China’s Belt and Road Initiative: New possibilities for strategic cooperation?

Amidst new financial and security dependencies arising along China's Silk Road Economic Belt, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and partners are working to increase understanding of its goals and consequences.

Photo: The China Silk Road initiative, panel discussion in Berlin 2017 © Maren Strehlau

Photo: (center) Mr Chen Dongxiao, President of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) and (to the right) and Ms. Ina Lepel, Head of Division for Asia and the Pacific of the German Federal Foreign Office, Berlin 2017 © Maren Strehlau

Photo: Ms Lora Saalman, Director of the China and Global Security Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Berlin 2017 © Maren Strehlau

The Silk Road Economic Belt (henceforth the "Belt") is a component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced by Xi Jinping in 2013. It is aimed at promoting infrastructural development, connectivity and economic integration across the Eurasian continent. While the Belt is presented primarily as an economic and developmental initiative with mutual benefits for the countries involved, it also has a number of important strategic implications.

The local security dynamics in many of the states with which China hopes to cooperate more closely are likely to be significantly affected by the initiative, and the substantial financial loans connected to Belt-related projects will certainly create new dependencies.

A group of internationally renowned experts discussed these and other implications of the Belt at a panel discussion in Berlin on this topic organized in June 2017 by FES.

During the event, participants explored the geopolitics of Eurasia, and what position the EU should take as China’s Belt and Road Initiative plays out.

Ina Lepel, who heads the Asia-Pacific Division at the German Federal Foreign Office, addressed the security situation of Pakistan and its neighbouring countries, and the implications that context heralds for the Belt. Chen Dongxiao, president of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, explained China’s security and economic interests in the region and showed how the Belt stood in relation to them.

Lora Saalman, director of the China and Global Security Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), made it clear that the Belt did indeed touch upon European security interests and that it was therefore subject to increasingly frequent and controversial discussions in Brussels. Even though the Belt was largely compatible with EU interests, there remained a good deal of uncertainty among EU member states and institutions regarding Chinese interests, questions of implementation and strategic consequences, she said.

During the questions and answers, it was asked whether the procurement and tendering processes for Belt-related projects would allow for fair competition between Chinese and non-Chinese investors and firms. Mr Chen answered that the Chinese leadership was quite serious about the Silk Road Economic Belt becoming a true win-win project for all countries and firms involved. Despite some initial possible problems, there would therefore be a level playing field for all actors in the medium term, he said.

Most of the proposals and discussions around the BRI are centered on economic and infrastructural considerations, such as the successful establishment of a direct freight train link between China and Germany and other similar projects. However, the security implications of the Belt are much less prominently discussed. FES therefore initiated a series of mid- to high-level conferences in China and several countries involved in the Belt as well as in Europe to discuss the security aspects of such large-scale investment and involvement by China in the greater Eurasian region.

Joint report by FES and SIPRI on the security implications of the Belt

The results of these conferences as well as many interviews were collected and recently published in a joint report by FES and SIPRI: The Silk Road Economic Belt: Considering Security Implications and EU-China Cooperation Prospects.

With the rising prominence of the BRI in Chinese politics, academia and media, the two FES offices in China have worked with their main partners for several years on this topic, to increase mutual understanding about goals and expectations and to analyse the potential consequences. ###

Yannick Ringot is project manager at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Shanghai Office, one of two FES offices in China. For more information on the work of FES in China see the website.

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