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View from Brussels: Hello China, Goodbye America?

China's One belt, One Road to Europe is a massive $1.4tn infrastructure and engineering investment campaign that marks China's bid to be a global political player. With Brexit looming, why don't we have an audit into all British foreign policy relationships?

“You know who has power over you by thinking over what you are not allowed to criticise”.

I found that on the internet attributed to Voltaire. It’s the sort of thing he might indeed have said; but further investigation seems to show he did not in fact say it. Some joker attached the great French scribe’s name to his own meme and the thing has gone viral, and deservedly so; it is a thought-provoking line.

Of course, if you are inside a community with its taboos, you might not even realise there are things you are not allowed to criticise, because the media in your country or community doesn’t even raise the subject. So not only are there taboos, but there are taboos some people don’t even realise exist. A lot of effort has to be expended to get outside one’s community in order to think clearly and freely. That is why outsiders are useful. Foreign correspondents (like yours truly) are not only, or perhaps not even chiefly, useful for what they say about what is going on abroad, but what they say about home from their intellectually liberating perspective of being based abroad.

I’m back in Britain again: it strikes me as a country that is overpopulated, a bit chaotic and messy and full of public transport loudspeakers barking at you everywhere. Supermarket food is more expensive than in expensive Scandinavia, suggesting the pound is still rather over-valued. The newspapers write about domestic policy issues that are not immediately of interest to someone who has spent a long time abroad. One notes, though, reading the Tory manifesto, that Theresa May has taken the Brexit vote on board and interpreted it correctly as the public’s desire for a more egalitarian, meritocratic society where the elite are taken down a peg and the underprivileged are given a better chance. Less neoliberalism and open borders. More community and national spirit. Conservatism with a Social Democratic tinge.

Excellent stuff, but the reorientation in domestic policy from the globalist neoliberalism of the Blair/Cameron years (the two public-school-educated politicians seem almost indistinguishable in retrospect) has not been, as far as I have seen, been accompanied by an equivalent discussion of a possible reorientation in Britain’s foreign policy from past years.

If you apply the saying I quoted at the start of of this article, that what has power over you is what you are not allowed to criticise – well, then clearly Europe and the EU has no power over Britain. Because the British media fiercely criticise the EU all the time, often (in my opinion) on unfair grounds.

But how about criticism of the relationship with the United States? You seldom see it in the British media, even though American cultural, social and arguably political and economic influence is much bigger than the European influence. Is there a taboo about discussing that because that is where true power and influence lies over British affairs?

How about an honest audit of the transatlantic relationship, now that, with Brexit looming, everything is up in the air? Here are some of the basics. We are moving towards a multilateral world, where America is finding itself, after a 25-year global hegemony that began with the end of the cold war, having to come to terms with the rising power of China, mainly, but to a lesser extent Russia, India, Brazil and maybe Indonesia also.

This restructuring of global power relationships will happen regardless of who is in power in Washington, though it seems to me personally that the hawkish elites who want to get poor old Donald Trump out of office are motivated by the belief that by doubling down on an interventionist approach to the rest of the world they can keep American hegemony going for another generation.

Is it in Britain’s interest (and consistent with its newly discovered appetite for sovereignty) to continue to be America’s sidekick (all right, partner) in international affairs? Perhaps Britain did benefit from having one foot inside Europe at the same time as sharing many commonalities with the US; American banks found in London an excellent base for operations inside the EU. London became the richest (but most unequal) city in the European Union – a magnet for smart talent from across the EU, but also a source of resentment for left-behind parts of Britain. But, with Britain becoming less interesting to the US as its foot-in-the door to the European Union now it is leaving the EU, is it not time for the British to consider their options about their biggest, but seldom analysed, international relationship? Perhaps the Foreign Office is making strategies as we speak. Only the media don’t talk about it.

I say this because China has just launched an ambitious global policy strategy called the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR). Formally launched in Beijing on 14 May, OBOR is basically an expansion of the surplus engineering and construction capacity in China into its neighbourhood and beyond in order to link China to the rest of the Eurasian continent and thus continue to keep the rest of the world open to Chinese manufactured goods. As one commentator put it: it is an “ambitious mega-infrastructure project aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road with 21st-century technology.”

Over the next few years, China is expecting to invest 1.4 trillion dollars in infrastructure projects, roads and railways across former Soviet central Asia, (the so-called ‘Stans: Uzbekistan etc) as well as maritime communications and transport networks for the sea routes to Europe, Africa and the rest of Asia. The catchy Silk Road name is a historical reference to the ancient camel trade routes that brought Chinese goods to ancient Rome and vice versa. China has, in addition to overcapacity in its engineering and construction industries, huge savings from decades of low-cost exports to the rest of the world.

This money is currently ploughed back into low-yield US Treasury bills. Is the money not better spent, with greater financial returns, the Chinese must be asking themselves, on building networks and construction projects that keep markets open and expand Chinese geopolitical influence in the impoverished countries that lie en route to Europe and the rest of Asia?

Of course, if China stopped recycling American money spent on Chinese goods back into the American economy that might affect the US. What the US does have is the world’s finest and strongest military. It is the American trump card, and even its fiercest economic rival may be decades away from catching up this front.

History tells us that when new great powers replace old great powers, it is nearly always accompanied by wars. The peaceful transition from British imperial hegemony to US hegemony (at least in the West) after 1945 was a rare one. The special relationship actually began with the half-American Winston Churchill. But it is instructive to recall that from the 1880s to, say, the 1920s, when a rising America and a British Empire were of approximately equal strength, it wasn’t at all self-evident that the two countries would not, despite their common language and culture, go to war at some point.

There is a map, or two maps next to each other, circulating on the internet: one a map of US military bases across Asia, Europe and the Middle East; each base marked by a US flag. There are rather a lot of them. The other map is China-centred and consists of lines of varying thickness reaching out from China to Europe, sea and land, crossing a lot of countries and regions in Europe and Asia where America has its military bases. This is the current and future plan for expansion of Chinese infrastructure projects, the OBOR or Silk Road, which will inevitably be accompanied by an expansion of Chinese geopolitical and further economic power.

America vs China. Military power vs economic power. And a 20-year – maybe 40? – period of advantage for American military power before the Chinese start to seriously challenge on that front too.

What will be the result of this ‘conflict’? And where will Britain stand in this complicated new world? Where is it in Britain’s interest to stand? Side by side with an increasingly challenged America? Sorry. Is that a rude question?

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