European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in a way relates to a geographical and political border concept. To understand how China looks at the EU and the world, first we need to understand China’s perception of border. Accordingly, the main objective of this article is to introduce the way China views its borders. This article will focus on the changes in meaning of borders, what the effects of ENP regulations are and also how China has changed its political stance throughout history. I will refer to things that both sides avoid, are open to and those which intersect.

China has existed in the same geography for thousands of years, it has developed a more steadfast view. However, due to the rapid changes in other parts of the world China will now be challenged more on its openness towards the rest of the world. As I started writing, the question of whether China is looking at the world from this central point in international relations arose.

If China and the EU will have conflicts, this would not be caused by borders. Since they will interact due to their effects on mutual grounds, this might be the countries they work and invest in together.

China’s Understanding of Border

Since our subject is regional strategy, I would like to touch upon China’s perception of the region first.

In the past, China accepted itself in the center of the world which is why China classified other countries by region and distance from its own centre. China’s borderlands include the boundary areas in contact and those who take part in the tributary system.

From the 3rd century BC until the end of the 19th century, what existed in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia was a hierarchical network-like political order system with China’s Central Plains Empire as its core. This system was often referred to as the treaty system and the colonial system and was one of the major international relations models in the world at that time. “Space” and “power” are the two basic elements of tributary system. The tributary system includes two aspects: one is to arrange the relationship between the centre and the surrounding area according to the geographical distance; the other is to determine the obligations to the centre according to the relationship between the centre and the periphery.

Figure 1. Sinocentric System

Figure 1. Sinocentric System[1]

The formulation of geopolitical strategy in ancient China was mainly thinking from the inside out and it was the central thinking. For instance, The Han Dynasty focused on the bilateral relations between the Han Dynasty and the Huns, without considering the influence of the relations between the two countries and other countries or the surrounding geopolitical pattern. Moreover, there were four barbarians for Han Dynasty,  yet they mention and take consider only Huns, and consider the others as foreigners. Chinese scholars[2] complain that this way of thinking still remains in the current geopolitical research especially for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) researches. For example, domestic geopolitical research still mainly analyses China’s relations with neighboring countries based on China’s interests, and there is less analysis of global geopolitical patterns.

On the other side, boundary concept started when the Qing Emperor Shihuang built the Great Wall at 3rd century B.C. Though the concept of city-state at that time was widespread, and the wall was built around the place of reign, Chinese called there chengshi, which can be translated ‘state within the wall’. The basic government scheme of former China consists of squares. This square scheme has contributed largely on China’s impression and perspective of the world (and international relations).

Figure 2. ‘Jifu ’ (basis of tributary) System of Ancient China

Figure 2. ‘Jifu[3]’ (basis of tributary) System of Ancient China[4]

This square system mentioned above doesn’t mean closed-door policy per se, it’s just the administration concept in Chinese history. The actual closed-door policy occurred in Ming in 16th century and Qing Dynasties in 17th century. The theory and practice of the tributary system also reflected China’s world-view, and played a huge role in restricting the relationship between the Qing Dynasty and the West. In the 85 years before China opened to the West in 1842, Guangzhou was the only port open to foreign trade. During this period, China’s foreign relations were basically about Guangzhou trade.

China, a country with no previous trade agreement then started to pursue an Open-Door Policy from 1899/1900. They made this agreement to allow equal trade access to the US, Japan and some European countries. The Open-Door Policy lasted 50 years, until the communist party’s victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949.

Peking’s foreign relations have been undermined during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). China’s foreign policy has returned to a diplomacy of relative moderation with Deng Xiaoping who initiated the economic transformation of modern China after he took office in 1978. It has been deemed so successful that, starting with the seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-92), China’s economic strategy is being oriented to give priority to the development of its southern and eastern coastal regions (Europa Publications, 2003).

After a series of reforms, China’s approach to international relations has changed a lot nowadays. Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Luo Zhaohui said that China is committed to building borders for cooperative development. Today’s borders are no longer synonymous with remoteness and backwardness, but the frontiers for opening up to the outside world and the gateways to the development of strategies at The First International Boundary Cooperation Symposium 2019.

China’s Approach to the ENP

The ENP is a framework for co–operation between the EU and its North African, Middle Eastern, Eastern European and Caucasian ‘near abroad’. The common and central goal in relation to this whole group of countries is to promote a set of political, economic and security–related reforms (Ponjaert & Bardaro 2013).

The way the EU classifies its neighbors and cross-border countries (‘friendship ring’ or ‘geographic other’) will further clarify China’s  further attitude. In the comments made so far, it is seen that China perceives the ENP rather as a manifestation of an enlargement approach. Moreover, scholars mention ‘2004 enlargement of the European Union’ as “empire reconstruction”. They add “Today’s EU enlargement to the east is to a large extent the embodiment of empire clues, so it must be subject to the logic of the rise and fall of the empire—excessive expansion leads to “security dilemmas” … The “unity” hint has the potential to be a new historical paradigm that dominates the future of Europe but not all historical hints that arise will disappear. The future of Europe is therefore filled with turbulence and uncertainty.” (Zhang & Lai 2018).

Europe is the intersection of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” , the “Maritime Silk Road” and the western end of the “Belt and Road” route system. The projects to be implemented within the framework of BRI provide China connectivity with cooperating  European neighbor countries. So the attitude of the EU is of great significance to the promotion of the “Belt and Road” strategy.

China’s BRI project has the potential to touch the European’s interests in several industries. Through the observation of news collected in the corpus, several verbatim show the doubt and mistrust of European elites on the project “China 16 + 1”, because this project seeks to diverge Western European countries’ interests by exporting Chinese infrastructure to Central Europe at a low price (Arifon et al. 2019).

In a way, ENP is a border (immigration, economic, political) policy for the EU, while Eastern Europe or Europe’s neighbors are a chance for China to break its shell. In other words, Europe intends to control the boundaries, while China intends to consolidate their sphere of influence. With the following statement, General Secretary Xi Jinping confirms my opinion: “Returning the sea of the world economy to an isolated small lake is impossible and inconsistent with the historical trend.” “China’s door to openness will not be closed, it will only open more and more.” The report of the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China proposed that “to promote the formation of a new pattern of comprehensive opening up, we must focus on the construction of the ‘Belt and Road’ and insist on both import and export”.

When we scrutinise the starting point of both the ENP and the initiatives of China on this common geography, the ENP is clearly decoupled from EU membership. As such, the ENP was not developed with the neighbours in mind, it was “the result of a process in which the EU was primarily concerned with itself” (Del Sarto & Schumacher 2005).

Although the ENP report stated that this is the main goal of maintaining a boundary with this dimension, as well as activating the relationship in these regions, China will still consider this as the EU’s project to expand the borders, and try to use the donors in its sense of counter-attack. Perhaps the first example of this can be considered as BRI. China wants to be more recognized in Central and Eastern Europe. This kind of initiative by China, which we see, is incomparable with the international attitude of ancient China. This is just like an effort to raise the baby quickly in the womb and deliver it as soon as possible because China’s perception of the world and foreign relations were not like today. The fact that it was an agricultural society, stability in the economic cycle, living conditions naturally led to the tributary system and subsequent closure to the outside. China did not undergo its Renaissance or Reformation, nor did they experience the process of changing from traditional to modern thought. In short, Chinese traditional political thought has a development path different from that of the West.

Thus, Chinese scholars argue that China should be modernized to lead the economic world with the BRI initiative.

Caucasus: The Intersection of ENP and Chinese Policies

China frames the BRI[5] as a new version of globalization and international relations model. Currently the relevant countries and regions of the Belt and Road Initiative have approximately 2,400 official languages and national languages. China wants to contact people directly in their native languages at the existing area.

Georgia is located on the Silk Road Economic Belt and it has an important geographical location. It is the shortest and most convenient channel between Eurasia with Europe and Asia. China is becoming a major player in the region while the Chinese language is now the third foreign language taught after English and Russian in Georgian universities. Like Georgia, other Black Sea countries; Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova has a huge amount of trade agreements with China. Even Kremlin hopes to take advantage of the BRI to develop its infrastructure, particularly in the Siberian region (Beijing has issued the possibility to use the Trans-Siberian for freight transport to Western Europe).

China has several construction projects in Georgia under the BRI. One of the projects is “The Georgia Railway Modernization Project T9 Tunnel”. Located in the Kvishkheti region of central Georgia, it will be the longest railway tunnel in the Trans-Caucasus with a total length of more than 8.3 kilometres. Upon completion of the railway in 2020, the duration from Georgia’s capital Tbilisi to Black Sea Batumi will be shortened from more than 5 hours to 3 hours, and the annual railway freight capacity will also increase by 100%, which is of great significance to promoting Georgia’s future economic development.

On the other hand, ENP has more inclusive projects on social aspect. Caucasia would be a good test bed to observe how different the policies of the EU and China are. For instance, in Georgia, the EU is working on developing the education system and the labour market. More specific objective is to improve the employability of women and men in the selected regions which are far away from the city of Tbilisi. To illustrate, with the projects in Kakheti region of Akhmeta, ENP aims to improve healthcare, education and development opportunities for mothers and children and offer after-school programmes and social support to vulnerable families.

In another ENP country, Armenia in the Caucasus, ENP projects focused on human rights and legislation. The EU supports a more sustainable democracy in Armenia in the implementation of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law.

It ensures the implementation of the equal rights and equal opportunities law for women and men, including taking further steps to align legislation in this field with the EU acquis. In Armenia, the EU has a number of projects to protect social welfare, human rights and freedom of thought. These include the safety of family members, adopts the domestic violence law; investigating the attacks and intimidation of human rights defenders and enforcing effective laws; freedom of conscience and religion works on finalizing the draft law. For example, making the judiciary more independent, improving the training of judges, reviewing the Code of Criminal Procedure and introducing legislation on torture in accordance with Article 1 of the Convention against torture; assigning a contact point to Eurojust to facilitate closer judicial cooperation; continue public administration reform by doing more to prevent and combat corruption and so on.

Unlike ENP, China’s social and cultural development projects are insufficient. According to Chinese scholars, these investments will yield positive results (indirectly) in social domain.

Financing is an important incentive for the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative. The channels of financing channels include “deepening financial cooperation”, “expanding bilateral currency exchange, settlement scope and scale of countries along the route”, “jointly promoting the establishment of Asian infrastructure investment banks” and so on.

Chinese scholars claim that BRI will help Georgia’s economy to improve quickly and to ameliorate people’s livelihoods. In Georgia’s “National Security Conception”, maintaining long-term stable economic growth is important for its national interest component. The “National Security Conception” clearly states that the long-term low economic growth will lead to a sharp decline in national income and an increase in unemployment, which will in turn lead to public tension and social unrest. The country’s development, stability and security will face great challenges. In order to enable the country to achieve stable and secure development, it is extremely important to maintain long-term stable economic growth (Lv 2016).

From the point of view of the Caucasus region, the studies and projects produced under ENP definitely display a much more crystallized image compared to China’s initiatives. China’s cultural activities, film festivals, tourism initiatives and fairs provide a familiarity to China and Chinese culture for the time being. Contrary to Chinese major economic inputs, ENP’s efforts seem to be more long-lasting. Based on the Caucasus example, China will be able to establish trust to the extent that it fully meets the promises of construction and investment. Moreover, China’s economic investments seem unlikely to result in as much social development as they claim in the long term. It can only bring prosperity if economic development can be achieved in the short and medium term. Although we will see the results of ENP’s social, cultural, human rights and employment projects in the long term, ENP studies are much more important in terms of permanence.

China’s Efforts

The “Belt and Road” Cultural Heritage International Cooperation Alliance was established by North-Western Polytechnic University in Xi’an on May 2019 to that end. The Alliance promotes international cooperation and people-to-people communication between the countries and regions along the “Belt and Road”. Initial members include cultural institutions such as the National Museum of Kazakhstan, the National Museum of History of Ukraine, and the National Museum of Mongolia, as well as universities and research institutions such as the University of Salento in Italy, the Polytechnic University of Madrid in Spain, and the North-Eastern University in the United States.

Under the Ministry of Culture’s “Belt and Road Cultural Development Action Plan”, the objective is to establish Chinese cultural centres in a number of countries along the proposed BRI routes. This action plan also prioritises a BRI artistic creations initiative, a BRI cultural heritage corridor, a Silk Road cultural industries belt, a BRI international co-operation action plan for the video game industry.

Figure 3. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Map

Figure 3. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Map[6]

China’s new rules and norms might mean a newly emerging alternative in these countries. Scholars comment that a large number of new European stories imply that Beijing seeks to export its political values, norms, and model (Arifon et al. 2019). In fact, they are not wrong on their guess.  Chinese scholar Ou Yangkang also asserts China will lead a new world with a Chinese Type of Socialism:

China has entered a new era of independently pioneering the road to socialist modernization with Chinese characteristics. The “Belt and Road” construction is an important and unique internal component of China’s roads. By implementing the Belt and Road Initiative, China can not only solve its internal development problems more effectively, but also provide a more attractive Chinese solution for world modernization. (Ou 2018)

BRI is different from the Ancient Silk Road of the history when buyers came to China and demanded products. China was a market per se and the real beneficiaries of the Silk Road were middlemen. Yet with the initiatives in this century, China brings its goods to the markets all over the world at the moment, created by investments and projects. This can be explored under railway work, cultural activities, investment agreements. The Jifu system which was mentioned above looks like a rock that is already cracked. An image similar to water arc occurs on the BRI interference map. BRI map is like water flowing out of these cracks.  These water currents will be one of the things ENP initiatives will encounter on the route.

Even though China was only a supplier and not a customer in ancient times, it has still left deep traces in the world. Currently China is existing with the initiatives in all over the world, in this manner, China will surely have a lasting effect in the countries it has entered into with its investments and projects. At least China will increase its existence in ENP areas through the initiatives.


China is competing with Europe in the latter’s doorstep though not being a neighboring country. This situation will push China to make more powerful attempts. While China expects to move more comfortably in neighboring non-EU countries, it will also confront with EU activities and thus obliged to produce more effective projects. Here I am going to put ‘border’ in a slightly different sense:

China is striving to break its shy (abstainer) attitude over the millennium and take an interactive stance today, that is, expanding its boundaries in international relations by breaking its usual hard shell. Transcending its economic efforts, China wants to be credited also for being a great civilization. Europe, on the other hand, strives to maintain its sphere of influence, at least around its periphery, without disrupting its power.

According to China’s new approach to the international relations, China will go on initiatives all over the world. Regardless of the progress or success rate so far, China’s initiatives will somehow give it the opportunity to fix its place. I think that every entrepreneurial move of Europe, or any other power, will be perceived by China as ‘my turn’ and will take Chinese moves further.

As in China’s understand of the world[7] since they are not physically and purposefully alienated from the existing lands, the places they will accept from now on will be the details to be built around this center.

A flow started out from these break points. The BRI initiatives also remind us of the water arc in terms of the shape on the map. The water flowing through this arc extends into the interior of Europe today. Over time, we will observe that this water causes different reactions in different parts of the world. Furthermore, the rising of theories such as ‘fear of China’ are the crackling noises of this break.

Until modern means of communication were invented and used, the spread of culture could only be through people, words, and specific objects. Without people and specific dissemination, even in the same era, there can be no communication and influence between different cultures (Ge 2016). And today, China has brought itself closer to this geography by living the time simultaneously with its peers and their actions.

In addition, even though China will leave a big trail, this trail can have a devastating effect on China, based on claims[8] that the promises made so far have not been met. Partnering countries may lose trust and destroy the relations of the future that have not been implemented yet.

China has found a space for action in Europe, and in the first place, they have destroyed the fear of alienation to the world. They had the opportunity to read the dynamics of the society in this new geography. This initiative, which can be considered as the first in modern time in terms of its diameter, will appear in different ways at the point where it loses its continuity. But in any case, the best thing to do is let China exist in neighbooring countries but make a strong negotiation.


* Dr. Tuba Yalinkilic Non-resident Research Fellow at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.



  1. Source:
  2. See, for example, Wang F. L., Liu Y. G. (2019). Lun Zhongguo gudai diyuan zhanlve zhiding zhong de ‘quanheng’–yi ‘yantie lun’ weilie (On the “balance” in the formulation of geopolitical strategy in ancient China: Taking “Salt and Iron” as an example.) Scientia Geographica Sinica, (39)9.
  3. The ‘Jifu’ is a system of etiquette and law described in the literature of the Zhou Dynasty and the Qin and Han Dynasties. This system arranges the relationship between the center and the surrounding area based on geographical distance, and also stipulates the surrounding obligations to the center. The obedience system in the pre-Qin literature had a profound impact on the handling of internal and external relations between the dynasties of later China. A thousand miles is an area under the direct jurisdiction of Chinese Emperor. According to the close relationship with emperor, the service can be divided into multiple levels from near to far.
  4. Source:
  5. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a multifaceted economic, diplomatic and geopolitical undertaking that. It was first proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2013. China establishes a Chinese-led investment program under the BRI creating a web of infrastructure, including roads, railways, telecommunications, and ports. BRI has two primary components that they form the “belt” and “road”: the overland Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and the sea-based 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Silk Road Economic Belt is one of the components of Belt and Road Initiative. Xinjiang is the core region for the Silk Road Economic Belt. The other component is the 21th century Maritime Silk Road, Fujian as the core region for that.
  6. Source:
  7. According to China’s world conception, at the centre of the system stood China. For centuries Sino-centric world order was based on a distinction between China and barbarians.
  8. See, for example, “Experts say that nearly four years after the initiative began most projects remain on the drawing board” (Phillips, 12/05/2017, The Guardian).









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