At first glance, there is little that connects China and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

 The Organization emerged as a platform for dialogue between East and West during the Cold War and was transformed into a permanent institution in 1995 with the main mandate to increase security based on a cooperative approach for its 57 participating States as well as for the more than one billion citizens living in those countries.

China was never thought to become a member of the OSCE, an organization that has adopted a so-called comprehensive approach to security, looking not only at military aspects of security but also at the economy, the environment and human rights.

Yet, several key OSCE documents emphasize the importance of security in the immediate neighborhood of the OSCE region. For example, the 2010 OSCE Astana Summit Declaration noted that “the security of the OSCE area is inextricably linked to that of adjacent areas, notably in the Mediterranean and in Asia”.

Despite this emphasis and the fact that China shares a border with the OSCE participating states Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Mongolia, there has not been any serious attempt to launch an institutionalized dialogue with China thus far.

China is also not among the OSCE Asian Partners for Cooperation. The partnership to date only includes Afghanistan, Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Thailand.

Yet, China’s increasing footprint in the OSCE region as well as its many shared security interests are more than evident.

Since the launch of the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, China has invested considerable sums of money in several OSCE participating states, specifically within three subregions: Central Asia, the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe, and the Western Balkans.

By the end of 2020, almost 93 bn USD had been realized through investment and construction contracts in those three regions. 55 bn USD in Central Asia, 21 bn USD in the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe, and 18 bn USD in the Western Balkans.

In all three subregions, China’s main interest is to modernize transport infrastructure in order to improve access to European markets. This brings along enormous geopolitical implications.

In Central Asia, China has invested heavily in transport infrastructure but also in energy, raw materials and agricultural products. The lion share of Chinese money is invested in Kazakhstan, mostly in the country’s oil production, with Chinese companies now in control of approximately 25 percent of that sector.

In terms of invested project volume in Central Asia, Uzbekistan comes second, followed by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

In addition, Central Asia faces several security challenges and stability concerns that also China wants to see mitigated. Most recently those have been associated with the negative spillover from Afghanistan, an OSCE partner state. The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and resulting instability in the country after the Taliban takeover poses a significant transnational security threat to the Central Asian OSCE participating states.

Given China’s enormous investment in Central Asia, Beijing shares the interest of maintaining stability in the region.

In light of the increasing Chinese footprint and overlapping security concerns, we believe that there is enough reason to argue for the launch of an institutionalized cooperation between China and the OSCE.

In a recent comprehensive report published by the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, as well as in an article for OSCE Insights published by the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, we have therefore presented several recommendations on how the OSCE could engage with China.

We would like to repeat some of the most important recommendations here and add additional ones in light of recent developments.

While we believe that it is necessary in the long-term to institutionalize cooperation between the OSCE and China, there could also be other ways to engage China less formally. Such steps can be implemented quickly, long before a formal OSCE strategy is articulated.

One suggestion would be to launch a Track-2 initiative, such as a conference or a series of workshops, to consider possible joint activities between the OSCE and Chinese officials or academics. This would be a first step towards more direct engagement between the OSCE and China. It could provide scientific and technical expertise to inform policy processes on both sides and gradually evolve into a Track-1.5 or Track-1 level engagement.

For example, an event could be co-convened with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), as well as potentially the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).  Among the themes that such a Track-2 initiative could explore would be closer cooperation on border security in Central Asia.

Here, the OSCE has significant expertise and runs a Border Management Staff College in Dushanbe. Cooperation could focus on international best practices of a human security-centered approach to border management that is attentive to gender, is culturally sensitive, and prioritizes the do-no-harm principle.

Another theme could consider connectivity, and possibly also involve the European Union (EU) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). These two organizations have their own connectivity agendas, which partially overlap, and partially compete, with that of China’s BRI, but all of which emphasize the importance of trade facilitation, financial cooperation, and closer people-to-people contacts.

Moreover, the EU’s Global Gateway, as well as the US Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative, are specifically aimed at providing an alternative to the BRI. With connectivity high on the agenda of OSCE since the Swiss chairpersonship in 2014 and the 2016 Hamburg Ministerial Council Decision on “Strengthening Good Governance and Promoting Connectivity”, this would offer an excellent opportunity for in-depth reflection on similarities and differences in the existing approaches to connectivity and for identifying areas of cooperation, such as an approach post-pandemic recovery that focuses on increasing the economic, social, and institutional resilience underpinning connectivity.

This could also include discussions on how best to manage the environmental impact of the projects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative on OSCE participating States. Here, the OSCE could provide a forum in which common rules and principles of environmental governance can be negotiated.

A third area where there are shared concerns between OSCE participating States and China is the evolving situation around the crisis in Afghanistan. This affects particularly, but not exclusively, the participating States in Central Asia. Again, such an event could initially be co-convened with the SCO (which also includes, among others, Pakistan and Iran as two important neighboring states of Afghanistan).

Such an event would also provide an opportunity for the OSCE to raise its own profile and relevance as a comprehensive security actor in Central Asia (and beyond). This, in turn, would offer a better basis for more informed and purposeful engagement with China as an increasingly relevant actor in the OSCE region.

Important as they are, such Track-2 initiatives are not a substitute for a longer-term strategy. Thus, in parallel to, and using insights gained from Track-2 engagements, the OSCE needs to begin to form a minimal consensus on engagement with China. OSCE executive structures and institutions, as well as the Chair and the Troika, should begin by identifying future scenarios for relations with China.

Using scenario planning as a tool for both consensus building and policy making could be helpful in sensitizing participating states to the implications of China’s presence. This could provide the basis for the parameters within which cooperation with China could be conducted.

Adopting a pragmatic approach to China could involve granting China observer status in the OSCE. This could gradually evolve into a partnership more specifically tailored to China’s size and significance. A potential OSCE Summit in 2025 would be an appropriate forum for formalizing such a relationship.

A pragmatic approach, however, should not be unprincipled. It will be necessary and important to try and engage with China on the basis of the OSCE’s comprehensive security concept and not ignore its human dimension. Even if there is little hope at present that China will have an interest in this topic, we still think that China recognizes that social and economic inequalities fuel grievances that in turn drive conflict and instability.

This shared interest creates opportunities for engagement with China within a comprehensive framework in which human and minority rights are firmly established. After all, engagement with China must not lead to a further weakening of the OSCE human dimension that is already under a lot of pressure.

Co-authored with Stephanie Liechtenstein and originally published on the IIP Peace Blog.