Opinion: In the world of politics, timing is everything. And sometimes, the timing of events can create a curious contrast that cries out for a closer look.
Such is the case with recent developments involving China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure project that has been controversial since its inception in 2013.
Last week, opposition leader Christopher Luxon said he would “absolutely” accept money from China to fund new roads. This came in the context of National’s $24 billion infrastructure plan. As Luxon argued, accepting private and foreign investment would mean more infrastructure sooner. Few would disagree, but the question is about the state-controlled dimension.
Luxon’s suggestion was instantly met with criticism from an unlikely coalition of the Act Party and former Prime Minister Helen Clark. They all warned New Zealand joining the Chinese initiative would be a risky move, and Act quickly ruled it out should it be in government with National after October 14. As David Seymour said, “We need to welcome foreign investment, but not at the cost of being bullied or cowed by a bigger nation looking to gain leverage.”
It would be nice if countries could neatly separate economic from geopolitical and security concerns. But in today’s security environment, in which the neo-imperialist ambitions of China and Russia have become so clear, such an approach would be naïve.
But it was the timing of Luxon’s suggestion that made it particularly interesting. It came in the same week Italy, the only G7 country to have joined the Belt and Road Initiative, announced its decision to withdraw from the Chinese initiative.
This curious coincidence warrants a closer examination of the initiative and the geopolitical implications of these contrasting decisions.
Sometimes called “The New Silk Road”, the initiative is a cornerstone of China’s foreign policy under President Xi Jinping. Its stated goal: to link China with Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia through a network of land and sea routes.
But it is also, and perhaps predominantly, a means for China to assert its global influence.
Italy joined in 2019 when it was governed by a populist government led by the Five Star Movement and the Lega party.
At the time, the decision was seen as a significant victory for China and a challenge to Italy’s EU partners and the United States. And no wonder. Italy is not just a member of the EU and Nato but also a member of an elite club of the leading Western economies, the G7.
Luring such a country into its club would put China one step further towards becoming the world’s new superpower.
However, the promised economic benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative never materialised – a theme we have seen repeated across the globe. Meanwhile, China’s geopolitical behaviour has become more assertive (to put it mildly). Both developments have led to a reassessment of Italy’s relationship with China.
Under its relatively new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, Italy has sought to strengthen its ties with Western democratic countries while distancing itself from China. Thus, Meloni’s government has now signalled its intention to withdraw from the initiative by the end of the year, citing unfulfilled promises and strategic considerations.
Italy’s decision also reflects a broader shift in global attitudes towards economic dependence on Beijing.
Over the past few years, the Belt and Road Initiative has come under increasing scrutiny. For example, it has been criticised for its lack of transparency, likely environmental impact, and questionable labour practices.
In particular, its critics point out that China’s initiative often results in “debt-trap diplomacy” and allows China to gain undue influence over other countries’ internal affairs. And indeed the initiative played a role in Sri Lanka’s economic troubles as the country was struggling to service its large debt to China.
In Europe, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, together with the Czech Republic, have withdrawn from the “17+1 Initiative”. That programme, separate from the Belt and Road Initiative but linked to it, is a platform for cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe, aimed at promoting business and investment relations. Yet, in light of China’s tacit support for Putin’s war on Ukraine, Eastern European political leaders have become increasingly sceptical.
Against this backdrop, the suggestion by Luxon to accept Chinese funding for infrastructure projects is jarring.
New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which also includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.
These five countries are even more closely linked than the members of the G7. Where the G7 is mainly about economic cooperation, the Five Eyes is a close security partnership and its members have traditionally aligned with each other on major foreign policy issues. Accepting Chinese funding for infrastructure projects could put New Zealand at odds with its intelligence and security partners.
When Italy joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2019, it was driven by the hope of economic gain. The move was not thought to have major security implications.
As it turned out, the world does not work like that. It would be nice if countries could neatly separate economic from geopolitical and security concerns. But in today’s security environment, in which the neo-imperialist ambitions of China and Russia have become so clear, such an approach would be naïve.
Italy learned this the hard way, and other countries should learn from its mistake.