From the ’17+1′ to a new vision for the Mediterranean
Taking into account that the Belt and Road Initiative is an inclusive project, the “17+1” can perhaps function as a model for China to deepen its engagement with other neighboring regions.
The recent enlargement of the “16+1” Initiative with the inclusion of Greece, and its renaming to “17+1” is of high symbolic significance for the sustainability of the initiative. Brussels has expressed some concerns about the initiative, alleging that it will divide the EU, but one of its member-states decided to join it for an obvious reason: to explore more opportunities for closer economic collaboration with China and the countries in the Southeast, Central and Eastern Europe. That country is Greece. This decision was made by the leftist-SYRIZA government at the beginning of the year but also resonated with the new conservative New Democracy after its electoral victory last July. The Greek approach is one that is marked by continuity.
The 2019 Dubrovnik Guidelines for Cooperation outline the multidimensional character of the “17+1.” Participant countries regularly hold discussions to discuss difficulties, coordinate actions, and possibly proceed to new “win-win” synergies. Difficult as it is, the process is oftentimes rewarding. The first country to draw lessons from this is China. The originality of the established mechanism allows it to learn about the regions of Southeast, Central and Eastern Europe in its effort to promote connectivity across the globe in implementing the Belt and Road Initiative. Knowledge is the key to its success.
Taking into account that the Belt and Road Initiative is an inclusive project, the “17+1” can perhaps function as a model for China to deepen its engagement with other neighboring regions. The Mediterranean serves as an example. Greece, in particular, might be a hub for the “17+1” as well as for new initiatives in this Basin. The continuous investment of COSCO in the Piraeus port opens new trade routes towards not only the North, but also in all directions of the Mediterranean and beyond. Furthermore, the investment of the Chinese company in the cruise sector has the potential to attract tourists from Asia to visit Athens and then enjoy – via Piraeus – different Mediterranean countries by boat.
Greece will not be alone. The participation of the Mediterranean partners of the “17+1,” namely Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia, seems feasible. Other Southern European countries could also be interested. In November 2018, for example, President Xi Jinping visited Spain and Portugal – although the latter is not a Mediterranean state, it belongs to what is described as “South” in Europe. And in March 2019 he went to France, Monaco and Italy.
Looking towards North Africa, Sino-Arab relations are being steadily enhanced following the publication of the 2016 China Arab Paper. Frequent high level visits are now taking place. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for instance, attended the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April 2019 and praised the Sino-Egyptian partnership. Also, China and Morocco signed a memorandum for the joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative this year, further cementing ties following the crucial visit of King Mohammed VI to Beijing three years ago. Likewise, China enjoys very good economic relations with both Israel and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Although the Belt and Road Initiative already passes through the Mediterranean, the institutionalization of China’s presence in the region will not be an easy process. Political problems such as the Arab-Israeli conflict has remained unsolved for decades. The instability in Libya and Syria, the American-Russian rivalry, the refugee crisis and terrorism only complicate the current situation. Even Greek-Turkish relations, which have been rather calm in the 21st century, are being strained in recent months and the possibility of a military accident around Cyprus is plausible. It is perhaps for all these reasons that European attempts to bring integration to the Basin, such as the Union for the Mediterranean proposed by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the previously so-called Barcelona Process, have not yielded very fruitful results.
So, would it be truly in China’s interest to be entangled in this difficult region? The answer is rather positive for three main reasons. First, the very nature of the Belt and Road Initiative is to contribute to shared prosperity and offer alternative incentives for cooperation among foreign countries, even if they are at odds with each other on other issues. Second, President Xi Jinping has advocated, since May 2019, for a different thinking in international relations that challenges the “clash of civilizations” theory and is based on the doctrine that no civilization is superior to others. If successful, a new vision for the Mediterranean outlined by Beijing will facilitate the symbiosis of different civilizations, ancient and modern, as well as of peoples representing different religions. And third, China will perhaps find an efficient way to better bridge its policies towards Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
To revitalize dialogue among Mediterranean countries – possibly including Portugal and Mauritania – Beijing needs to clarify its goals, explain the scope of its economic involvement, which will not include political mediation, and identify sectors where participants have chances to agree upon. Ten categories are now given as an example: employment, investment, trade, financial services and banking, technology and innovation, climate change and environment, tourism, education, culture, and empowerment of cities. The proposed scheme can be certainly developed in consultation with the EU to guarantee complementarity with the Union for the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean, a destination of the ancient Silk road, needs to dream of a better future and China is able to contribute to its realization.
George N. Tzogopoulos is a columnist with China.org.cn.
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China Focus