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The Gulf in EU-Asia Connectivity

 

On 15 October the EU Asia Centre and the Bussola Institute co-hosted a seminar focusing on the role of Gulf States in connectivity strategies linking Europe and Asia in the changing geopolitical situation. EU and Chinese officials, think tanks and academia were invited to provide their perspectives in two panels focusing on political and economic dimensions respectively. 

 

After welcoming remarks by John Dennehy (Secretary General of Bussola institute), Jean-Christophe Belliard(Deputy Secretary-General for Political Affairs, EEAS) explored in his opening remarks the complementarities of EU’s connectivity strategy with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With regards to the fractures in the relations and conflicts in the region, he highlighted the geopolitical goals the EU and China share in the region, such as preserving the Iran nuclear deal, defusing conflicts in Syria and Yemen and ensuring the openness and safety of the Hormuz passage. The two actors also value predictability, stability and speaking with all States in the region. The time is ripe for exploring a common approach to connectivity 

 

Xia Xian (Economic Affairs Minister of Chinese mission on to the EU) agreed that the BRI and the EU’s strategy had many links and potential synergies. China’s economic engagement in the region has intensified in recent years. Energy imports have continued growing and China has invested into digital, renewables, 5G, tourism and people-to-people exchanges, supporting the diversification of Gulf economies.  China would also play major role in the Dubai expo. He also highlighted that both the EU and China value predictability, stability and maintaining relations with all stakeholders in the region. They could be working together on connectivity in the region. 

 

Opening the panel on political dimension, Fraser Cameron (Director, EU-Asia Centre) said that it was a propitious time to have such an event. Connectivity was bringing the world closer together and there was little discussion on the role and significance of the Gulf region. 

 

Marc Otte(Senior Fellow, Egmont) viewed the Gulf as a bridge to Asia, which make its security and stability a shared interest for China and the EU in their respective connectivity strategies. Especially the EU must focus its strategy to alleviate the risk of the Gulf becoming a black hole of globalization due to conflicts. The Chinese military presence in Dijibouti, its readiness for peacekeeping operations  and the precedent of successful cooperation with the EU in anti-piracy operations all add to the potential for future strategic cooperation between the EU and China for the stability of the region.  

 

Professor Wang Jin(North West University, China) spoke of China’s main interests including energy, diversifying economic links and counter terrorism. He foresaw closer economic cooperation especially in nuclear, renewables and aerospace. China should improve its image by better defining its interests in the region and explaining them pro-actively through its own media and academia with sensitivity to local cultures. 

 

Nasser Al Tamina (Political Analyst) stated that economic cooperation with China is a bargaining process in which Gulf states would gain leverage by working as a coalition. Alternatives provided by China is also providing the Gulf bargaining power in their relations with the West There was a larger than ever Chinese footprint in new economic areas, such as construction which has been formerly dominated by South Korean companies. He also emphasized the China’s strategic interest and increasing capability, naval and diplomatic, to ensure stability in the region to maintain its energy supplies and economic interests.

 

Opening the panel on economic dimension, Christian Koch (Senior Fellow, Bussola Institute) said that the change in the EU leadership provides an opportune moment to review EU’s strategy towards the rapidly changing Gulf region. 

 

Asad Beg (EEAS) outlined the EU’s approach to connectivity emphasizing sustainability, partnerships and a rules-based level playing field. Connectivity is seen as infrastructure, but also digital development and people-to-people contacts. The strategy identifies Western Balkans, the Europe’s neighborhood, Central Asia, the Indian Ocean and Africa as priority areas for connectivity development. The recently signed major connectivity partnership with Japan now needs flagship projects. More partnerships, such as Australia, the US and the Republic of Korea, may follow. To maintain its credibility, the EU must now follow through with its plans. 

 

Omar Al-Ubaydli (Research Director, Bahrain Centre) saw the role of the Gulf states between the EU and Asia as a partner in trade and energy. The Gulf already provides huge amounts of energy to both sides and is now also expanding its energy grid cross the region. Moroccan solar energy is being connected to Egypt and Jordan and more opportunities are available for the EU and others to benefit from a more integrated grid. Beyond energy, the Gulf economies are diversifying to new areas such as tourism and ICT increasing their trade potential. He also noted that due to the logistical importance of the straits of Hormuz, the region will remain strategically important even with eventual reductions in oil imports. Problems in the region will continue to have repercussions for the global economy far into future. 

 

Jim Moran (Senior Fellow, EU Asia Centre) stated that EU’s new leadership should move from ad-hoc solutions of the past to a stronger strategy and vision in the region. The FTA negotiations, which halted in 2008, are a strong strategic interest for the EU and should maybe after an assessment brought back to the agenda to commit the region firmly to rules-based trade. The desire for economic diversification in the region could provide impetus to the negotiations.  While the EU and China could be described as systemic rivals, they have a shared interest in long-term stability in the region, in which cooperation in connectivity can play its part.


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