"Let no man pull you so low as to hate him."

In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted."

Bertrand Russell

What it means to go beyond

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." ― Viktor E. Frankl

Time for Europe to take on Belt and Road Initiative challenge: Seminar

LONDON : A seminar on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) called for joint European response to the Chinese move. Organised by The Democracy Forum (TDF), a not-for-profit NGO which promotes ideals of democracy, pluralism and tolerance through public debate, at Chancellor's Hall in London on February 5, the seminar arrived at a consensus that the Chinese move undermines economic and strategic interests of the European countries and hence warrants urgent response.

TDF President Lord Bruce in his welcome address, drew the attention of the audience to the global concern over Chinese hegemony surrounding the BRIand refused to buy Chinese reassurances that the project is not a geo-strategic concept or military alliance but an economic co-operation initiative as they would have us believe.

The essential challenge for the EU, he said is to maintain a collective front, he said, concluding that "we should perhaps be asking what China really wants from Europe, as it sees in Europe's openness and wealth advantages for itself".

"I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom." ― Noam Chomsky

After the welcome address, speaker after speaker conveyed that the Chinese initiative has long term as well as short term economic and security implications for Europe and underscored the need to deal with it on priority basis.

Speaking on the occasion, Dr John Hemmings, Director of Asia Studies at the Henry Jackson Society, highlighted the linkages between China's foreign policy, aid, infrastructure, technology and sea-lane security – the geopolitical results of globalisation – and their impact on the global stage. Conceding that the BRI presents opportunities, he said the security challenges it poses to the West can't be ignored.

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy speaking at the seminar. Andew Small (extreme left), Duncan Bartlett and Dr Sarah Ashraf, on the panel of speakers, can also be seen

Putting in perspective Beijing's Belt and Road diplomacy and Europe's response to it,Theresa Fallon,Founder and Director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies (CREAS) compared China's 'ambiguous' and ambitious BRI project with Europe's more 'rules-based, top-down' approach to trade, and spoke of the problem of debt-trap, which has not only affected countries such as Sri Lanka(over the Hambantota Port) but also potential EU member states straddled by the BRI,including Serbia and Montenegro. As a result of debts to China generated by BRI projects, these countries will find it very difficult to join the EU.

Elaborating her point, she gave an overview of the BRI, Chinese investment in Europe, FDI screening, geopolitics and the public diplomacyof the People's Republic of China and underlined the need for more transparency of Chinese companies operating within Europe; explored China's investment in the '16 plus 1', which is pulling certain EU and EU accession states further away from Europe.

On the question how the Belt and Road pushback might be made more productive,Andrew Cainey, Associate Fellow at Chatham House, looked at how partner countries are pushing back on the BRI's impact and terms, and what does and does not make sense for the sustainable development of those countries.

While the BRI is meeting needs in emerging economies, with infrastructure investment a key enabler of economic growth, MrCainey said this came with major caveats, since financing is not on concessionary terms,and oversight of SOE actions and tackling corruption are major issues in China, as in many of the BRI countries. But the BRI's 'vagueness' is an advantage for the West and not just for China, he said, with opportunities for Western governments and multilaterals to latch on to the positives and push back on the negatives.

On the notion of 'productive pushback', he said there is a need tobe competitive both economically or societally, choosing where 'China should not be the only game in town' and 'stiffening the sinews 'by capacity-building, governance and transparency initiatives in partner countries, and taking an integrated overview of fiscal and debt risk.

The implications of the BRI for the international rule of law was the focus for Kathryn Rand, Assistant Director at the Great Britain China Centre, who said an interesting aspect of the BRI was the nexus of politics and law.A huge challenge facing China will be the need to provide legal certainty for business, she said, while maintaining its political oversight of the judiciary.

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy of Zohra and ZZ Ahmed Foundation, a distinguished professor at Lahore's Forman Christian College, called the BRI a consequence of globalisation, which itself is a consequence of technology. Looking at the BRI in the context of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor,he evaluated both China's assertion that its BRI involvement with partner countries is purely on an economic basis, and its claims that the project will build local capacity and support sustainable development in those partner countries.

He lamented the continuing lack of transparency about Chinese investments in Pakistan and failure to hire enough local labour, except in security, with some 12,000 local forces employed in regions such as Balochistan and the Port of Gwadar.Complaints have also arisen about Chinese companies operating in SEZ being untaxed, and Dr Hoodbhoy expressed concerns about the dearth of local goods which have been replaced by Chinese products.

He questioned China's inroads into the low-tech agricultural sector, and pointed to warning signs coming from Chinese purchase of land. So, while there have been enhancements in some industries, such as steel, local capacity is generally decreasing rather than increasing.

Dr Hoodbhoy said that, while the BRI may be a purely commercial project elsewhere, he did not believe it was true of Pakistan, as what is happening around Gwadar and Balochistan is more strategic, and local people are not getting their fare share of benefits. Andrew Small, senior transatlantic fellow, Asia Program, The German Marshall Fund looked beyond the backlash, asking whether Beijing could rebalance the BRI.Though he touched upon the pushback from other major powers and in key BRI countries, he focused more closely on whether Beijing is capable of a serious adjustment, how far that is already happening, what shape such changes might take, and how we could respond.

He spoke of how the BRI in many ways externalises much of what China has been doing itself internally for a long time, and called China 'as good a poster child as any' for 'huge expensive infrastructure projects with questionable returns, problematic debt levels, corrupt practices and environmental issues'.

He too spoke of the debt trap affecting partner countries and how it is extremely damaging for China's reputation as well as censure from countries such as the US and India.There has been much criticism of the BRI's lack of transparency, focus on Punjab, etc from ally Pakistan, and from inside China itself regarding its excessive nature, he pointed out.But there have beenre-adjustments and rebalancing that have tried to reduce some of the criticism surrounding the original BRI – including paring back its scale and some debt rescheduling – while keeping much of the project's initial thrust.

Such development smatter because we are beyond what Mr Small called 'the crushing narrative of inevitability' on the BRI, which suggested that the CCP's way of doing business was the only way. It is unclear what the new model BRI will be like, he concluded, but BRI version 1 – 'the straight-up externalisation of the China model' – is not going to work.

Dr Sarah Ashraf, Policy and Research Manager, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, described the BRI as 'less an institution with clearly defined rules, and more like a strategic vision'. She considered changes to the international order, arguing that the EU must meet its Chinese counterparts at the same level, keeping several relevant factors in mind, such as learning how to compete with its own products in equal conditions, avoiding trade imbalances with China, and fomenting the creation and preservation of jobs in Europe following the acquisitions by Chinese companies.

In his closing remark, Barry Gardiner MP,Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, said asserted that 'the Chinese were doing imperialism better than we did', and referred to the importance of focusing on the meaning of sustainable development. The way we adjudicate international disputes is currently at a very difficult point, he warned, and concluded that, in answer to a pertinent question from the audience about whether Europe can respond to the need for infrastructure with the same verve and imagination as the BRI, we have failed and need to step up to the plate.