Converging or diverging? Considering security implications of China's 21st Century Maritime Silk Road

China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has given rise to both hopes and concerns among its stakeholders along the route. While it offers economic opportunities and greater connectivity, it is also being accompanied by increasing security concerns.

Photo: Participating experts, SIPRI and FES staff at the third and final workshop on China's 21st Century Maritime Silk in Shanghai and EU-China interests and concerns as they relate to the Road, Shanghai, 29-30 March 2018. Photo by FES.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has become the cornerstone of China's foreign policy. The ambitious long-term integration and cooperation vision for the Eurasian continent, Africa, maritime corridors and beyond, intends: to reactivate and expand the Silk Roads of old with new hard and soft infrastructure; to improve trade policy coordination and financial cooperation; and to expand and improve the transit of goods, energy and people. As such, BRI offers economic opportunities and contributions to greater cooperation. However, it may also intensify or create territorial and maritime disputes, and poses challenges existing security structures.

Despite the far-reaching implications and challenges the enormous BRI brings, analyses of the security dimensions of the initiative far have been limited in political and academic discourse. The majority still focuses on economic implications. To fill this research gap, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) have initiated a workshop series on China's 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. This project examines the security implications of the Road (the sea-based component of the Maritime Silk Road) and will result in a policy paper out in summer 2018 for all Road stakeholders, yet concentrating on the European Union.

The first two workshops in <link news security-in-chinas-silk-road-roadblocks-or-express-way _blank>Manila (Philippines) and <link news riding-the-silk-road-discord-and-cooperation-along-the-maritime-route _blank>Yangon (Myanmar) dealt with the Road’s security implications for South-East Asia as well as South Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. On 29-30 March the third and final workshop of the series was held in Shanghai, hosted by FES Shanghai Representative Office in cooperation with its main Chinese partner the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), to focus on EU-China interests and concerns as they relate to the Road.

Scholars and experts from China and Europe recognized the benefits and risks that BRI entails and discussed EU-China Maritime Cooperation in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean region. There was a consensus that exchanging and examining ideas regarding possible opportunities for cooperation between the EU and China along the Road would allow a better risk management between the EU, China and other stakeholders and could thus help to mitigate concerns and tensions that BRI carries.

Participants stressed the importance of dialogue and cooperation, and recognized the positive effects of BRI on economic cooperation and connectivity. However, the European experts also expressed concerns that reconciling the BRI with the international order would not happen without tensions, especially in view of increasing competition and the clash of diverging interests, values and principles. The Chinese experts on the other hand disagreed and emphasized that China should not be seen as a threat, but as part of a solution.

International fishery policy and the protection of trade routes, such as anti-piracy efforts are possible areas for China and the EU to cooperate more closely.

Both Chinese and European experts agreed that the futures of China and the EU were bound. There was also consensus that, regarding the sheer size of the Road, plenty of opportunities could be identified to deepen cooperation and cooperate more closely. Some of the examples mentioned during the conference were international fishery policy and the protection of trade routes, such as anti-piracy efforts.

Also, the BRI was identified as one of the reasons why the EU is slowly realizing the importance of developing a consistent and integrated policy towards China. The establishment of a coordination mechanism for stabilizing relations with the People’s Republic of China was mentioned as one possible measure to improve coordination and cooperation. However, from the European side, the obstacles to achieving institutionalized relations are manifold. There is unclear cohesion within the EU regarding the EU’s role as a security actor, and the level of strategic debate is not sufficient. Furthermore, within the European Union the positions towards China might be subject to change of government.

In order to mitigate risks of conflict and improve coordination, China, on its part, needs to intensify its efforts to ensure a smooth reconciliation of the Road and the international order: So far, the BRI has not been inclusive. It lacks channels of communication and it also needs to be more pro-active in addressing security concerns.

There was a consensus among both European and Chinese experts that further joint research and dialogue is needed and should be promoted intensively in order to, amongst other things, get a clearer picture of each stakeholder’s perception on the Road and its implications to prevent misunderstandings and conflict.

Beyond the networking and discussion facilitated by the three workshops, the key deliverable of this project will be a policy report based largely on qualitative data collected through desk and field research, to be published this summer.

Arthur Tarnowski is program manager at FES Shanghai. 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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