern tier of the Middle East and in Italy. Both Italy and the Levant are ‘civilisation-states’ in their own right. They do not need the EU ‘brand’ to reassure them of their status as ‘civilisation-states’. As Lebanon’s former Minister of Economy noted last year, China doesn’t “look at Lebanon as a small country of 4 million citizens, but as a country with huge potential given its geographical location”.
The point here is precisely that ‘the West’ is no longer the West. There is the belligerent ‘West’ of Trump, Pence, Bolton and Pompeo – and this is the ‘West’ that is incrementally losing traction across the Middle East, and beyond. And then there is ‘the West’ of the EU, but that latter ‘West’ too, is divided, and beset by forces opposed to its millenarian ethos. The West, as the ‘vision for the future’, indeed is receding.
The EU sees this. It is both gripped by China’s potential as an economic partner, in these ‘needy times’ of threatening recession, yet it cannot quite yield up to this changing world, its global ambition to impart to propagate its European ‘liberal’ values.
As a consequence, the EU presents obvious symptoms of schizophrenia. On the one hand, it cannot do without China economically and wants to ‘best friend’ to the Leviathan, yet, in the ‘other persona’ – the EU, can sound somewhat like Trump, in complaining about unfair trade practices, and standing on its high horse of European values: "Competition between China and the European Union is not fair ... the EU was wrong to hope that China would respect human rights more when economic progress increases … The EU should be clear, but more firm with China”.
Juncker’s polemic reflects a certain ‘buyers’ remorse’ at the consequences to the western Orientalist consensus about China. Expectations have not been realised, writes Martin Jacques:
“There has been a tacit consensus that, if we treat China nicely, as potentially ‘one of us’, Beijing will return the compliment. The result has been very little real discussion of what a world with a dominant China would be like.
On one hand, [there are] those who believe China will rule the world, but only if it adopts ‘our’ Western way of doing things, and on the other, [there are] those who argue that Beijing's modernisation will ultimately founder, because China's ‘Chinese-ness’ will get in the way. The conclusion drawn by both schools, however, is the same. ‘We’ don't need to worry. Strong or weak, China will not challenge our way of life.
There is still a widespread view in the West that China will eventually conform, by a process of natural and inevitable development, to the Western paradigm. This is wishful thinking. By concentrating on similarities, rather than recognising difference, the Western world ‘excludes everything ... that makes China what it is’.
“BILATERALISM DIES HARD: Tuesday delivered an unprecedented sight: [Macron, Merkel and Juncker] on the steps of the Elysée, welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping to their special quadripartite mini-summit on multilateralism. The image certainly sent the message the Elysée wanted: China must deal with a united European front, rather than its preferred bilateral approach, where the balance of power works in Beijing’s favour.
Macron is known for his penchant for symbolism, but is that all there is? The summit ended with a bilateral joint declaration from France and China. Seven pages of references to “the two countries,” and not a single mention of Germany or the European Commission”.
Of course, it is quite true that the EU is under severe pressure from the US. And, as former US Ambassador to China, Chas Freeman has noted:
“From the US point of view, the objection to Italian outreach to China is just part of hysteria about China that has seized Washington. The US is treating the Belt and Road as a military strategic challenge. The Europeans are treating it as an economic issue that they need to be cautious about …
“The Europeans are scrambling to come to grips with the fact that China is now a global great power, economically … the debate for them is less about Belt and Road than it is about the terms of Chinese investment and competition in the technology area. In the US, there is no debate. There is pretty much an anti-China consensus now.”
The American pendulum has swung from one extreme (China will rule the world, but only if it adopts ‘our’ Western way of doing things), to the other narrative: US ‘hysteria’ about the threat, because the West precisely has been guilty hitherto: of ‘excluding everything... that makes China what it is’.
So now we witness the problematic of America – with its own very particular, economic model – insisting that China’s economic model (the very ‘something’ which ‘makes China what it is’), be changed: i.e. that China’s economic model be modified so that American Corporations may do business in China’s economy – just as if they were doing business at home, with another American organisation.
The contradictions in this are obvious. There is no one set of ‘rules’ that fits all sizes (models of economics). The global rules were constructed around a US paradigm – and economic models change as paradigms change.
So, what does all this mean? For, Middle Eastern states, the shift to the Russian – and Chinese – sphere offers the prospect of interacting with a political and diplomatic ‘machine’ that works – and still has its all its wires connected to the realities of the region. It also opens the opportunity to acquire sophisticated weapons for defence; and comes with the added bonus of being able to acquire infrastructural investment, and trade corridors, as part of the joint, Russo-Chinese BRI.
For Italy – with its economy frozen in amber – it returns to the state, some aspect of autonomy over its economy – a touch of sovereignty. Italy has had enough foreign occupations over the centuries not to fear that somehow its ‘Italian-ness’ will be lost through accepting Chinese infrastructure investment. Also, China has a ‘love affair’ with all things ‘made in Italy’.
‘It means’ that whilst Washington fulminates, the reality is that China is quietly eroding global resistance to its rise. We shall just have to adjust to Chinese ‘otherness’ and its ways of doing business. Is that such a problem (unless Messrs Navarro, Lighthizer and Pence make it one)?