In this early 21st century, the US is on the decline (Donald Trump's "America first" approach is only the most obvious symptom), China is on the rise, and Europe is embarrassed - It tries to fly higher, but is held back by internal differences. The regions between these "Big Three" - to revive an old formula - are naturally affected by this shift of importance and influence: That is true for the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Eurasian landmass. All the three of them witnessed, over the last century, important changes: The Atlantic alliance bound the "free world" together against communism, the Pacific was secondary as long as China was not yet back on the global stage as one of the very big players, and the Eurasian landmass was divided and split between antagonistic big, medium and smaller powers.
Now, not only do the relative weights of the "Big Three" change, but the importance of the regions between them, too. The Atlantic alliance is loosing its predominant role in peace and security on both sides of the ocean, and the Europeans have just started to wake up and undertake - unwillingly - first steps to take care of their security themselves. The Pacific becomes a region, where two concepts compete with each other - on the one hand, the American approach, marked by a competitive security strategy, exacerbating the economic, commercial and cultural competition with China; on the other, a strategy for regional interdependence and cooperation, binding the rising power of China into a network of mutual interests and rules. For the time being, at least seen from a European perspective, the region between China and Europe presents the most promising potential for shaping a beneficial future - or missing that chance.
The Belt and Road initiative has the potential to transform the secular economic triangle between Europe, North America and East Asia. It may be the first stage of a shift of mobility, of communication - materially and virtually - and of new paths of sustainable development. The potential of the approach is immense: The transatlantic exchange was the mark of half a millennium and led to the dominance of the world first by the European nation states, then by their offspring, the US.
The 21st century brings this dominating structure to an end, and the revival of the old Eurasian lines and ways of communication is its substitute - the significance of the initiative can hardly be overestimated. It is partly due to a profound change in technology, which changes the meaning of geography: The transatlantic was bound together when ship-building techniques allowed crossing large distances of open ocean. Today, this is no longer the decisive factor - what counts today are waves of another kind than those of the oceans, waves transmitted by fiber and wireless connections. And the rise of China, which is not a "something new under the sun," but much more a retour to the status quo ante, as it was the mark of human civilization for two millennia.
The decline of the Atlantic as the center of the world will not happen in the form of an "event," a momentous dramatic breakdown - as much as the rebuilding of the Eurasian connection will be an enterprise for a whole generation and more. On both ends of Eurasia, Chinese and Europeans have to assume the responsibility for a secular initiative, and here come some conclusions derived from the general assessment above: Only together and with a cooperative approach can this gigantic initiative succeed:
(1) China and Europe should create and carefully build cooperative structures aiming at a controlled implementation of the Belt and Road initiative, something like an enlarged regional cooperation framework.
(2) Because of the dimension and the potential of the initiative, the EU as a whole should be the partner of China. This is not only in the interest of Europe, but also of China, even it may seem easier in a short-term perspective, from a Chinese perspective, to deal with individual European nation states than with one bloc.
(3) Third, because the initiative is a secular one and envisages shaping a century, it should be sustainable in the sense of looking far into the future and not prioritize immediate benefits over the long run.
(4) The Belt and Road initiative should not only be a Chinese-European project, but involve all the countries, nations, states and communities in between, and allow them to play an autonomous role in the whole approach. Otherwise, it would lead to (at best joint) dominance of what for the countries in between are external great of superpowers - a perspective, which is not sustainable either.
Europe and the EU should take a much more active stance in shaping the Belt and Road initiative. The future lies between China and Europe, much more than in the oceans, be it the Pacific of the Atlantic.