FES-SIPRI workshop on the security implications of the Silk Road Economic Belt

Event: Regional and International Affairs

On 13-14 February 2017, FES and SIPRI co-hosted a Re-thinking Asia Forum at the Evangelische Academy Tutzing in Germany, launching the publication of the report “Silk Road Economic Belt: Considering Security Implications and EU-China Cooperation Prospects.” The report was part of a one-year project examining the broader strategic implications of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (‘the Belt’), its impact on local and regional security and political dynamics in Central and South Asia, as well as on EU interests. The two-day event featured participants including the Senior Adviser to the European External Action Service (EEAS)’s Asia and Pacific Department, the Executive Director of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), and the EU’s Special Representative to Central Asia. Represented at the conference were also senior officials, scholars, and experts from China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as civil society organizations and think-tanks in Europe.

The conference highlighted the different conceptualizations of the term ‘common security’ by the various stakeholders, as well as different interpretations of how China’s initiative is advancing or hampering inter-state dialogue and cooperation throughout the two regions. Viewpoints and interests of regional players such as Russia and India featured as important aspects of the wider geo-strategic landscape in which the Belt is unfolding. While the Belt was affirmed as largely being in line with Russian interests in Central Asia, there has been a rise in geopolitical tensions in South Asia, as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is seen by certain actors as serving bilateral interests rather than advancing broader regional integration. Also discussed were how China’s activities fit into changes in the wider global system, including the new Trump administration’s policies and shift towards economic protectionism in the US.

Discussion also focused on the governance implications of the Belt for participating states. There was agreement on the ability of the Belt to stimulate economic development, and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals featured as a key framework and common platform for maximizing these positive social and developmental impacts. However, concerns were also raised in relation to regulatory gaps that the Belt could exacerbate. Addressing poor environmental legislation, labor standards, and corruption require stronger and more accountable institutions in participating states, as well as greater transparency by Chinese actors and corporations. Beyond infrastructure projects, it was noted that inter-regional connectivity also requires policy cooperation and coordination relating to non-physical trade barriers, customs procedures, and border management.

European experts noted that the EU does lack strategic thinking towards the Belt, and that there remains a gap not only in public but also policy discourse regarding the topic. In moving the conversation forward, a wide array of bilateral and multilateral dialogue formats and mechanisms were tabled. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and CICA were for instance highlighted as underutilized channels for cooperation. In addition, the United Nations, the World Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), and European investment and financing bodies were also noted as important developmental stakeholders that should be jointly engaged.

Building on a number of recommendations that the SIPRI-FES report has put forward for EU policymakers to consider, participants explored additional cooperation avenues through which China, the EU, and local states’ could pursue mutual benefit, common development, and shared security. These recommendations and findings will be published in an upcoming policy brief, to be authored by Dr. Lora Saalman, Director of SIPRI’s China and Global Security Programme, and Mr. Knut Dethlefsen of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Department for Asia and the Pacific.

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