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What does it Mean for the EU to “Join” the BRI?

One thing that debaters will struggle with is what it means for the EU to join the BRI. The reason is that there is no concrete answer to this question.

First, remember that the BRI is just a concept, it is not a legal document. If an entity joins a trade agreement, there is a trade agreement to sign. The trade agreement identifies specific obligations that both sides agree to. But the BRI is not a legal document, it is not a legal entity, and it isn’t even spelled out anywhere what it is. It’s not possible to “join” such a thing.

Second, there is no process within the EU for joining such a thing. At best it can be compared to a trade agreement, but for the reasons citied, it is still not a trade agreement.

Although these problems are inherent, we still have to debate it, so what can we say it means.

I think the best way that one could describe what it means for the EU to join the BRI is to say that it means the EU signs a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with China to join in BRI programs.

Here are a few cards:

Belt & Road Initiative, no date, https://www.beltroad-initiative.com/tag/memorandum-of-understanding/, Cooperation agreements and MoUs under the Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is often subject of controversial debates. Something that frequently heats up the minds and ignites political debates are governmental-level bilateral signed BRI-MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding), which not only promise cooperation within the framework of BRI, but also substantiate the legitimacy of the initiative. This was seen last year, when the Australian state of Victoria decided to sign a MoU with China on the BRI.

Belt & Road Initiative, no date, https://www.beltroad-initiative.com/tag/memorandum-of-understanding/, Cooperation agreements and MoUs under the Belt and Road Initiative

How many Belt and Road MoUs are already signed?

There is no official list or comprehensive compilation on which countries or organizations already have signed BRI-MoUs with China. But when reading Chinese state media during the last year, chances were high to at least once a week find a picture of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, signing a MoU on BRI. According to state-run Xinhua, so far, China has signed 123 cooperation documents on the Belt and Road development with 105 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the South Pacific region, and 26 such documents with 29 international organizations.

These agreements cover a number of areas:

Belt & Road Initiative, no date, https://www.beltroad-initiative.com/tag/memorandum-of-understanding/, Cooperation agreements and MoUs under the Belt and Road Initiative

Even if there are differences in the detailed designs of the MoUs, the basic structure of the agreements is similar. After agreeing on enhancing (policy) coordination and deepening mutually beneficial cooperation, both signing parties reach an “understanding” of cooperating on the five cooperation priorities of BRI 1. Policy coordination, 2. Facilities connectivity, 3. Unimpeded trade, 4. Financial integration, 5. People-to-people bonds. The five priorities are “guided by the principles of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits”. Genereally speaking, cooperation can cover a wide range of fields such as joint transportation infrastructure development, joint set-up of industrial parks, establishment of sister-city networks, trade and investment promotion, financial cooperation (such as strategic cooperation with the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank, AIIB) or the joint collaboration in regional initiatives.

The agreements are not legally binding but they create some mutual obligations

Belt & Road Initiative, no date, https://www.beltroad-initiative.com/tag/memorandum-of-understanding/, Cooperation agreements and MoUs under the Belt and Road Initiative

At the end of the documents (see e.g. BRI-MoU China-Victoria or BRI-MoU China-Latvia), both parties agree that the document is not legally binding. But even if not legally binding, according to Chris Devonshire-Ellis, “certain elements within the MoU could be interpreted by either party, and especially the Chinese. Such interpretations can, in fact, influence the way in which China views statements made within the MoU, and regard these as important in future diplomatic talks. In short, the purpose of these non-legally binding MoU is to influence, rather than direct.” “The MoU appear largely benign; however, it does contain the seeds of what could,in future, be used as diplomatic tools in terms of insisting that agreements have been reached over certain areas.” (Chris Devonshire-Ellis)

They are also super vague:

DW, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/the-possible-impact-of-chinas-belt-and-road-agreement-with-italy/a-47921042, The possible impact of China’s Belt and Road agreement with Italy

Memorandums of Understanding are non-binding agreements, meaning signatory countries are not legally obliged to abide by their terms. This is the case with the MOUs China has signed with Latvia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, the state government of Victoria in Australia and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). The agreements were published by their respective governments and groups online and each of them has a termination clause stipulating a three-month notice period. Areas of cooperation are broad and the language is imprecise. For example, in the agreement with Latvia, the document refers to keeping China’s “Silk Road spirit…enriched.” It also calls for “stronger synergy” and priorities in the “Investment Plan for Europe in the region.” Similarly in the agreement with New Zealand, there is a call to “carry forward the Silk Road spirit” and strengthen cooperation in transportation, trade, agricultural technology and tourism. There are references to knowledge sharing, increasing connectivity and furthering dialogue, but few of them describe anything specifically. Scattered through the documents are phrases like “cooperation that benefits all” and “mutual learning between civilizations,” more suggestive of a friendly attitude rather than any explicit plan for bilateral trade.

The nature of MOUs leave open any questions related to what it means to “join” the BRI?

(1) Would “joining” the BRI involve more than an MOU? Yes: An MOU doesn’t “join” an entity to anything. No: The BRI can’t be joined in a literal sense. An MOU is the best way to interpret the resolution.

(2) Does the EU have to join in all BRI projects under the resolution? Yes: We can’t predict exactly which ones it would and wouldn’t participate in, so we have to assume for the purposes of debate that the EU participates in all of them. Moreover, if we don’t imagine the resolution to mean the EU changes its mind and participates in the project, it is impossible to debate the potential advantages and disadvantages of change. BRI No: No MOU obligations any country or organization to participate in all projects.

(3) Should we imagine that the EU joining means imagining that all countries participate? Yes: Otherwise the Pro would just defend the status quo since all clearly do not want to participate.