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Finding common ground: US-China cooperation along the Belt and Road

1 April 2019 Bernardo Mariani and Jason Calder Finding common ground: US-China cooperation along the Belt and Road

China’s global development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, spans many conflict-affected parts of the world. A meeting on 15 March, hosted by Saferworld, in Washington DC brought together several experts to explore areas where China and the US can cooperate to contribute to peace and development.

Much has been said about how Chinese investments abroad affect local economies or can lead to tensions with the US. Less has been said about how the two global powers might work together to ensure their investments, including along China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multi-billion dollar array of infrastructure projects throughout Eurasia and Africa, could contribute to peace. While China’s footprint becomes ever greater, Western governments and other actors have a critical role to play to ensure that tensions between the two superpowers and competition for influence don’t harm prospects for peace and security in communities affected by conflict. According to an old African proverb: ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers…’

As part of a new Saferworld project, we are working to better understand China’s engagement in countries along the Belt and Road and how projects and investments falling under this initiative affect peace processes and peacebuilding efforts. We’re also promoting more discussion around this topic among a range of parties – both in China and internationally. Last year, we organised meetings in Vienna and Beijing, with the Washington discussion being the most recent of this global dialogue process.

Earlier this month in Washington DC, we brought together eight scholars and experts to talk about peace and security implications of China’s flagship project, as well as about opportunities for greater cooperation between China and the US.

As China’s power and influence grow, cooperation with the US on building peace and stability is in short supply. In the current political climate of tensions over trade, risks of confrontation in the South China Sea and the recent US accusations against Huawei, advocating a recalibration of US-China relations towards cooperation on peace and security runs against the dominant narrative of great power rivalry and conflict. Some even point to the danger of a new era of geopolitical competition akin to the Cold War, where poor and fragile countries get caught in the middle of an all-consuming superpower struggle.

But the reality is that China and the US engage in many conflict-affected contexts, often side by side, and they encounter a range of common challenges – for example, complicated relationships with local actors, financial investments, their reputations on the world stage, and the safety of their own citizens. While they are strategic competitors, they also have shared interests and concerns to promote the consolidation of peace and regional security.

The main question – and one with which participants tried to grapple in the meeting – is how and where the two superpowers could cooperate in support of peace, human security and stability along the Belt and Road. Could such cooperation translate into joint efforts to support those living in contexts affected by poverty, instability and violence? And what are the specific issues they could focus on? Some potential areas for cooperation were outlined in the meeting, including improving responses to crises, joint measures for de-escalation and conflict prevention, measures to prevent illicit weapons proliferation, promoting more effective and people-centred approaches to UN peacekeeping, and providing aid that is sensitive to conflict dynamics.

The knowledge and expertise in the room led to some good brainstorming on these and other points which will need more in-depth and constructive dialogue in the near future. In particular:

  • There is a need for innovative thinking to create the conditions necessary for China and the US to cooperate on peace in conflict regions.
  • There are contexts where Chinese and US interests and opportunities to contribute to development overlap more than they clash. The balance of needs and opportunities for engagement suggests that a more cooperative approach is not only desirable, but also practical and mutually beneficial. Some participants suggested this might be the case in countries like Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan and South Sudan, where common ground may provide incentives for increased cooperation.
  • Past efforts at China-US collaboration on counterterror and counter-piracy faltered because of sensitivities around intelligence-sharing. But there could be less sensitive areas where dialogue could still be useful, such as non-traditional security threats (like health and food safety in Africa, humanitarian assistance and working towards shared global commitments, like on poverty reduction).
  • Given the crucial role they play in financing infrastructure and their cooperation with Western institutions, there’s a need to engage with financial institutions like the China Development Bank, the Export-Import Bank of China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank on their engagement with fragile and conflict-affected states and how the finance they provide affects local conflict dynamics.

The meeting participants offered plenty of enthusiasm and food for thought which we think can develop into new ideas for cooperative actions that China and the U.S. might take to promote peace along the Belt and Road.

See our previous blog on the peace and security implications of the BRI.

Photo: Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture