27.02.2018

Riding the Silk Road – Discord and cooperation along the maritime route

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has stirred up diverging responses along its route in South Asia and the Horn of Africa. A photo story from a regional workshop captures possible avenues to reconcile them.

Strategic investments in the 21st Century Belt and Road Initiative. Photo: iStockphoto / hakule

Yangon (Myanmar)  ̶  China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has stirred up a wide range of reactions along its planned routes, including some security concerns. In southern Pakistan, for example, the deep-sea port of Gwadar has been redeveloped under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking the BRI’s planned land and sea routes. Some voices are expressing caution about the possible dual-use of the facility as a naval base, potentially upsetting the balance of power in the region.

The security implications of the maritime segment of the BRI in South Asia and the Horn of Africa was the subject of a regional workshop held in Yangon in February by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and co-hosted by the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS).

“While the lack of research prevents any conclusive findings about the direct security implications of the BRI, there has been room to express some concerns,” said Richard Ghiasy, researcher and project manager at SIPRI, who attended the workshop. The BRI might exacerbate existing international tensions, or worsen tensions at a national level for regimes with a bad track record of inclusive development, he said.

The Gwadar port is just one of the projects raising eyebrows under the BRI, introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. The ambitious initiative aims to deepen China’s logistical connections by land through Central Asia to the Middle East, and by sea around South-East Asia to the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa. It has been presented by Beijing as a reactivation of the legendary Silk Road trade routes.

The numbers give an indication of the project’s significance: more than 70 participating or interested countries, accounting for 65 per cent of the world’s population, and projected costs of 900 billion US dollars according to Oxford Economics (link in English).

The BRI’s promise of connectivity, new jobs and raised standards of living has been welcomed by many countries. But Gwadar and other works have raised security implications in and around the Indian Ocean, where ripple effects could spiral beyond the region (link).

Indian Ocean sea lanes carry a significant percentage of European trade and energy sources. Half of the sea-borne supply and two thirds of all containers carrying German exports—EU’s largest exporter contributing close to 30 per cent of EU goods sent abroad in 2016 according to Eurostat (link)—transit through the Indian Ocean. Growing geopolitical rivalries and trade competition could disrupt the sea lanes and endanger regional stability, according to an analysis by peace and security researcher (and workshop attendee) Garima Mohan, published by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute (link to study).

The Yangon workshop was part of a global forum series organized by SIPRI and FES in Asia starting in 2016, to fill the gap in the under-researched security implications of the BRI. SIPRI and FES have published a report with recommendations for a number of cooperation avenues for the European Union and China to address security concerns, after a series of consultations in 2016 on the dynamics along the land route of the BRI. 

Read the report “The Silk Road Economic Belt: Considering security implications and EU-China cooperation prospects.”

Our photo reportage from the Yangon workshop captures some of the security implications and avenues for cooperation related to the maritime route of the BRI that were discussed among participating experts from South Asia and the Horn of Africa. 

  • Over 30 participating experts from South Asia and Horn of Africa countries arrived in Yangon to take part in a regional workshop on the security implications of BRI’s maritime route. As participants arrive, Alexey Yusupov, Resident Director at FES Myanmar and Sabrina Tillman, Programme Assistant discuss the schedule at a venue close to Inya lake, just before the start of the workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES
  • Infrastructural linkages can do more than just create transactional added value; they can transform political economies, change the rules of the game and massively effect the way countries deal with conflicts, says Alexey Yusupov of FES Myanmar. He is speaking at the opening of the workshop titled “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018, welcoming participants together with Lora Saalman, Associate Senior Fellow at SIPRI and Vice-President for Asia-Pacific at the EastWest Institute. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • Over two days, experts from countries in South Asia and the Horn of Africa discussed security implications and other possible effects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative on competition and cooperation in the two regions, as well as the role of the European Union in the unfolding of the projects along the sea-based route. Participants from Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka, discuss during the opening of the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • A participant takes notes during the first session on principal security concerns in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden among states in South Asia and the Horn of Africa, related to the maritime segment of the BRI, at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • “Myanmar is China’s only direct link to the Indian Ocean, and thus economically and strategically of big importance. Without functioning institutions many of the infrastructural projects can bring more suffering for the people and threaten the peace process in the country.” – Ma Khin Khin Kyaw Kyee, researcher at the Institute of Strategy and Peace (ISP) in Myanmar during the first panel on the principal security concerns for Myanmar, at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • "The Maritime Silk Road can bring considerable changes to regional cooperation with regards to the fight against maritime human trafficking, piracy and illegal fishing.”– Dr Naing Swe Oo, Founder and Executive Director, Thayninga Institute, Myanmar, at the panel on principle security concerns related to the maritime route of the BRI. Myanmar Navy officers at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • “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 of India voices his concerns at the second panel on competition and cooperation among states in South Asia and Horn of Africa, as participants listen at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • “In South Asia we have no regional mechanism for multilateral security cooperation: bilateral security agreements are preferred. We must focus on a multilateral security framework that rests on commitment to ensure mutual survival and not destruction.” – Ms. Bhagya Senaratne, Lecturer at General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, Sri Lanka. Here featured in exchange with Arthur Tarnowski (FES Shanghai) and other participants discussing during a break at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • Participants during the breakout session on takeaways from the two panels on security concerns and possible effects to cooperation and competition in South Asia and Gulf of Aden, moderated by Dr Lora Saalman, at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • Dr Lora Saalman moderates a group of participants during the Breakout Session at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • "The BRI is the articulation of China’s deep involvement in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa, which has been already there in great depth during the last 20 years. In a difficult security situation, China has been a big stakeholder in all Horn of Africa countries. As such, it has been a safeguard against war between these countries.” – Cedric Barnes, Director at Rift Valley Institute. Featured here at the far end of the room, with other participants as they discuss key issues from the two panels raised during the breakout session moderated by Richard Ghiasy, at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • “BRI is just a five-year-old kid that is learning to walk. We must not expect that it solves all problems at once and immediately.”– Dr Liu Youfa, Senior Fellow at Shanghai Institute for International Studies, featured here with other participants during the breakout session moderated by Richard Ghiasy, at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • Dr Neil Melvin, Senior Researcher and Project Manager, SIPRI, one of the moderators at the second workshop day, dedicated to discussion on ways to stimulate and develop maritime multilateral security cooperation in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and the role of the European Union in this process. The workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” was held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • “The dual use of sea ports is quite visible in South Asia. Commercial ports are being used for submarine docking, which has raised concerns among the countries in the region as well as for the European Union.” – Garima Mohan (featured seated in the center) during a Breakout Session on the second workshop day, after panels on developing and stimulating maritime multilateral security cooperation in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and the role of European Union in this. The workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications” was held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • “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 (left), comments on the role of the European Union on the second and last day of the workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • A Myanmar Navy officer makes a phone call as the day comes to an end at the regional workshop “The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road: Considering Security Implications,” held in Yangon, Myanmar, 22 February 2018. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.
  • Participating experts and the FES and SIPRI teams take a group photo as they bid farewell in Yangon. Moving ahead from the Yangon workshop will entail finding mechanisms how to engage countries from South Asia and the Gulf of Aden with China and actors external to these very diverse regions to address security and other concerns that deal specifically with bodies of water. The deliberations will continue at a Shanghai workshop in March, with specific focus on the EU-China relations. Photo: Minzayar Oo/FES.

For more information on the joint activities by SIPRI and FES on the  Belt and Road Initiative contact Stefan Pantekoek, Resident Director at FES Shanghai Office.  

 

 

 

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