By Chen Chenchen Source: Global Times Published: 2016-12-18
"The Belt and Road Initiative (B&R initiative) is not discussed on TV here," a Zurich-based economist from a top local university said to me during a recent conversation we had in his office. "Not many people here are informed about the initiative. I read a couple of articles in newspaper, but I`m not so familiar."
It was one typical answer I heard during a recent trip to Switzerland. My colleague and I paid visits to several top Swiss think tanks, and we also had discussions with finance professionals from Zurich. It didn`t take long before we came to the intuitive fact that many elite Europeans from academia and business lack basic understanding of the B&R initiative.
This quick observation is in accordance with research findings back in China on European attitudes toward it. According to the Center for European Union Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, while the EU`s top decision-makers have made increasingly clear and positive responses to the B&R initiative, studies and analyses from European think tanks and business interest groups are still weak.
One immediate explanation is that since the initiative is in the early stages of implementation, many Europeans haven`t yet seen a direct link to specific projects. I did a mini survey before giving a presentation to a group in Zurich, mainly consisting of senior professionals from local financial giants. Among the three dozen people in the room, only five or six raised their hands to indicate they`d heard of it before they walked in. One investment banker told me later that it was primarily because the initiative wasn`t yet something they could directly invest in.
Nonetheless, a more profound reason is probably rooted in the way Europeans deal with the external world. The B&R initiative has been perceived with a mixture of skepticism and interest, partly due to problems in mutual strategic distrust between Europe and China. One of the widely held European views is that projects linked to the B&R initiative would mean exploitation of resources in areas between China and Europe, and that the Chinese would leave a "quasi-colonial legacy" behind.
A global vision of interconnectivity, based on pluralism and equal collaboration, is instinctively ruled out by many elite Europeans. Traditional theories of geopolitical rivalry, which date back to the age of imperialism, somehow permeate in the European perception of the initiative. Some see the initiative as a Chinese way of geo-economic expansion aimed at reshaping Eurasian political, economic and security order. This old-fashioned mentality may mean passivity in dealing with Chinese investments.
Europe does have interest in it, but it is simply impossible to reap quick benefits from it without spending time to properly position it, and to find concrete ways to bridge it with Europe`s own development frameworks, including the European Fund for Strategic Investment and Trans-European Transport Networks. In this sense, European business people engaging in trade and foreign investment as well as think tanks focusing on foreign policy studies and consulting could do more.
Both China and the EU have raised ambitious cooperation goals in various fields, including energy, urbanization, intellectual property rights protection, as well as aviation and aerospace. EU-China ties could advance by leaps and bounds if cooperation plans are brought to implementation.
From the Chinese perspective, two gaps are prominent at the moment. One is between Chinese and European positioning of the B&R initiative. It has literally become China`s No.1 project for both domestic development and external interaction, and some top Chinese scholars envisage the concept initiating the nation`s third round of reform and opening-up. This is in sharp contrast with skepticism among some Europeans toward the so-called period of validity of the initiative.
The other gap is evident when one roughly compares studies on the initiative by think tanks in Europe and the US. In Washington, systematic studies, including tracking of specific projects in terms of their profitability, have been under way. In Europe, there are certainly solid studies, but generally speaking, detailed and systematic perceptions of the initiative are inadequate.
In the Chinese leadership`s top-level design, "market-oriented" is listed as one of its principles. This means that mobilizing the private sector and social vigor is indispensable following government-to-government coordination. Local and industrial participation is key to building up interconnectivity between the two ends of the vast Eurasian landmass.
In order to bring this into reality, Europeans need to first understand the B&R initiative in a more detailed way, rather than being led by a stereotyped view on Chinese intentions. In this process, European think tanks and business interest groups have important roles to play.
The author is a research fellow with Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University of China.