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OBOR: Can it Link the EU and China

Wednesday, 22 February, 2017 - 11:00
Press Club
Rue Froissart 95
Confucius Institute at the VUB

The EU-Asia Centre, the Confucius Institute at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Brussels Academy for China and European Studies hold a panel discussion on the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. With the EU and China demonstrating many common areas of interest, including free trade, regional security and climate change, the Belt & Road initiative takes on new significance as a catalyst for EU-China relations. 

The EU has reacted positively to the Belt & Road initiative and is now exploring various joint projects. But how is Obor viewed in the member states of the EU? How is it viewed by the media and experts?

Panel with

  • Prof. Jiang Shixue, Deputy Director of Institute for European Studies, CASS, Beijing
  • Prof. Wang Liming, Director of Centre for China Studies, University College, Dublin
  • Prof. Richard Griffiths, Leiden University, author of Revitalising the Silk Road. China's Belt and Road Initiative
  • Daniel Guyader, Advisor, Asia-Pacific Department, EEAS


11:00 Welcome by Fraser Cameron, Director of EU-Asia Centre
11:45 Discussion
12:30 Closing remarks, Xinning Song, China Director of the Confucius Institute at the VUB

Report of the event

Opening the event, Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre, defined the Belt & Road initiative as a new and important element of the EU-China relationship. The Centre was part of the OBOR think tank network and participated in th e14 May summit in Beijing.

Prof. Jiang Shixue, Deputy Director of CASS, said it was important not to exaggerate expectations about the Belt & Road initiative. There is no deadline and it is a continuous initiative. China has signed several FTA's with countries well before the start of OBOR, but they are now included in a number of OBOR-related projects. The May summit was also important to take stack and deciding on new cooperation paths. There are now over 100 countries invloved, but the key point is how to create synergies. The devil is always in the details. The EU-China connectivity platform has already established some synergy cooperation, but the EU still keeps control and suppervision. It is now investigating details of the Belgrade-Budapest railway deal. 

Prof. Wang Liming, University College, Dublin, referred to the ever-increasing number of countries involved in OBOR. According to the World Bank, the economic growth rate for the 66 OBOR country was 4.6% on average. This means that the Belt & Road initiative may be having a positive impact on related economies. There has been a vast outpouring of stides on OBOR, but most have lacked empirical details and remain inconclusive. It is interesting to look at the historical aspects of the Silk Road, but current problems are also important. There are six corridors that facilitate trade between China and Europe. But these routs run through 26 Muslim countries, which requires stability. The EU is also concerned about the 16+1 format, which targets the Balkan states and East-European countries. On the positive side, Prof. Wang considers the 148 Confucius Institutes along the OBOR routes as a positive actor in promoting the exchange of information and mutual understanding.

Prof. Richard Griffiths, Leiden University, said it is a mistake to think of OBOR as just a link between the EU and China. It is realy linking the countries in the middle. If you want to engage in OBOR, there are a few rules to follow. First of all, yu have to find a country that is designated as a Belt & Road country (in total there are 66 such countries). Secondly, you find a project, such as a highway, raiway, power plant, pipeline or port construction. Anyone can join. Finally, you have to find money, either from the Belt & Road initiative or financial aid from the EU.

Daniel Guyader, EEAS, emphasises that OBOR is mostly about connectivity and infrastructure. There is nothing inherently new to the concept, since the EU has been promotinc cooperation since the early 1990s in Central Asia in sectors such as energy, transport and border management. The cultural dimension is interesting and similar to what the EU member states are doing. It is also important to ensure the sustainability of new projects. This is clear from the fact that green energy has become a buzz word. On a side note, connectivity also refers to the digital development of these regions. OBOR should also seek to involve other parnters, such as WTO for trade and ASEM for multilateral relations. Japan and Korea as individual countries can also help. To end, Daniel Guyader stresses the importance of transparancy to establish and maintain good governance. 

In his conclusion, Prof. Song Xinning notes that the Belt and Road initiative is a difficult subject to grasp, despite the plethora of publications. Is it an initative or a strategy? The Chinse uphold a business method of 'touching the stones while crossing the river', which means that there is no big plan ahead but instead constant feedback steers the project in new directions. Many of the projects are still bilateral, although the Belt and Road initiative is designed as a multilateral undertaking. Is OBOR mainly domestic or international or regional? It was mainly based on domestic development at first, but that slowly changes. Next to the involvement of the EU, also the presidency of Donald Trump needs to be factored into the equation. By killing TPP, he has taken a stance on international cooperation. In the long-term, OBOR will link China and the EU, but in the present, short-term phase, attention mainly revolves around Central Asia.