This is the automatic English translation of a very informative article published in the German WELT on March 20, 2019, under the headline „Dealing with China: Here in Europe we have no plan“ – original source: https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/plus190490407/Peter-Frankopan-ueber-China-In-Europa-haben-wir-keinen-Plan.html.
The People’s Republic has been investing more heavily all over the world for the past five years – including in Europe. A great opportunity for the West, says Peter Frankopan, Professor of World History at Oxford University. But the EU must no longer sleepwalk.
Can a Chinese company expand the German 5G network? The question of whether Chinese investments lead to dangerous dependencies is being asked more and more often – especially since the People’s Republic proclaimed the revival of the Silk Road. This is what Peter Frankopan, Professor of World History at Oxford University, deals with in his new book. A conversation about China’s role in the world and how the West is dealing with Asia’s growing strength.
WELT: Since 2013 there has been an increase in Chinese investment in the West, especially in strategic infrastructure. Mr. Frankopan, you write in your book that an „Asian century“ has dawned. Is the change from West to East a threat or an opportunity?
Peter Frankopan: I can’t answer that with yes or no like in a game show. Both are true. It all depends on the sector, the respective investor, the individual region and other criteria. In Europe we are lost with our superficial distinctions as to which areas should be more sensitive than others. We classify individual sectors without really thinking or working out what that means.
We have this standard view that it is threatening when others have money to spend. But if we do something similar elsewhere, we don’t see that it’s difficult or challenging. We are very good at going blind when it suits us and we discover our own opportunities, for example in Iran or Saudi Arabia.
WELT: Does this mean that in your opinion the perception that increasing Chinese investment in the West is a threat is an overreaction?
Peter Frankopan: We have to separate two aspects: On the one hand, there is the challenge of finding out which companies are being bought and why, from a Chinese perspective, they are being bought. But the second challenge is: how should we in Europe respond? What is really strategically sensitive? And what role should the state play in preventing entrepreneurs from selling their businesses?
Here in Germany and in Europe, we don’t seem to have particularly good answers to these questions. And this is not just about China. We lack systematic reflection on where Europe stands. Where should the European Union be in the next ten, 20 or 30 years? And what skills do we then need? We are sleepwalking on these issues. We do not answer these questions.
WELT: How can these questions be answered?
Peter Frankopan: I’m on a board where we’re trying to figure out what skills students will need in ten years. That’s what we need to find out. Today, students are learning exactly what I already learned about a very limited part of the world. But since I left school, the Berlin Wall has fallen, apartheid has ended, the world is changing. But here in Europe we have no plan.
WELT: What’s the reason for that?
Peter Frankopan: There are good reasons for that. One reason is that in democracies we always think in terms of electoral periods and thus in time windows of three, four or five years. We also have a press that holds politicians accountable, which is clearly great. But the impetus for politicians is to reward now instead of making a plan for the distant future and making long-term investments. Add to that developments like the Brexit, which will have a significant impact on Europe’s economy and politics.
I find it interesting that almost every country I have visited in Asia, whether Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India, China or Russia, has a strategic plan for the next 20, 30 or 40 years. Of course, these plans are sometimes incomplete. But in Europe, few have a good idea of where it’s going – or where it should go.
WELT: Now Brussels has presented a strategy paper on how to deal with China, which aims at a common line to curb China’s growing influence. Could this not be a first step towards a longer-term EU plan, at least as far as China is concerned?
Peter Frankopan: Yes, of course. But it remains to be seen exactly what the paper will mean – and it is based on the assumption that any Chinese influence is bad. As always, much depends on the details. And as so often in the case of the EU, it is important that all member states share the same view. As some have already pointed out, richer and larger states are very interested in it for fear of a threat, while smaller states have fewer options – and less to lose. So there is still much to consider.
WELT: The Chinese leadership censors and controls the population. Beijing is currently even setting up a digital surveillance system. How strong is the impact of this digital dictatorship on the West, at a time when China is expanding its influence here?
Peter Frankopan: We are not only affected here, we also support the surveillance system. In Germany, very clever engineers and programmers are also working on face recognition, for example. A technology that is great when used under the right conditions. But this technology is also sold to China and other countries. There are companies that make money by participating in this process in China. So it’s not just a Chinese story, it’s not a „die against us“.
WELT: While China is pushing ahead with its Silk Road Initiative, the USA is pursuing a policy based on the motto „America First“ and confronting China with a trade war. Washington has also presented its own Indo-Pacific strategy.
Peter Frankopan: The United States has identified China and the rise of the People’s Republic as the greatest challenges facing the world today. These answers to the Silk Road Initiative are the USA’s attempt to beat China with its own game. They say: We are doing the same thing as China, but better – without this debt level, with softer credits, with high commitment and so on.
The US chooses the countries it supports not because they are of interest to America, but because they want to play these countries off against China. China’s shadow follows the US in its decisions. I would be much more pleased if the US were to break away from China and implement its own policies in the right way. The US also provides a great deal of information about the dangers of the Chinese Silk Road Initiative. But they are not giving an alternative vision that has clear advantages.
WELT: China is extremely hierarchically structured. Above all stands Xi Jinpgin, President and Chairman of the Communist Party. So there is no room for real criticism, which makes it very difficult to learn from mistakes. Is this a dangerous weakness for Beijing?
Peter Frankopan: Absolutely. It is a difficult moment for China, because the economy is slowing down and the country is feeling the pressure of trade wars, for example with the United States. High-ranking intellectuals are questioning the Silk Road Initiative and China’s approach to the present and future.
Over the past six months, one of the major points of discussion in Beijing has been that China needs to better understand what other parts of the world are doing. It also needs a system in which mistakes and bad news can be passed on upwards. One of the good qualities of democracies is that the omnipresent criticism quickly sorts out bad ideas.
WELT: In some of the states through which the Silk Road passes, the security situation is very weak, one problem is terrorism. Is China prepared to assume responsibility in the Middle East, for example?
Peter Frankopan: In 2016 China published a Sino-Arab strategy paper. For a long time, Beijing observed the situation in many countries only from the outside, without participating at all. But this paper argues that China needs to be more realistic and pragmatic, and more involved in local politics. That is easier said than done.
China, for example, has begun to play a much more active role in reaching an agreement in Afghanistan. Of course also because it shares a border with Afghanistan. In addition, the USA wants to withdraw from Afghanistan. In other words, China is much more involved. And this process is one that can be expected to repeat itself, especially in China’s other neighboring states.
WELT: What are the three most striking opportunities for the West in an Asian century?
Peter Frankopan: It’s a whole new world emerging here. This offers great opportunities – commercial, cultural, political and diplomatic. There are new consumers. And Asia is not only becoming more prosperous, it is also becoming more populous. This means, among other things, that more mouths must be filled and more people taught. And one thing we must not forget, despite all the fears in Europe, is that a child born today in Berlin, Cameroon or Delhi will have the highest life expectancy ever, and it will also be more likely than ever that it will be able to read, have access to clean water and receive health care.
Peter Frankopan: „The New Silk Roads. Present and future of our world“, published by Rowohlt.
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