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‘China is rapidly expanding its influence’

China makes no secret of its ambitions to become the world’s leading nation. What can we expect now that the EU and the rest of the world are in recession? And why did President Donald Trump suspend US funding to the World Health Organization? Rob de Wijk, Professor of International Relations and Security in The Hague, explains.

It was a shock to hear the International Monetary Fund announce on 14 April that the coronavirus crisis has plunged Europe and most other places in the world into a deep recession. Only a few countries, including China, can now hope for limited economic growth. Clearly China aims to become a world leader, so what are its plans for Europe now that the European economy has plunged? 

Rob de Wijk
The New Silk Road: six routes by ship (blue), rail or road.

The New Silk Road

Rob de Wijk, Professor at the Centre for Security and Global Affairs, director of HCSS think tank, and opinion maker in the field of geopolitics, does not believe China will do anything crazy. It is far more likely to intensify its existing investments. For example, China has for many years been active in resource-rich Africa. When it comes to Europe, the vast country with inexhaustibly deep pockets will primarily focus on its Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Silk Road. This refers to six road and rail routes, with here and there some strategically placed transhipment ports that allow China, via other Asian countries, to trade with Europe (as well as Africa and Russia). In March, China and Italy signed an economic agreement in which the Port of Genoa Port is due to play a role. Via state-owned company Cosco, China now owns shares in the Port of Genoa. It also owns the Greek Port of Piraeus, again via Cosco. And the Chinese have invested more than ten billion in non-EU member Serbia.

Warning?As an opinion maker, De Wijk may appear to ceaselessly caution against the rise of China, but this is not how he sees it. ‘I’m a level-headed professor. I simply say how it is. Emotions don’t come into it. If people are worried about China’s rise to power, that’s too bad. All I do is call for debate and reflection. How do we deal with this shifting world order?’

Incidentally, De Wijk believes the EU is quite capable of adopting a common position towards the outside world. ‘Aside from a bit of squabbling, I see a fair amount of agreement on how to jointly address this crisis. In economic terms, that is; public health is the responsibility of individual countries.’ 

Rob de Wijk
China purchased the Greek Port of Piraeus, with the goal of turning it into the largest harbour in Western Europe

Liberal capitalism versus state capitalism

‘Those who are in charge also get to set the rules,’ says De Wijk. ‘For a long time, the West has dominated the world. As a result, many international organisations have a Western character. The IMF, the UN, the OECD and the WHO: they all promote freedom and democracy, and prohibit torture and genocide.’ China is ruled not by liberal capitalism, but by state capitalism. The Chinese government closely monitors and controls its citizens, and does not take kindly to dissenters. This shows how very different it is from the West. 

Many of China’s investments abroad take the form of loans and make the countries involved, including European countries, dependent on China. De Wijk: ‘Economic influence equals political influence, and I think that under Chinese influence, Europe will gradually shift towards a state-led economy.’ De Wijk doesn’t think China is out to ‘colonise’ Europe, but he does find it crucial to initiate a debate about our future. ‘As European countries, we have to think about how to protect our economy and values.’ 

Towards autocracy

One of the obstacles in the debate on how to preserve Western values, if that is in fact our objective, is that countries like Hungary and Poland increasingly lean towards autocracy. ‘These countries might find the Chinese approach quite appealing, and there is not much the EU can do about it,’ says De Wijk. ‘In theory, they could deny some countries EU voting rights or initiate an Article 7 procedure for evicting them from the EU. But these are not easy steps to take.’ 

Rob de Wijk
De Wijk is a sought-after speaker (Photograph: Het Sprekershuys)

Trump against China via the WHO

Another surprising development was President Trump announcing on 15 April his intention to suspend US funding to the WHO, which represents approximately $400 million. ‘This is also aimed at China,’ says De Wijk. ‘Trump believes that China deliberately misinformed the WHO, which then proceeded to act on this inadequate information. It’s all linked.’

Europe is too divided to counterbalance Chinese influence, says De Wijk. ‘Trump might be boorish, but no one can accuse him of being led like a lamb to the slaughter by the Chinese. And this is unlikely to change if Biden is elected President. In the new world order, the US and Europe will simply have less influence, which is something European countries are not yet taking sufficient account of.’ 

De Wijk remains emphatically non-committal. ‘There might be a second pandemic wave that will lead to the collapse of the entire world economy, including China. You never know. I base myself on the geopolitical knowledge I have right now, and when that changes, my thinking will undoubtedly change too.’ 

  • Rob de Wijk’s book, entitled De nieuwe wereldorde; Hoe China sluipenderwijs de macht overneemt (The New World Order: How China is Gradually Seizing Power) was published in 2019 (€ 23,99, ebook € 11,99,  368 pp, Balans Publishers)
  • Rob de Wijk and Arend Jan Boekestijn can be heard on a BNR podcast: led by Hugo Reitsma, they explore the new world order

Text: Corine Hendriks
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