Event Report - One Belt, One Road (OBOR)
23 February 2017
On 22 February the EU-Asia Centre and the Confucius Institute of the VUB held a panel discussion on OBOR with Chinese and EU experts. Opening the event, Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre, pointed to OBOR as a new and important element of EU-China relations. The Centre was part of the OBOR think tank network and would be participating in the 14 May summit in Beijing.
Jiang Shixue, Deputy Director of CASS, said it was important not to exaggerate expectations about OBOR. There was no deadline and it was a continuous initiative. China has signed several FTAs with countries well before the start of OBOR but they were now included in the number of OBOR-related projects. The May summit would be important in taking stock and deciding on new cooperation paths. There were now over 100 countries involved but the key point was how to create synergies. The devil was in the detail. The EU-China connectivity platform was already established for synergy cooperation. But the EU was now investigating details of the Belgrade-Budapest railway deal.
Professor Liming Wang, University College, Dublin, pointed to the ever-increasing countries involved in OBOR. According to the World Bank, the growth rate for the 66 OBOR countries was 4.6% on average so maybe the belt was having a positive impact. There has been a vast outpouring of studies on OBOR but most lacked empirical detail and were not that serious. It was interesting to look at historical aspects of the Silk Road but we had to focus on current challenges. There were six corridors that facilitate trade between China to Europe but also concerns such as the stability of the 26 Muslim countries along the OBOR routes. The EU was also concerned about the 16+1 format and there were even wild documentaries such as "the coming war with China" by John Pilger. On the positive side he considered that the 148 Confucius Institutes along OBOR could play a positive role in promoting the exchange of information.
Professor Richard Griffiths, Leiden University, said it was a mistake to think of OBOR as just linking the EU and China – it was really linking the countries in the middle. If you wanted to engage in OBOR it was quite easy. First, you had to find a country (and there were 66 plus to choose from). Then you had to find a project. This could be a highway, railway, power plant, pipeline or port. Anyone could join in – there were no restrictions. Finally, you had to find the money. This could be EU finance – and loans were better than grants.
Daniel Guayder, EEAS, said OBOR was as much about connectivity as infrastructure. There was nothing inherently new in the concept as the EU had been promoting cooperation since the early 1990s in C Asia on energy, transport and border management.The cultural dimension was good and similar to what the EU member states were doing. It was important to ensure sustainability in new projects – green energy was the name of the game. And digital was equally important for connectivity. OBOR should also seek to involve other partners (WTO for trade and ASEM on the multilateral front) and Japan and Korea as individual countries. Transparency was also a key issue as was good governance.
In the discussion the following issues were raised:
Would OBOR continue after Xi – yes
Were the coastal cities supporters of OBOR? – yes but other provinces more supportive
How involved was the AIIB – growing support for projects
How viable are OBOR projects? Depends on impact assessments
Impact of CPEC – very positive even if some concerns from Indian side
Summing up Professor Song said that OBOR was a difficult subject to grasp despite the multitude of publications. Was it an initiative or a strategy? The Chinese way of business was to cross the river by touching the stones, i.e no big plan ahead but trying with constant feedback. Many of the projects are still bilateral although OBOR is deemed multilateral. Was OBOR mainly domestic or international or regional? It was mainly based on domestic development at present, but this may change in the future. After the involvement of the EU one had to consider the impact Trump – killing TPP. In the long-term, OBOR will link China and EU, but in the short-term, it mainly revolves around Central Asia.