Eurasian Connectivity: Can China Weaponise the Trade War?

The escalating trade confrontation between Washington and Beijing comes at a general macroeconomic context where the scale and the systemic criticality of the contenders poses a significant risk to the stability of the international economy. With growth figures at a decade low, purchasing managers’ indexes (PMIs) slumping, negative interest rates and an inverting US yield curve, the trans-pacific conflict constitutes a critical potential ignitor a new global recession of unforeseeable depth and spatiality. To make things worse, beyond the existing macroeconomic fragility and the general contraction of international trade volumes, the depleted effectiveness of monetary countermeasures and the 2008-shrunken fiscal spaces ensure the protracted condition of any potential global cumulative shock.

While mechanical orthodoxy-driven mainstream analysts monolithically assess the disastrous aggregate effects of jeopardising the single most critical trade relation in the planet, the impact of a full-blown trade retaliation can also be approached by a non-chrematistic prism of macroeconomic interpretation. In this regard, obviating the complex forecasting endeavour of deciding which contender might achieve the sum-zero edge and at which macroeconomic category, if a global economic slump is triggered, Beijing could significantly improve its vis-à-vis financial and geopolitical position versus the polities of the Eurasian plateau. A transactional geopolitical reality between trade fallout and leverage gains for the Middle Kingdom which could incentivise risk-taking at ongoing negotiations.

Under a full-blown exchange scenario which decisively destabilises the global economy, China´s Eurasian neighbours are expected to suffer disproportionately. As a consequence of a protracted international economic downturn, ASEAN highly trade exposed macroeconomic setups will rapidly experience capital shortages and pressure will mount on their respective currencies. With an outlook similar to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the political systems of South Asia could experience growing levels of unrest and this, in turn, could led to reviewed geopolitical standpoints in order to secure political survival. Likewise, in the Central Asian plateau, weak macroeconomic fundamentals and moderate-to-high levels of political instability already constrain economic performance and hamper credit scores. If further financial caveats emerge derived from the crumbling of the global economic statu quo, similar political developments are likely to dominate local rationales.

Under this potential scenario, across the Eurasian maritime and land corridor, societal turmoil and poor fiscal space would greatly increase the political value of macroeconomically-stabilising foreign credit and investment for domestic elites. Despite facing net economic losses due to the aggregate condition of the global economy, China will now encounter softer political resistance against the spatial and functional implementation of its multi-trillion Belt and Road initiative. At this critical juncture, the Asian giant would be able to capitalise on a significantly more domesticated bargaining geography to acquire and / or deploy the maritime and land-based assets required to cumulatively tie Eurasian polities to Beijing’s macroeconomic steering wheel. The infrastructural foundations of a regional connectivity dominance with long-term strategic returns far beyond immediate financial metrics or cost-calculations.

The strategic utilisation of economic depression to achieve long-standing connectivity edges versus rival top-tier international powers is definitely not new for China. In the recent past Beijing has managed to achieve significant advances in infrastructural command by capitalising on financial precariety to take control of critical connectivity hubs abroad. The recent take-over of Pakistan´s strategic port of Gwadar and the surrendering of the port of Hambantota by Sri Lanka, of the Piraeus by Greece and of several coastal positions by Venezuela reveal a consolidated modus operandi which, until this day, has only been exploited passively. However, this could change. Following its long-term strategic outlook, Beijing can approach ongoing trade strife at the current global macroeconomic critical juncture as a plastic lever by which it can actively manufacture the conditions upon which its financial bargaining power can prove politically irresistible. In this regard, despite growing international concerns over Chinese infrastructural penetration, broad-spectrum macroeconomic pressure could override existing barriers to connectivity submission.

The EU´s strategy to compete against Beijing’s dominance over the physical links connecting China to Europe by sea, road, rail, and pipeline faces formidable scalar and political caveats which render self-defence and strategic macroeconomic containment precarious. Domestically, the Eurozone architecture spurred self-reinforcing cycles of stagnation and fiscal anaemia means that the EU is actively manufacturing the macroeconomic and political conditions under which demand for Chinese penetration is rising significantly. With European economies tied to the binomial of monetary scarcity and fiscal independence, Chinese investment and credit (through sovereign bonds purchases) constitutes a high-leverage instrument which can and is being used by Beijing’s for tech-capture and connectivity grappling purposes. Particularly for the fiscally choked Mediterranean periphery, the political appeal of Chinese massive foreign reserves constitutes a policy path against which it is increasingly difficult to argue domestically.

Due to the EU´s macroeconomic posturing and structure and its non-vigilant and un-coordinated defence against Chinese strategic penetration, Beijing already controls a vast array of infrastructural outposts from Southeast Asia to the North Sea. Epitomised by China’s state-owned COSCO take-over of the port of Piraeus and the mass investments which followed (1bn US$), Beijing now holds a formidable presence within Europe’s sea-line infrastructure. China’s state-owned giants now rule over 10 per cent of Europe’s port capacity with high penetration rates in the hard macroeconomically-hit Greece, Italy and Spain and presence in critical maritime chokepoints like Rotterdam (35% participation), Antwerp (20% participation) and Hamburg where a new China-funded terminal is being developed. In this regard, if a new recessive episode drags the EU into a fiscal and monetary impasse equivalent to the one produced by the chaotic intergovernmental developments of 2011, the strategic consequences will certainly be severe.

Beyond European domestic vulnerability and counter-insurgent under-performance in the wake of this threat, the EU´s international bargaining position should China intensify connectivity efforts through disruptive means is equally poor. Little inter-Member State coordination abroad, comparatively scarce financial scale, the dominance of normative caveats and the interpretive rule of the inflexible liberal state-market relations paradigm ensure that Beijing will have the upper hand when marketing solutions. Consequently, as the global macroeconomic environment deteriorates and the overcapacity question becomes increasingly central to both sides, Beijing not only holds an enviable position to manufacture political appeal, it is also capable of delivering Eurasian infrastructural and economic hegemony relatively unopposed.

 

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