- The Silk Road Trap: How China's Trade Ambitions Challenge Europe by Jonathan Holslag
Jonathan Holslag's The Silk Road Trap: How China's Trade Ambitions Challenge Europe makes an argument on behalf of Europe (or the European Union) that is quite popular nowadays in the United States. That is, the West's economic engagement with China in the past two decades has failed. It failed to transform the Middle Kingdom toward a more liberal political-economic system. In addition, it caused severe economic risks to the West's own economies and social wellbeing. As a response, Holslag argues in the book that European societies should adopt economic realism and maximize their economic power, because, in his view, "the possession and distribution of [End Page 45] power is what fundamentally shapes their [Europeans'] ability to defend themselves, to influence external relations, to preserve internal cohesion, and to shape their own future" (p. 13).
The book, however, has a light touch on Europe's economic exchange with China. It has very limited analysis of China's economic system. Despite the book's title, it does not offer much on China's Belt and Road initiative, launched in late 2013. Rather, the book most strongly demonstrates that member countries of the European Union (EU) have experienced severe political divisions internally and across the countries. Those divisions have lately been intensified by the continent's interactions with China. With profound divisions inside and across individual members, a "cohesive" statecraft at the European level is rather unlikely, if not impossible. In short, while the book is titled "The Silk Road Trap," its most salient message to this reviewer is the intractable "EU trap." The European integration project, in particular its expansion to the East, has encountered severe headwind during the deep globalization era, and China is an accelerator of these challenges.
The European societies are deeply divided. Holslag starts the book with critiques of European states and corporate interests in China and praised European integrationist thinkers for their realistic views of economic engagement with China. He makes it clear that the book speaks for "a general interest" of European societies and their citizenships at large. In critiquing economic risks posed by China, he concedes that European companies have benefited from their investments in and trade with China. From this description, it is clear that globalization, with China as an important part, has brought uneven distributions to political groups in Europe, like it did in the United States. Such uneven distribution contributed to intensifying cleavages in Europe's democratic politics. As a result, the political leadership at the European level has had difficulty emerging. Instead, to the dismay of the Europeanist, Europe's political landscape has been dominated by various "nationalist" leaders in separate member states.
Not only have class cleavages intensified in Western and Northern Europe, division between richer Europe (EU's North) and less developed new members (EU's South) are even more severe. Holslag sheds light on the internal tension between more advanced European economies that seek to rebalance economic relations with China and governments in Eastern Europe and the Balkans that are more willing to embrace exchange with and investment from China. The book's emphasis on China's protectionist policies and Europe's failed objectives in past engagements cautions these new EU members' growing embrace of China, particularly after the launch of the Belt and Road. The chapters provide cautionary reminders, but the deep problem remains. That is, advanced European economies are motivated to uphold its technology and economic [End Page 46] standards in competing with China. The less advanced economies on the continent still have unmet demand for investment in infrastructure and industries. So long as such structural needs persist, Chinese Belt and Road is not going elsewhere.
Cohesive statecraft, or economic realism as the book proposes, is infeasible also because of vulnerabilities to financial crisis during the globalization era, and the EU is particularly susceptible because member economies are quite diverse, as pointed out...