Since its inception in late 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has grown into a sweeping global trade and infrastructure development project with increasing geopolitical and geo-economic implications.
China is pouring trillions of dollars into the creation of economic corridors stretching from China via Central Asia to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Beijing’s investment is focused on linking up rail and road networks with ports, as well as on modernizing power plants and pipelines.
The enormous level of China’s investment changes the social and political landscape in the countries concerned and has environmental and potentially military implications. These have been analysed for a variety of individual countries and international organizations. Yet, to date, no assessment has been made of the challenges and opportunities Chinese money will have for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its participating States.
A new report by the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, is seeking to fill this gap.
This is important because more than half of the 57 OSCE participating States have now signed Memoranda of Understanding with China concerning their participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. In addition, by the end of 2020, almost 94 billion USD of Chinese funds have flown into three OSCE subregions: Central Asia, the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe, and the Western Balkans.
“The OSCE and its participating States can no longer afford to ignore the significance of China and its increasing presence and activities within the OSCE region,” says Stefan Wolff, Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham and principal author of the report. “Whether and how the Organisation and its participating States will rise to the challenge of responding to China’s activities will have a profound impact on the OSCE’s future relevance.”
In an effort to launch a debate on this important topic, the report and its recommendations were officially presented to OSCE participating States, OSCE Partners for Cooperation, and high-level OSCE officials at a virtual launch event on 19 April. 68 participants took part in the event and exchanged views on how best to address the challenges and opportunities of a rising China in the OSCE context.
One main recommendation suggests that the OSCE, under the leadership of OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid, should identify potential future scenarios for relations with China. On the basis of this, the OSCE Chairpersonship and OSCE Troika could then work with participating States on forming a consensus on engagement.
Institutionalizing the relationship between the OSCE and China will be important since China is currently neither a participating State nor a Partner for Cooperation. “The OSCE should be guided by a strategic vision that considers a future formal relationship with China as a Partner for Cooperation,” Wolff says. “Alternatively, China could be granted OSCE observer status.”
The report also suggests that the OSCE should begin to cooperate with China in areas of common interest, such as fighting corruption, managing environmental challenges, and improving economic cooperation.
On this last point, the report argues that the OSCE should work on a “connectivity 2.0 agenda” to improve and sustain the compatibility and complementarity of the existing integration projects of the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Such a renewed focus on “connectivity” would also have the potential to contribute to a sustainable and inclusive post-pandemic recovery by strengthening the resilience of economies, societies, and institutions.
Finally, the report concedes that there is currently little room for dialogue with China on human rights issues. “However”, Wolff said, “a principled, pragmatic, and strategic OSCE approach to engagement with China will neither exclude human and minority rights issues nor allow a weakening of the human dimension within the OSCE’s comprehensive and cooperative approach to security.”