Authors: Shada Islam, College of Europe, Dr Yeo Lay Hwee, EU Centre, Singapore and Bart Gaens, Finnish Institute of International Relations
The 13th Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) on 25–26 November 2021 confirmed ASEM’s ambitions to become the ‘institutional home of connectivity’. The summit issued an outcome document on ‘the way forward on ASEM connectivity’, describing connectivity as the basis for regional economic integration by facilitating the exchange of information and improving the planning of activities. The summit chair’s statement emphasised quality infrastructure investment in line with agreed international standards.
These are good initiatives, but they are not enough to ensure that global connectivity actors work together transparently to fund much-needed infrastructure projects in Asia and Europe — rather than fund damaging and wasteful geopolitical rivalries. As a next step, ASEM should kickstart work on a multilateral framework for connectivity, accompanied by a connectivity code of conduct for those involved.
As meeting of 53 partners from the Eurasian continent, ASEM has placed connectivity high on its agenda since 2014. At the 10th ASEM Summit in 2014,leaders highlighted the ‘significance of connectivity between the two regions to economic prosperity and sustainable development’. The 11th ASEM Summit in 2016 established the ASEM Pathfinders Group on Connectivity (APGC), agreeing on a definition for connectivity in 2017. Connectivity is understood as a process that brings countries, people and societies closer together, as well as a means through which to foster deeper political, economic and social ties.
ASEM’s focus on connectivity is justified. The Asian Development Bank predicts that Asia alone must invest US$26 trillion between 2016 to 2030, or US$1.7 trillion per year, to maintain growth momentum, eradicate poverty and respond to climate change. Connectivity can improve people’s lives, boost mobility, improve competitiveness and enhance trade and investment. Indeed, quality infrastructure is indispensable for achieving the Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals.
But a great deal remains to be done. There is an urgent need to agree on rules for global connectivity. For connectivity to contribute to building trust and sustainable peace, it needs to be underpinned by a set of principled codes and norms. This is essential to avoid overlap and waste, as well as to prevent connectivity from becoming an adversarial, zero-sum geopolitical game.
States are currently pursuing separate and often conflicting connectivity agendas. There is a lack of clear communication between connectivity actors, often resulting in the wasteful duplication of initiatives. Such duplication is evident in the overlap between China’s Belt and Road initiative and Japan and India’s Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, as well as more recent initiatives like the US Blue Dot network, the EU’s Global Gateway strategy and the G7’s Build Back Better World
Competition between initiatives can be a positive influence insofar as it improves service delivery and drives down costs. But infrastructure is a vital public good that requires responsible connectivity actors, strong governance and a rules-based multilateral framework to prevent zero-sum competition and ensure it compliments the global climate agenda. Rival strategies and counter plans are straining an already tense geopolitical environment, with competing regional and national plans for lucrative infrastructure projects transforming the much-needed connectivity agenda into a new Great Game.
A true multilateralisation of the global connectivity agenda is needed — a goal ASEM can make a key contribution towards. At the 2018 ASEM summit, leaders agreed that connectivity projects should be ‘fiscally, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, comprehensive across sectors and financial frameworks and rules-based’. This statement should form the basis of a new global rulebook for all connectivity projects. ASEM is well-placed to kickstart this process because it brings together key connectivity actors.
Its working methods — including functional, issued-based cooperation — and its working group framework, can facilitate a dialogue on the different dimensions of connectivity and the underlying rules and principles for connectivity cooperation. Within ASEM, the EU can use its convening power and experience of multilateral procedures to kick-start negotiations on a multi-stakeholder connectivity code of conduct.
Connectivity rules and standards, including detailed connectivity governance, arbitration, transparency and accountability, will have to be further developed through consultations and negotiations. Discussions will have to focus on the nuts and bolts of interoperability, technical specifications, safety management, customs cooperation and more. Developing a connectivity code of conduct will inevitably involve all the multilateral lending banks — including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Asian Development Bank.
Connectivity actors can take the process further by agreeing on a voluntary, non-legally binding but jointly agreed ‘code of conduct’ to regulate investment, ensure transparency and adhere to the multilateral rules-based connectivity framework. An international consensus would also ensure that connectivity projects are aligned with Agenda 2030, with a special focus on eliminating inequality through women’s empowerment and the education of girls.
In the next phase, connectivity could become part of the WTO — where plurilateral agreements are already rapidly becoming the norm — or a special body could be set up to specifically enhance connectivity governance. Building on the groundwork completed so far, ASEM is the ideal venue to develop the ambitious yet indispensable notion of underpinning connectivity with a set of multilateral rules.
Shada Islam is Visiting Professor at the College of Europe, Natolin and a Solvay Fellow at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Dr Yeo Lay Hwee is Director of the EU Centre in Singapore.
Bart Gaens is Leading Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Relations.
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