The Belt and Road Initiative and the Development of China’s Economic Statecraft: European Attitudes and Responses

AuthorAndreas Grimmel,Viktor Eszterhai
Published date01 July 2020
Date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Research article
The Belt and Road
Initiative and the
Development of China’s
Economic Statecraft:
European Attitudes and
Andreas Grimmel1
Viktor Eszterhai2
This article examines how states may be inclined to adapt to the policy goals
of powerful economic partner states in acts of ‘anticipatory conformity’ or by
adjusting their ‘common’ policy goals. It builds on two classical theoretical bases—
the concept of economic statecraft and Hirschmanesque effects—to explore
how economic power may be translated into far-reaching effects on other states’
behaviour without a clear goal or objective being proclaimed or even set by the
economically powerful state. Our empirical findings suggest that the European
Union still has an unparalleled influence on member states, and China’s growing
economic presence in Europe alone—especially in the framework of the Belt and
Road Initiative—is insufficient to influence member states’ politics.
Belt and road initiative, European politics, European studies, interregionalism,
politics of China, West European politics
1 Institute for Political Science, Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany.
2 Institute of International, Political and Regional Studies, Corvinus University of Budapest, Budapest,
Corresponding author:
Andreas Grimmel, Institute for Political Science, Universität Hamburg, Allende-Platz 1, 20146
Hamburg, Germany.
International Studies
57(3) 223–239, 2020
2020 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881720925223
224 International Studies 57(3)
Since the launch of the ‘Reform and Opening Up’ policy in 1978, China has
undergone a fundamental economic transformation process that has made it one
of the most significant players in the international economy. Reflecting this
increasing economic strength, China’s current leadership also strives for a more
active political role—to move beyond being a rule taker to become a rule-setting
actor in international politics. In this context, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),
introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, constitutes not only trade,
investment and cooperation projects, but also serves as a vehicle for developing
China’s economic statecraft and implementing its own conceptions of world
In addition to the evolving regional activism of the mid-1990s, and the
emphasis on multilateral and bilateral diplomacy—together with the attraction of
trading partners and foreign investments to develop a more influential position in
world politics since the early 2000s (Goldstein, 2003, pp. 67, 83)—the BRI marks
a shift towards a new approach that uses China’s immense and growing economic
strength to achieve political objectives. Yet, since deepening cooperation within
Eurasia via the so-called five connectivities (policy coordination, infrastructure
connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people
connectivity) lies at the heart of the BRI, the responses and responsiveness of both
European states and the European Union (EU) play a crucial role in the success of
this initiative and China’s political ambitions.
Analysing European reactions to the BRI, a mixed picture emerges. The EU
remains reluctant overall to fully engage in the project, preferring an observant
rather than an active role. Yet several Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) EU
member states are participating in China’s 16+1 transregional cooperation
platform, which seeks to deepen ‘minilateral’ (Brummer, 2014) cooperation
within the wider BRI framework. There is a rising concern within the EU that the
mixed attitudes of its members toward the BRI are the result of China’s growing
economic influence on some member countries. The EU has begun to restrict
Chinese investments (Ghemawat & Hout, 2016, pp. 94–95), which are regarded
as a tool of the country’s political influence (Pardo, 2018; Reilly, 2017). This
situation, together with China’s aspiration to become a ‘great power’ that actively
pursues its own global interests and promotes and shapes economic globalization
(see, e.g., The Washington Post, 2017) gives rise to two key questions. First, to
what extent can economic ties between China and EU member states be thought
to translate into political influence in the countries that are most engaged in the
BRI? Second, what evidence is there of a rising Chinese economic statecraft
reflected in political influence based on economic means?
While the former question demands a theoretical answer that considers how
economic strength can be translated into foreign policy influence, the latter
requires more empirical proof regarding whether there are measurable political
impacts in the countries that are most engaged in the BRI. To address these two
issues, this article will start by referring to two classics of International Relations
scholarship: David A. Baldwin’s concept of economic statecraft (Baldwin, 1985)

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