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.

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. 

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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