books globalisation

Book review: The Silk Road Trap, by Jonathan Holslag

While reading global newspapers last year, I was struck by how China is reported in Australia. Perhaps it was just that week, but there seemed to be more coverage and a lot more suspicion. China’s diplomacy and infrastructure investments were watched more closely and viewed as a potential threat that is more or less invisible in Britain. The ‘Belt and Road Initiative‘ is a trillion dollar update on the Silk Road and one of the biggest national projects in history, but it rarely gets mentioned in the media.

To correct my own ignorance of the initiative, I picked up Jonathan Holslag’s book The Silk Road Trap, which explains China’s global ambitions and what they might mean for Europe.

The book begins with a brief history of diplomacy between China and Europe. As we know, China has run a massive export surplus for years, tapping the insatiable consumerism of the West to provide development funds. It has declined to develop domestic markets, managed its currency to its own advantage, and taken a pick-n-mix approach to international agreements and standards. The EU has allowed China access to European markets with little in return, and despite many promises, there has been no real progress on the EU’s objectives. Engaging constructively with China hasn’t worked, argues Holslag. It’s time to be a bit more strategic.

Many of these points have been leveraged by Donald Trump of course, in much more aggressive and self-serving terms. Holslag is an academic and a public servant, and this is much more measured. It’s well-argued and deals with counter-arguments as they come up. There are no conspiracy theories about China either. As the author says, China’s plans are in the open, published in policy papers on department websites for anyone who wants to look them up. They’re just in Chinese.

This, incidentally, is one of the book’s big strengths. Holslag does go and look up China’s policies, which means the book is full of official statements and quotes from Chinese politicians, academics and commentators. You get a Chinese perspective as well as a European one.

The later chapters of the book describe China’s key industries and the strategies that they are using to secure their future. Unlike Western companies, which move individually, China has multiple nationalised or private companies that work together. They move into new markets “like a flock of geese” – one will build a port, another will get the dredging contract, someone else will build a railway to it and a fourth will build the trains. All of them will be funded through China’s banks, which are entirely state controlled.

As the book makes clear, China is building multinational companies with the stated aim of taking over entire sectors. They’re after shipbuilding, pricing out the traditional shipyards elsewhere. Railways are another target sector, and where countries in Africa or Asia are getting new rail networks, they are likely to operate on Chinese standards. There are internet retailers, steel companies, telecommunications and energy companies. They’ve had a headstart in China with full state support, and are now ‘heading out’ into the world.

Despite the title and the scare-mongering bear-trap graphic on the front, I found much to admire in China’s ambitions. China falls short in many respects obviously, including human rights and democracy, which should go without saying. But it’s hard not to be impressed by the scope of China’s plans, its vision and its ability to look to the future – especially when compared to Britain, which is locked in the past and in denial about its true place in the world. China is patiently building a new world order, and we will have to find our place in it.

Interestingly, Holslag points out that for China this is not about taking over, but taking back. They were the world’s largest superpower once before, and they will be again. “The Chinese consider the rise of China as a restoration of fairness” as Yan Xuetong puts it.

How bad is this for Europe? Holslag is a realist, and it’s all about power dynamics and jockeying for position as far as he’s concerned. Europe needs to respond with higher standards that keep Chinese goods out, unless they raise their game environmentally and socially. He argues that Europe “should reclaim leadership.”

I don’t know about that. That sounds like European privilege to me. Why should China put up with the dominance of Western institutions and their unbalanced power structures? They should have been reformed or replaced decades ago, and China only has to undermine and circumvent them because we won’t fix them. The real question is what kind of a world power China will be, whether it will militarise to secure its position, and whether the rest of the world responds with dialogue or with aggression.

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