The challenges for OBOR in Europe and Middle East: a preliminary analysis – Julien FORTIN et Laura MERENDA

By Julien FORTIN, member of We-Search, and Laura MERENDA, intern at the EU. Julien et Laura are both master graduated in international relations (ULB and Tongji University – Shanghai).

This article was written in the course of March 2016, in the framework of a university course at the Tongji University of Shanghai. It is followed by a methodological comment by Pauline Claessens, president of We-Search and graduate in EU and adminsitrative studies.


November 13, 2015. This date sounds in France like an awful memory, an awful anniversary. For the second time the same year, Paris suffered terrorist attacks. A total of 130 deaths was numbered in November, in three different places through the capital city. Among the terrorists, some were coming from Europe, especially from France and Belgium, and some others from Middle East countries, such as Iraq. To come to Europe, the men pretended to be refugees and used fake passports from Syria, as demonstrates the presence of these documents near to the bodies after they blew up [1]. Two men have been stopped in Austria (one originally comes from Algeria and the other one from Pakistan); they were supposed to attack a fourth place in Paris [2]. Here, terrorism seems to be linked to another important issue for Europe: migrants. By pretending to be part of them, the terrorists used the same way to come on the continent. They first joined Turkey and paid the right to pass, like other migrants. Then, they finally joined Greece through the sea [3].

In 2015, migration to the European Union increased a lot because of geopolitics instabilities in its vicinity. Migration is not a recent issue in Europe. However, with the development of conflicts in the Middle East, it became massive. Indeed, the United Nations (UN) and the International Organization for Migration announced 1 million of people migrated to the European Union in 2015 [4]. Moreover, according these two organizations, another million of migrants could arrive in the European Union in 2016 [5]. In the meantime, economic problems have developed. Europe claims that the continent cannot accommodate everyone. First and foremost, the problem of migration concerns some European states because migrants cannot move without authorization in the European Union. 80% out of 1 million migrants stayed in Greece. Most of the people flee their country because of war. Indeed, in 2015, 50% of migrants came from Syria, 20% from Afghanistan and 7% from Iraq [6]. They are looking for security. Others are searching for a better economic situation. They think of the European Union as an economic Eldorado where they could find a job and ensure their family a good life [7]. However, whereas a new beginning, they face a life in slums, like in Calais in France or Lampedusa in Italy. Concretely, migrants risk their security, their family’s life, by leaving their hometown and then having to face a new adversity in Europe.

One Belt One Road (OBOR) – also named the Modern Silk Road – is a project developed by President Xi Jinping and its government in order to develop China and other Asian states. It was first presented in the Autumn 2013. The project links Asia to Europe through the development of infrastructures on the continents, such as railways, and through the sea. The exchanges of goods but also of people would be facilitated. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) needs to develop its own Western region and other Asian countries could bring economic benefits to Beijing. Then, investments have been done: the Asian Investments and Infrastructures Bank (AIIB) has been created with a budget of 50 billion US dollars and a fund for the Modern Silk Road has been estimated at 40 billion US dollars [8]. One of the main difficulty for OBOR is to face the economic and political instabilities in the Middle East region. Business activities are threatened in this context [9]. One Belt One Road has been created in order to help countries face their problems. This challenge is important for states like Syria or Iraq, which have suffered war for several years. By developing their infrastructures, OBOR could hence raise a better economy, not only in China, but also in the Middle East region. The economic integration on the world stage of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Central Asia would be an important success for OBOR [10]. Most of the transportations between Shanghai and Europe follow the Modern Silk Road alignment. However, 40% of the travel time is lost because of the time spent to cross the borders [11]. OBOR would reduce the time travel. However, all European countries are not directly a part of the Modern Silk Road. For example, France is not on the road. Nonetheless, it is very important for the country: OBOR touches its neighbours, Germany, Belgium and Italy. Furthermore, even though it is not integrated officially to the Modern Silk Road, Paris has reached the agreement to be a founding member of the AIIB, that finances One Belt One Road. A final point is that the European Union is based on the idea to erase the borders. France is a part of the Schengen area, just like its neighbours. Consequently, a free access to its markets is possible once the merchandises and/or people arrive in Europe.

Most of the refugees are obligated to flee their country. The majority of them would have preferred to stay in their state. But because of war and economic reasons, they try to join Europe. One Belt One Road will help raising the economy and could thus favour a reduction of the flow of migrants. By giving them jobs, people would have better life conditions. Investments in OBOR’s development would have a huge impact on the economic structure along the Middle East countries. OBOR could have a good influence and an important role in the economic reconstruction of the Middle East [12]. This is not without any consequences on the security issue. As developed above, terrorists from Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) used the illegal migration to come to Europe in order to realize terrorist attacks in Paris. Nevertheless, if the number of migrants gets strongly reduced, because of the improvement of life conditions in their countries thanks to OBOR, the illegal way to come to Europe would also be limited. Smugglers are numerous nowadays because it is a quick way to get enormous benefits. Nonetheless, the lesser migrants there are, the lesser the market is profitable. Consequently, it would become more complicated for ISIS’ terrorists to come in Europe without being spotted. When migrants are numerous, it is complicated for authorities to check properly everyone. The reduction of migrant flows would also enforce the controls at the European borders, as custom officers would have a less people to check.

Even though OBOR seems to be a solution to limit the refugee crises and terrorism in Europe, it can also paradoxically bring other issues. A testimony of Muhammad Qasim related in L’Obs develops that the men left the Xinjiang province when he was a kid in order to join Pakistan by using the old Silk Road [13]. At this time, people were already able to travel by using the alignment of the Road. By creating new infrastructures like railways and highways, One Belt One Road enforces the possibility for people to migrate. But if people can easily move, it is also valid for terrorists. The lack of borders is useful for them; they can travel by avoiding checks. Furthermore, the lack of communication between the European countries has been enlightened with the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris in January and November 2015, but also in Belgium on March 22, 2016. Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton put to light the communication problem just after the attack of Zaventem and Brussels [14]. The European Union is a community where countries are used to working together for a long time. However, it still has difficulties to communicate. This issue could grow with reducing the barriers of many other countries.

Another problem is facing One Belt One Road: the lack of interest from European countries in the project. Most of them agree on the importance of OBOR on an economic point of view. However, civil society remains distant about the project. When we tried to contact some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that work in Europe to help refugees, most of them did not reply. One of the organization wrote that it is unable to answer to our questions because it is not linked to its project. Journalists seem also skeptical. Most of them did not reply to us and when they did, they just explain that they could not help us because they are not specialized on the subject. The same idea was developed by scholars: OBOR is a new topic and they do not know enough to answer. Like the other groups, most of them did not replay to our emails when we asked for interviews. Then, it seems that for European, OBOR is seen as a project that can bring economic benefits but nothing else.

Finally, One Belt One Road seems to have a problem of implementation. Each states that OBOR  is crossing will participate to constructions and implementation of its new infrastructures. Nevertheless, stability of each state remains a problem. A state involved in war cannot have a successful implementation of OBOR. Indeed, One Belt One Road need a peaceful domestic environment and domestic resource allocation to develop itself. The situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have to be improved before to begin to construct structures of OBOR [15].

One Belt One Road is important for economic issues in Middle East. By developing infrastructures, China hopes to get a stability that could benefit everyone. This stability does not just concern economic topics, but also political ones. The Modern Silk Road also deals with security issues on the old continent. Better economic and political life in Middle East can reduce the flow of refugees. Moreover, this reduction can complicate the travel of terrorists to Europe. However, OBOR can also paradoxically facilitate their journey as the barriers will be reduced at the boarders. Consequently, challenges are awaiting the project. Furthermore, complications could not be developed only in Europe. Indeed, China faces problems with Xinjiang and is afraid that this population could get help from Turkey, that is also a part of One Belt One Road [16].


Comment by Pauline Claessens, president of We-Search and graduate in EU and adminsitrative studies

This introduction on the functioning on the One Belt One Road tells us something interesting regarding research: that is is not always simple to find the relevant information when conducting an investigation. As it was noted above, skepticism and lack of interest of diverse actors linked to the projet tends to complicate any attempts at understanding how such an initiative can be created and gather diverse European and non-European actors. But this raises numerous interesting questions on how the project even came to life. How can China be a agenda-setter on this matter? What can explain such an investment? And how can European countries accept such a programme, when politicians tend to stand for closing the borders? How are the relations between EU countries and China impacted? Additional questions on how come the project is not more known in Europe can also arise.

When reading a piece of writing generates such questions, it is quite obvious to recognize that it would make a great subject for research. Researching is no more than an attempt at understanding something that can’t be figured out out of the blue. Research on this topic could be based on theories of international relations, such as realism or idealism, or the “game theory”, it could refer to constructivism or rational choice theories. The hardest part would be both to choose an open question to answer (those noted above are mere examples), and one or more approaches to answer it. Then, the research would have to develop hypotheses, determine if they are verified or not, or more probably, in between, based on empirical observations. In this latter realm, more choices will have to be made: will the researcher use newspaper articles, official communications, speeches, or make interviews? And in the end, when all of these choices are made, when most of the uncertainties regarding the conduct of the research project are solved, then the research is on track, the “science baby” on its way to come to light. And the hard work can begin.


[1] « Attentats à Paris : ce que l’on sait des terroristes », Le Parisien, November 15, 2015

[2] SEELOW Soren, « Attentats du 13 novembre : le mystérieux commando interpellé en Autriche a été identifié », Le Monde, March 9, 2016.

[3] SEELOW Soren, « Attentats du 13 novembre : les confessions du quatrième commando », Le Monde, April 26, 2016.

[4] AFP and REUTERS, Un million de migrants sont arrivés en Europe en 2015, France 24, 22 December 2015

[5] SPUTNIK NEWS, Un million de migrants arriveront en Europe en 2016, 08 February 2016

[6] AFP and REUTERS, op.cit.

[7] SPUTNIK NEWS, op.cit.

[8] ROLLAND Nadège, « La nouvelle Route de la soie. Les ambitions chinoises en Eurasie », Politique Etrangère, Autumn 2015, p. 135.

[9] China-Britain Business Council and Foreign & Commonwealth Office, « A role for UK companies in developing China’s new initiative. New opportunities in China and beyond », p. 13.

[10] MARTEL Frédéric, « La politique étrangère chinoise prend la route de la soie », Slate FR, March 29, 2015.

[11] LECHEVRY Christian, CABESTAN Jean-Pierre, CREPIN Marc, FARCIS Sébastien, BILLETTE Alexandre, VITKINE Benoît, « La nouvelle route de la soie », France Culture, January 31, 2016.

[12] Interview of SONG, Niu

[13] « Sur la nouvelle route chinoise de la soie, le boom ou que la poussière ? », L’Obs, November 23, 2015.

[14] « Attentats : Hillary Clinton épingle les renseignements européens », BFM TV, March 24, 2016.

[15] Interview with SONG, Niu

[16] LECHEVRY Christian, CABESTAN Jean-Pierre, CREPIN Marc, FARCIS Sébastien, BILLETTE Alexandre, VITKINE Benoît, loc. cit.

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