China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is the signature foreign-policy priority of President Xi Jinping. Announced in 2013, this open-ended Chinese vision with no equivalent rival at its scale consists of two components: The Silk Road Economic Belt (the Belt) covers a land route mostly through Europe and Asia, while the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the Road) is expanding China’s maritime strategic space in every direction.
As the BRI fills in an immense infrastructure vacuum, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) have examined it from a security perspective. Bringing together viewpoints from experts, academics, and policymakers, two policy reports were produced over a two-year period, based on extensive fieldwork and interviews undertaken in the period.
They suggest that the EU should outline a more articulate vision for a stable and secure Eurasia. Such a concept could then act as the baseline for all EU endeavours with regard to proposals such as the BRI. Without such a vision, there is a serious risk that EU foreign and security policy interests will be outflanked by the impact of Chinese foreign policy, and that future responses will be too slow.
The BRI is a clustering of multiple Chinese security, diplomatic, financial, geopolitical and ideational interests that seek to propel China’s economy of more than $12 trillion. Beijing has so far committed some $1.4 trillion to the initiative, which aims to mitigate the global security threats to its domestic stability and shape an international environment that is less unpredictable.
“Like previous and existing powers, China is seeking to reduce the impact of disruptive forces on key supply chains. In this sense, the BRI is not anomalous.”(The Silk Road Economic Belt: Considering Security Implications and EU-China Cooperation Prospects)
Nonetheless, the BRI is not entirely self-serving and may catalyse regional development and closer cooperation. Its reception has been enthusiastic, mostly among developing states and states with economic woes, but also in advanced economies such as Singapore.
However, the voice of sceptics is loud in a number of EU member states, particularly in Western Europe, as well as China’s geopolitical rivals India, Japan, the United States or Vietnam. In their view, the BRI is too unilateral, lacks granularity and is not receptive to criticism. Criticised aspects include the absence of a level playing field for tendering, debt-repayment challenges for partner states and Beijing’s investment in states where incumbent regimes have a poor track record on democratic governance, human security or development.
“China will trigger further competition and instability in the region—and so it will trigger militarization. In fact, this is already happening.“ – Lieutenant General P K Singh, Director at United Service Institution
Indeed, China’s emphasis on state security can exacerbate structural elements of instability in partner states. Beijing claims that local sources of insecurity would exist with or without BRI investment, and that improvements in human security may come with investment. Nonetheless, the extent to which BRI investments overlap with political and socio-economic realities in in local states remains questionable.
Improved infrastructure can undoubtedly serve as a catalyst, but tapping into developmental potential requires investment in human and institutional capital, effective economic policies in local states and greater input from civil society. This is an inherently domestic process, however, and one that is not necessarily in the hands of China.
Five years in, the BRI has been a mixed bag of successes and setbacks. In Pakistan, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has brought massive investment in the state’s electricity supply grid, which will power the country’s economy. However, states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines have sought to actively balance economic development with sovereignty and have become much more cautious. These states and others have taken note of the fate of the strategic Hambantota port, which Sri Lanka formally handed over to China on a 99-year lease in 2017, following its inability to repay its debts to Chinese firms.
In Europe, the Belt, the 16+1 endeavours in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and investments in Southern Europe have not turned out to be gamechangers. These investments have also created resentment in the EU and a number of European states, as they are perceived as attempts to inhibit EU integration.
As the terminal point of both the overland and the maritime routes of BRI, the EU faces significant geo-political, economic and geo-strategic consequences. In responding to the Belt and Road, the FES-SIPRI reports recommend that implications should not be generalized across regions. There may be increased intraregional cooperation in Central Asia, whereas in South Asia they are likely to help sustain the India–Pakistan rift.
“People matter. If the European Union is not there to talk about human rights, then who will do it?” – Ms Shada Islam, Director of Policy at Friends of Europe
Some of the BRI’s objectives overlap with the EU Global Strategy and touch also on the European Maritime Security Strategy. As the initiative will remain a common thread running through China’s foreign policy for many years to come it may lay some of the groundwork for greater EU–China cooperation on select, mostly soft, security matters in both the Belt and the Road context, although more dialogue, trust and creative thinking will be needed on both sides.
It is certain that to safeguard BRI investments, China will need to become more engaged in global stabilization efforts. This would be a welcome endeavour but China will do so on its own terms. Such cross-pollination may not be in line with EU norms and values as they relate to governance models, development approaches, business standards and human security. As a consequence, there needs to be greater integration of development as a core tenet of security, inclusion and stability within the EU’s regional engagement with states along BRI routes, including within its own boundaries. While this need not obviate its pursuit of democratic and human rights ideals, a failure to take better account of local demands and the need for growth will leave the EU marginalized as China expands its engagement along the BRI.
For more information on the joint activities by SIPRI and FES on the Belt and Road Initiative contact the FES Shanghai Office.
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