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The Belt and Road Initiative: promoting peace in a post-pandemic world?

18 June 2020 Bernardo Mariani and Robert Swaine The Belt and Road Initiative: promoting peace in a post-pandemic world?

Since its launch in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative has faced plenty of challenges but none quite like those posed by COVID-19. Bernardo Mariani and Robert Swaine look at how the initiative might emerge from the pandemic more streamlined and outline the approach necessary to ensure peace along its path.

It is impossible to make accurate predictions of the global impact of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 and what the post-pandemic world will look like. What is certain however is that China, as a major economic force, will emerge from the crisis with a crucial role to play in helping steer the global economic recovery. This will have wider consequences for peace and stability around the world.

During the Two Sessions 2020 (Lianghui) – China’s most important annual political meetings held at the end of May this year – Premier Li Keqiang stated that “faced with changes in the external environment, we must stay committed to opening our door wider to the world.” Statements like this indicate that while travel restrictions, lockdowns, local COVID-19 outbreaks and China’s slowing economy will affect the execution of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the short-term, the initiative will almost certainly remain central to President Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s future and its outward engagement with the world. In other words, the BRI will not be hastily abandoned but it may emerge updated and transformed.

In countries of great strategic importance to China, such as Myanmar, there is no evidence to indicate that China will stop using the BRI as a vehicle for increasing investments and the accompanying influence they bring. With foreign direct investments from the US, Europe and Japan likely to decrease as their attention turns inward, it will be harder still for the poorer economies of fragile and conflict-affected countries around the world to resist the lure of further BRI investments.

COVID-19 presents an urgency to do things differently, and as a critical part of the global economic system, China’s performance in raising corporate accountability standards and enforcing rigorous supply chain due diligence will have considerable influence on conflict resolution and peacebuilding in the post-pandemic world. There is a pressing need to intensify the focus on peace and security in relation to Chinese investment through the BRI. With post-pandemic tensions likely to be high, political sensitivities acute and logistical challenges further complicated, BRI planners and implementers must take extra caution to deliver projects in a conflict-sensitive manner.

Chinese investment has the potential to transform people’s lives for the better but also the potential to exacerbate conflict. Fragile contexts are vulnerable to the unpredictable socio-economic fallout of COVID-19 and we are likely to see increased division and tension over access to resources and power, especially in countries where tensions have already existed for a long time. For companies operating in these contexts, adopting a conflict-sensitive approach means properly knowing the environment in which they operate and fully understanding the specific power dynamics, divisions, grievances and other drivers of conflict that exist in each unique place. It also means understanding the ways in which their investments might worsen or ease these tensions.

Conducting meaningful conflict and peacebuilding analysis is a crucial activity when starting or restarting any project in a fragile environment and must become institutionalised within the framework for delivering BRI projects. This is one way of identifying practical steps in which investments can have a positive impact and working with communities and authorities to find solutions early so as to avoid exacerbating, or to help reduce, local tensions that may lead to conflict. Conflict analysis is vital but alone it is not enough. It must be part of a wider process that also includes monitoring and evaluation of how the recommended actions that emerge from the analysis are incorporated and implemented into operational plans, particularly those that help avoid making conflict worse or more likely.

The space must be created to support people and communities to engage with both their own authorities and with foreign investors – including Chinese firms involved in the BRI – on matters of peace and security to ensure that any concerns or potential grievances are acknowledged and addressed in the immediate project design and delivery, and that ultimately these investments contribute to improving longer term prospects for peace and prosperity.

Ensuring a positive long-term impact

As discussed in a previous Saferworld blog, in the face of growing controversies and opposition, Chinese political and business leaders have committed to a more people-centred approach in the execution of BRI projects. But, while the rhetoric may be compelling, actual engagement with communities remains at best superficial.

Outreach to communities must be in the forefront of BRI project design, with investors turning words into action by setting aside a dedicated fund for targeted engagement with civil society and communities to ensure genuine dialogue on the implications of their project for local peace and security. An open and transparent fund could be used to set up effective platforms to bring company representatives, local authorities and communities together to discuss the impact of a project on people’s social, political and economic aspirations, highlight any environmental concerns and seek ways to avoid them, and to discuss how the project could help tackle other grievances in the longer-term.

Taking action like this helps to build long-term trust between company, local authorities and community, and ensures greater sustainability in terms of the peace and security implications of a project. Focusing on the sustainable impact of any project is good for business and good for communities. Setting up local fora and long-term initiatives through which to engage directly with people is crucial to achieving this.

In a post-pandemic world, as Chinese policy and business sectors begin to better recognise the growing potential for backlash against continuing overseas economic expansion and the costs of failing to properly evaluate their social impact when working in fragile and conflict-affected states, improving their own conflict sensitivity – how they understand and engage positively with the people and politics in their project locations – is an increasingly sound investment and one they can ill afford to ignore.

Photo: Construction workers work on the new standard gauge railway line near Voi town, Kenya, linking the capital Nairobi to the port of Mombasa, as part of China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative. March 16, 2016. (Credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)