China's Hybrid Approach
The more worrisome part of this expansion is, however, not related to the Chinese military. In what could be called a ‘hybrid approach’ to power projection, the military is merely a part of a broad- er strategy, combined with economic and political incentives and pressures. *Among the main features of this approach has been the use of civilian power and economic investments to progressively gain ground strategically.* Whether associated with the ‘String of Pearls’ (China’s alleged previous geopo- litical strategy for the Indian Ocean), or nowadays promoted as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the Maritime Silk Road, the develop- ment of vital connectivityinfrastructure (seaports, roads, railways etc.) has become Beijing’s signature foreign-policy project.
Bilateral relationships formed along the MSR are deeply asymmetric.
📌China exploits the economic weaknesses of individual countries by collateralis- ing investments against access to strategic resourc- es or long-term land loans. In extreme cases, this ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ can lead to a partial erosion of sovereignty, as was the case of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, where the local government’s inability to reimburse $8 billion lead to a 99-year lease to China. The acquisition of port facilities in Gwadar, Mombasa, Djibouti, Athens and elsewhere were all negotiated under debt constraints. In other cases,🔴 economic pressure is used to purchase politi- cal goodwill, with investments traded against dip- lomatic favours and support in international fora.
📌Another important characteristic of China’s behav- iour along the BRI has been a lack of transparency and a constantly evolving agenda. While not un- common in China’s foreign policy in general, the discrepancy between official discourse and actions on the ground generates ambiguity and tends to sow distrust in its foreign partners.
📌Finally, *even though a deal may be clearly articulated at first, its conditions and endgame may change over time (as was the case with using civilian port facilities in Sri Lanka and Pakistan for hosting military capabili- ties, for instance).*
For Europe, activities along China’s grand con- nectivity project are bringing a taste of the latter’s
foreign policy assertiveness closer to home. Large-
scale infrastructure investments in several EU member states and in the countries of the Western Balkans have already resulted in political trade-offs