At the end of November and beginning of December 2018, the Chinese President Xi Jinping went on a trip to the Iberian Peninsula, visiting Spain and Portugal, on his way to the G20 Summit held in Buenos Aires. While in the capital city of Argentina, among others, the presidents of the United States and China reached a provisional truce in their trade war in a bilateral meeting that took place on the sidelines of this summit.
Although Xi Jinping’s visits to Spain and Portugal had a modest impact beyond these two countries, it needs to be remarked that the tour was carried out in a context of high strain not only between the superpower, the U.S., and the rising power, China; but also in a growing trend of trade competition and battle for spheres of influence between Germany and China. Despite European governments openly face up to Trump’s administration protectionism policy, China’s commercial policies have also prompted concern amongst several Western European governments due to its harming effects to European economic interests.
In this scenario, the Spanish government maintains a balanced position regarding the trade war. In doing so, Spain could take advantage of Xi Jinping’s visit in order to strengthen the bilateral relations between Spain and China, which in general terms have always been cordial and productive. Spain-China meetings ended up with the signature of more than twenty agreements, most of them on trade and cultural cooperation, especially, in telecommunications and port infrastructure sectors, and investments worth 16,000 million euros for the coming years. Thus, these agreements reinforce China’s presence in southern Europe.
In this sense, the increase of Chinese influence and interests in the Euro-Mediterranean region becomes a relevant geopolitical issue within the European political agenda. In recent years, both Berlin and Brussels have witnessed how China has spread across Central and Eastern Europe and open a trade front there versus the major EU powers through the China-EEC Initiative – also called 16 + 1 – that brings together China and the 16 states of these two European regions – including the Balkans – and nowadays strongly related to the Belt and Road Initiative. In addition, Beijing has established thriving relations with some countries in this area such as Hungary who keeps strong disagreements with Brussels over several EU policies (for instance, the EU Policy in Immigration and Asylum). Taking into account how China’s investments in Central and Eastern Europe could be seen as a real threat for EU interests, we should not be surprised if in mid-term the EU raises its concerns on China’s footprint in Spain and the rest of countries in southern Europe that are becoming a key recipients of Chinese foreign investment surpassing the European average in this field during 2018.
However, it should be pointed out that the aim of President Sánchez’s government is far from seeking to become Beijing’s advanced position in the Western Mediterranean Sea. In fact, Spain refused to support explicitly the BRI during Xi Jinping’s tour. On the one hand, Spanish foreign policy continues to side the principles and decisions coming from its allies in Brussels and Berlin. This trend is unlikely to change in the future, especially considering the fact that Spain has to give back the support received from the European Union and the leading European states regarding the Catalan issue in October 2017. On the other hand, the Spanish economy is slowing down, and the EU has worsened its forecast for Spain’s economic growth for 2019. Consequently, Spain finds itself in a position that suggests not to take the risk to establish a special bilateral relation with China far from the one that currently already exists.
To the contrary, in Italy the coalition government formed by The League and the 5 Star Movement – its Deputy Prime Minister Di Maio went on a trip to Beijing and Shanghai in September and November 2018 respectively – is considering to become the first member State of the G-7 to support the Chinese BRI and its Eurasian connection strategy. In this way and after the Chinese company COSCO acquired 51% of the port of Piraeus in Greece, Beijing has set its sights on the Italian ports of Trieste and Venice. However, after the agreement reached with the European Commission regarding the Italian budget, this possibility would not be so feasible. Precisely, Portugal, the other State visited by Xi Jinping on his Iberian tour, could follow this path of joining the BRI according to its President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. Thus, China and Portugal signed a Memorandum of Understanding in order to add the Portuguese port of Sines to the BRI.
In the case of Spain, despite the lack of explicit support to the BRI, in practice, Madrid is part of the Chinese Initiative. This has been demonstrated through the agreement signed on the sidelines of Xi Jinping’s tour between the port authorities that manage the Spanish port of Algeciras and the Chinese port of Ningbo-Zhoushan. In addition, the Chinese CESCO is the main owner in the container terminals of the port of Valencia and the port of Bilbao, as well as Madrid and Zaragoza rail yard terminals, among others. Moreover, we should bear in mind that Spain is a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and representatives of the Chinese technological giant CASIC (China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation) were recently in Madrid and Valencia trying to set up alliances with Spanish IT companies to invest in them.
From a Catalan perspective, the meeting between Xi Jinping and the King of Spain during his visit to the Iberian Peninsula was the only time in which an indirect reference to the Catalan question was made. Thus, the Spanish monarch clearly stressed the support of China to a “United Spain”. This statement was at the core of the assessment of Xi Jinping’s tour made by the leaders and advisers of the Catalan independence movement. Thus, the pro indy movement used this fact to retake an overused criticism against the Spanish government for meeting and getting the endorsement of the main leader of an authoritarian State that violates Human Rights – which is indeed currently carrying out a strong repression against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang -leaving aside the fact that China is the first global economy and almost all Heads of State and Government are eager to meet with the Chinese President – something called Realpolitik.
Thus, the Catalan government should reassess its approach to China in order to deal with key and relevant issues of mutual interest. This would be the case of a future Catalan Port policy linked to the BRI, bearing in mind the large investment carried out by the Chinese company Hutchinson Ports Holding in the Best terminal of the port of Barcelona. In addition, Ports de la Generalitat is currently promoting the industrial port of Alcanar, in southern Catalonia, which has an important geostrategic position. The Catalan Port policy should be a relevant asset for the global projection of Catalonia in an international scenario of strategic competition between the great powers, as well as in another regional scenario in which the central corridor promoted from Madrid is presented as the main connection route into the Iberian Peninsula for the BRI. Due to that, the Catalan government should promote this Port policy for the purpose of taking advantage of these assets in both scenarios described above.
In this way, at present there is no deep and sustained discussion in the Catalan political agenda on which approach should be adopted and what are the cost and benefits to integrate Catalan ports into the BRI or any other initiative to improve connections with the ports of Eurasia, like the alternative proposed by the European Union. On the contrary, the Spanish Government through the Ministry of Public Works and Transport is developing this policy with an initiative from “Puertos del Estado”. Taking into account that the maritime trade is a relevant issue for Catalonia and the impact that these new dynamics are likely to have on economic flows and international trade, as well as its geopolitical implications, the lack of a Catalan Port policy should be addressed urgently by the Catalan government.
In short, despite the distrust of significant part of the leaders of the Catalan sovereignty movement towards China, the Catalan government should keep in mind other factors to define a more pragmatic and comprehensive strategy that goes beyond ideological affinity. China is likely to increase its influence in Europe and become a relevant actor in European politics, especially in the domestic policies of several European countries. Thus, the Catalan government should be prepared to leverage the opportunities that these scenarios in their different dimensions will provide to Catalonia and its interests in the context of triangular relations between China, the European Union and other European states in an era of Great Power competition between the U.S., China and Russia.
Miquel Vila Moreno, Associate Analyst for China and the Geopolitics of East Asia
Cover photo: China’s President, Xi Jinping, during his visit in Portugal, 05/12/2018 (Source: RFI portugués).
Photo 1: MERICS Map on the global infrastructure network of the BRI (Source: MERICS, 2018). You can check MERICS map here.