Connections from north to south
Here in Pakistan, the talk of the town is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. But in Eastern Europe, another north to south connectivity project is creating headlines in a similar fashion: The Three Seas Initiative. With a view to facilitate interconnectivity in energy, infrastructure, and digitalisation projects in Central and Eastern Europe, the initiative was launched in 2015 by Croatia and Poland, but these two states have since been joined by ten others in the region, from Lithuania to Romania to Slovenia. The three seas that the initiative gives nod to in its name are those that border the region, precisely the Baltic, the Black and the Adriatic.
On paper, the initiative is purely economic in nature and provides promising opportunity for the nations in the east of Europe to build more substantial connections with the west of Europe. Up until now, Central and Eastern Europe has relied considerably on Russia for its energy imports, perhaps more than they would like. This initiative, which seeks to capitalise on liquefied natural gas terminals and diversify energy resources, will consequently reduce the need for Russian gas imports in the region.
Moreover, the Three Seas initiative will serve to develop energy and infrastructure connections along the north-south axis, a unique proposition considering most of the existing gas pipelines and highways flow primarily east to west. There is even talk of a water corridor, connecting the Danube, Elbe and Oder rivers, as well as a digital and telecommunication platform to enhance digital trade and link the region with fibre-optics and 5G technology infrastructure.
Scratching the surface of the initiative may reveal some significant geopolitical motives. The buzz of a resurging Russia has revived fears and apprehensions of the Eastern bloc that Russia has regained its ability to expand and project its power abroad. It seems as though, under the premise of an economic project, the Eastern bloc has designed deterrence in the form of the Three Seas Initiative.
In theory, the forty-eight proposed megaprojects that make up the initiative would inevitably form a belt around the Russian frontier with the European peninsula and block Russia from encroaching west-ward. The success of this initiative naturally hinges on its financing. This is a costly venture, and although the Three Seas Investment Fund has disposed 100 billion euros, estimates are that it would require nearly 600 billion euros more. This financing may likely come from other financial institutions like the European Investment Bank or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but an external patron could well be the initiative’s saving grace.
The Eastern nations of Europe are in luck; with a pledge to contribute in the financing of the initiative, the United States has thrown both its financial and political backing behind the project. President Trump, in addressing the Three Seas Initiative Summit in 2017, has acknowledged and lauded the geopolitical motives behind the project – “[to] ensure [Eastern European] nations remain sovereign, secure and free from foreign coercion.” Whether, the US continues to remain steadfast on the $1 billion it recently committed at the Munich Security Conference early this year, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a debate for another day.
Ultimately, a game-plan like the Three Seas runs parallel to the job of NATO, the essential trans-Atlantic military alliance that has for decades, acted as a key guarantor of European security. However, with increasing rifts and frictions from within NATO, as well as the mounting pressure from the Trump administration as the American president badgers the European states to contribute and commit more defense spending whilst also expand NATO into other non-defense areas, European entities may need to explore other alternatives for deterring conflict. Thus, the Three Seas is a welcome initiative for states that feel most threatened, like Poland and the Baltic states. As some would argue, while looking out for economic incentives, Europe must regain its prominence as a more geopolitically minded player.
In the international arena, to become a geopolitically minded player, a state would find it beneficial to utilise its location to its full geo-strategic advantage. These advantages do not always have to be in the military domain; rather economic gains are a prominent aspect of geopolitical advantages. The name of the game is regional connectivity. This resonates with us back home, as we bank on CPEC and other related infrastructure projects of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and await to yield the fortune that they promise. As we sit here in South Asia, easily one of the least inter-connected regions of the world, we must remember that in this gigantic game of geopolitics, we can all be winners here. In a neighbourhood like ours, it is easy to think our moves are limited, but just maybe, if we look closely, we realise, our location could very well be our winning chance.