Connecting the connectivities: it’s time for regional initiatives to work together

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Anita Prakash
Anita Prakash

Director General of Policy Relations at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA)

Regional connectivity is on the rise worldwide. From Asia to Africa, continents are becoming increasingly interlinked through pan-regional initiatives. Asia is the trailblazer in this regard. Through projects such as the Masterplan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) and the Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM), Asia intends to deepen its economic dynamism and extend it to trans-regional partners.

As a significant partner of Asia, the European Union has put in place building blocks towards an ‘EU Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia’ with concrete policy proposals and initiatives, including through interoperable transport, energy and digital networks. The strategy seeks to ensure sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity.

The EU prioritises establishing partnerships for connectivity based on commonly agreed rules and standards. It also seeks to address sizeable investment gaps through improved mobilisation of financial resources and strengthened international partnerships.

The challenge is how to ensure greater coordination among the connectivity initiatives in the region. If well-managed, this could result in inclusive and sustainable development, increased social well-being for citizens and deepened trust among partners. A roadmap for developing synergy among the connectivity plans and measures must therefore be at the centre of the policy agenda.

ASEM’s connectivity-related activities are the most visible, as they run across all three pillars: political, economic and socio-cultural

‘Connectivity’ has always existed as an idea, but making practical use of it to determine development strategies and influence international relations is a recent phenomenon. ASEAN is generally credited with popularising the term, having made use of it when adopting the MPAC in 2011. The ASEAN approach to connectivity relies on community building and a well-established network. It strives for a more competitive and resilient ASEAN community. The MPAC 2025 broadens this vision to achieve a seamlessly and comprehensively integrated ASEAN.

In 2017, India and Japan, supported by multiple African and Asian countries, launched the AAGC with the aim of facilitating and enhancing economic growth in Asia and Africa. Here, the priority is placed on developing institutional and human resource capacity, connecting institutions with people, facilitating trade and improving technology and infrastructure on both continents. The AAGC is also aligned with Agenda 2030, giving funding priority to green projects.

China has also launched its own initiative in the form of the BRI. Unveiled in 2013, its overarching goal is to promote connectivity among the Asian, European and African continents and their adjacent seas. This is to be pursued by establishing and strengthening partnerships among member countries and realising diversified, independent, balanced and sustainable development. Financially, the BRI is mostly backed by strong financial resources commitments from China. However, decision-making on infrastructure projects is based on bilateral agreements with other governments.

The Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) takes a different approach to connectivity. It does not place the same emphasis on infrastructure as the BRI does, nor does it have the strong developmental and capacity-building contours of the AAGC. ASEM works as a multilateral platform of 51 countries in Asia and Europe with both formal and informal institutions. Its connectivity-related activities are the most visible, as they run across all three pillars: political, economic and socio-cultural.

Finding proper global standards for connectivity projects and activities is difficult but not impossible

In a global milieu, all of these connectivity plans are competing for space, resources, influence and results. Seeking convergence among competing connectivity plans may be a desirable policy objective but it is based on the faulty premise that all connectivity plans have similar objectives. The contours of the MPAC, AAGC and BRI are different in terms of their origins, partnerships, resources and the political and economic priorities of the promoters. Yet combining the strength of different connectivity plans behind globally agreed development goals and global governance mechanisms can create commonality of purpose and foster synergy.

The current discourse on connectivity is being driven by several trends. First off is the transformational changes in global governance and international relations. On top of that are also the aspirations of a younger demography, technological connectivity and the future of work. For this reason, the aforementioned initiatives are seeking greater emphasis on governance, standards, transparency and accountability.

The Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) has estimated that Asia would need to invest $26tn from 2016 to 2030, or $1.7tn per year, in infrastructure to continue its growth, eradicate poverty and ensure climate resilience. Financing of connectivity plans, transparency in project preparation and accountability in project execution are important global concerns. The example of BRI is important as it has attracted global attention. Numerous issues are at play, from planning and project design to financing and debt sustainability. It has also touched upon questions of territorial integrity and democracy. Controversies notably arose in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Laos and Montenegro regarding debt sustainability. These cases underline the disconnect between connectivity plans and development strategies.

Finding proper global standards for connectivity projects and activities is difficult but not impossible. Global development programmes and increased multilateralism can help create greater interlinkages between connectivity plans through governments, and regional and multilateral institutions. Just as the Bretton Woods established monetary rules and financial relations in the post-war years, global governance should reach and monitor various aspects and actors in connectivity plans. It is already evident in MPAC, AAGC and EU-Asia connectivity that triangular and multilateral cooperation for connectivity are producing more inclusive and sustainable plans due to greater oversight of project preparation processes and plan outcomes.

The challenge is to find the necessary impetus to create global standards and governance rules for connectivity plans

Clearly, the synergy in different connectivity plans is incumbent on common rules and standards. In terms of the practical aspects of trans-regional connectivity, there needs to be a common regime for the carriage of goods and people across continents. When it comes to rail and road transport, standards and regulations are required for technical specifications, safety management frameworks, the social and economic well-being of workers, competition policy and customs cooperation. Air and sea connectivity have international rules but will require calibration around new collaborations and routes. As for digital connectivity, a coherent regulatory approach and inclusive policies are needed to bridge the digital divide and to promote a peaceful, secure and open ICT environment that includes data protection.

The challenge is to find the necessary impetus to create global standards and governance rules for connectivity plans. This can be drawn from the broad commitment to put people and their prosperity at the core of connectivity programmes. Employing good governance and accountability as drivers, the plans must work towards the goals of sustainable development and inclusive growth. When connectivity plans converge with regional, national, and global development priorities, monitoring of plans will likely become easier.

Finally, the monitoring and regulatory mechanisms must ensure that connectivity plans are not used as a foil for regional leadership. Nor should they seek to export debt problems in the promoter country or group of countries. Policymakers are working towards global standards for contemporary issues of taxation, digital finance, Internet, data ownership and transfer, artificial intelligence, etc. Global consensus around climate change, the Sustainable Development Goals, multilateralism and global trade is also being renewed. It is only logical that global and regional mechanisms for monitoring and regulation of connectivity plans should ensure that these plans enhance economic and social well-being among citizens and create trust among partners.

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