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The Role of Think Tanks, Regional and Global Security discussed at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation

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The APPFI was invited by the China Center for International Economic Exchanges to participate in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held last May 14 in Beijing. Xi Jinping delivered a major foreign policy address during the Opening Ceremony, centering on the significance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Other important guests who delivered remarks included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, Alexis Tsipras of Greece, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Christine Lagarde of IMF, among many others.

The official Philippine delegation was led by Pres Rodrigo Duterte and consisted of several Cabinet members and Undersecretaries. The Philippine contingent was also in Beijing to deliver presentations on the administration’s “Dutertenomics” program.

Immediately following the Opening Ceremony, Dr Baviera participated in a “Thematic Session on Think Tank Exchanges”, one of the major parallel side events of the Forum. The half-day meeting was organized by the Department of Publicity of the CPC Central Committee and sponsored by the China Center for International Economic Exchanges. It was attended by about 200 scholars and think tank analysts from all over the world. Dr Baviera spoke at a panel on the role of think tanks in the construction of the Belt and Road, facilitated by Prof Huang Jing (Director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy). Below are some highlights of her remarks:

The BRI is welcomed by many countries, anticipating its positive contributions especially in helping provide the infrastructure needs of developing countries. It may also bring an increase in trade not only with China but with other countries, as well as help boost production capacity and connectivity. It can potentially be a major contribution to spurring global growth and development, enhancing integration, increasing various countries’ stakes in cooperation, and hopefully reducing competition and conflict.

For China’s partner developing countries, however, BRI will be perceived and understood in the context of bilateral cooperation with China, rather than the grand vision presented by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Its impact will moreover be felt one project at a time. While there will be benefits, there are also risks and challenges that BRI will inevitably face, and some of the projects may result in problems – ranging from political (e.g., impact of domestic political changes or regime instability on some ongoing projects) to social (e.g. perceived lack of benefits or imbalance in distribution of benefits if only certain classes or groups gain advantage at the cost or neglect of others) to technical (e.g. lack of absorptive capacity of recipient country, incompatibility of technologies) to governance (e.g. rent-seeking behavior by vested interests) and environmental (e.g. resource degradation or depletion, pollution caused by infrastructure building).

For BRI to contribute to China’s soft diplomacy approach towards other countries, there will be a need for more success stories and tangible results. China by now has much experience in many different countries from which it can learn how to do things better.

In this above context, think tanks can play an important role in the success of the BRI, whether by working among stakeholders of the recipient countries or in cooperation with international counterparts. They can, for instance:

    • Bring together government, private sector and other domestic stakeholders, to help identify priority needs that will best result in win-win outcomes and extend the benefits to the larger population;
    • Identify possible pitfalls and challenges in project conceptualization until implementation, drawing from previous experiences, then if necessary, provide early warning to policymakers;
    • Provide management and legal advise to foreign entities unfamiliar with the culture, policy, and business environment of recipient country, especially with respect to the governance aspect, to prevent the failure of projects or public disappointment.

On the other hand, exchanges between think tanks of China and think tanks of partner countries may also serve these functions.

    • Jointly conduct periodic assessments of how BRI is impacting both the economy/society of recipient country and the overall bilateral relations with China, to ensure balanced and steady development.
    • Jointly promote cultural understanding through research collaboration, joint seminars, mutual visits.
    • Expand the modalities of successful cooperation to include other countries as are relevant, to explore further the benefits of multilateral connectivity.

Another side event of the Forum was the Fifth Global Think Tank Summit, which had the theme “Gathering Wisdom for Promoting Global Growth”. Dr. Baviera was asked to speak at the closed-door session on “Regional and Global Security: Situation and Prospect”. This session was organized by the China Center for International Economic Exchanges and was chaired by Fu Ying, who is Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress. Madame Fu Ying is also currently a Chief Expert at the National Institute of International Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Social Science. (Many in the Philippines will remember her as the feisty former Chinese ambassador to Manila, at the height of the disagreements over Scarborough Shoal in the late 1990s.)

In her remarks, Dr Baviera underscored the following ideas:

Belt and Road Initiative, as outlined by Pres Xi Jinping, indeed has potential impact on global security. China’s role is increasingly important in various parts of the world. But the BRI can be more meaningful to China if it can help in improving the security environment in its immediate neighborhood in East Asia – i.e. in its relations with Japan, in resolution of the Korean peninsula crisis, in the good management of cross-Straits relations, and in developing all-around relations with Southeast Asia/ASEAN, including on the Mekong River and South China Sea issues.

She said that Xi Jinping’s articulation of security composed of cooperative, comprehensive, common and sustainable security resonates well with ASEAN, which upon the end of the Cold War also upheld the first three as part of security multilateralism. This security concept will allow states to step back from over-emphasis on military buildups and strengthening of alliances.

The BRI apparently seeks to enhance globalization and economic interdependence, but whether these will prevent war or conflict entirely is not clear. One source of conflict is mistrust that arises from power asymmetry. In the case of China and its smaller neighbors, asymmetry is a given fact and will not go away, but one way of managing its impact on big power-small power dynamics is through ensuring rule-based behavior.

On the South China Sea, China and ASEAN should cooperate to manage this shared ocean space well. BRI and ASEAN’s Master Plan for ASEAN connectivity, through their maritime dimensions, can have coordinated programs. Good relations between China and ASEAN are vital to regional security and order-building efforts.