A Romanian Perspective on the Three Seas Initiative
The Three Seas Initiative is a recent formula describing an older concept. Romania is a reflexive supporter of regional cooperation initiatives, but it is paying special attention to this initiative, as it encompasses a geopolitically significant area with relevance to long-term Romanian interests. This paper argues that this valuable initiative has a latent geopolitical subtext with regards to the two powers flanking the region which is perceived as such, if not commonly articulated, by the countries of the initiative. At the same time, the Black Sea will be a main deciding factor for the success and failure of the Initiatives, owing to several underlying conditions, as well as potential complicating factors. Any sort of Three Seas Initiative development will have to keep this in mind or else risk a concentration of vulnerabilities in the middle portion of the Initiative’s geographical space. The Three Seas Initiative must also be regarded from the perspective of synergies with Chinese initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the 16+1 cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries.
Since its inaugural summit in Dubrovnik in 2016, the Three Seas Initiative (also spoken of as the Baltic, Adriatic, Black Sea or the Trimarium) has garnered significant attention from actors projecting their own interests and aspirations unto what is currently still a mostly blank canvas. Its 12 member states have defined a concrete interest in developing regional infrastructure linkages in transport and energy, especially on a North-South axis but, as of yet, the institutional profile of the Initiative still amounts to a forum for discussion and coordination and new directions are hinted at, including in security. President Donald Trump’s full-throated endorsement of the concept during the Warsaw Summit in July 2017 projected a significant spotlight on the nascent construct, generating opportunities, credibility and political capital, but also raising expectations and pressures to perform early in the Initiative’s development stage.
The paper presents a Romanian perspective on the Initiative, but not THE Romanian perspective, which is likely to shift along with its mutable institutional form and the demands that Romania’s agenda places on its regional policies. The main points of discussion are the likely directions into which Romania would prefer the Initiative to evolve, the Black Sea space as a determinant of Initiative success and the American and Chinese potentialities for the Initiative.
The complexities of the new international context, defined by increased interdependencies, motivates countries to try to establish network effects to promote common projects for inclusive growth. Whether or not, as Jean Claude Juncker said, the win is back in Europe’s sails, it is necessary for the countries of the often neglected if not marginalized Three Seas region to coordinate to pursue common interests of a various nature, in a challenging security environment also replete with opportunities.
Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski wrote that, while the historical roots of the concept for North-South cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe can be traced to the Polish Intermarium idea, which was an answer to a military threat, “today’s Trimarium is not primarily about security but about infrastructure”. Rapid progress has been registered after decades of underinvestment and malinvestment in a region that accounts for 28% of the EU’s territory and 22% of its population, but only 10% of its GDP. He lists Russian assertiveness as a continuing concern and speculates about a possible future security component to the Three Seas Initiative, based on a shared outlook regarding Russia. In his description of the proposed and planned infrastructure projects for the region, key issues stand out, such as energy and the opposition of the group’s members to the North Stream 1 and 2 projects linking Germany and Russia, bypassing Central and Eastern Europe. This is presented as an explicit security issue related to Russian foreign policy, meaning that the Initiative, even as it couches its actions in terms of infrastructure development, is ultimately developing the economic security that would help its members in resisting, economically, militarily and, not least, psychologically, Russia’s pursuit of its agenda. Even the United States involvement in the Warsaw Summit, where deliveries of American natural gas were touted as responding to Eastern European energy needs and are being factored into the regional LNG infrastructure plans, had an overt security component. It also represented a counterpoint to President Obama’s “pivot to the Pacific”, announcing America’s regional comeback to directly aid its most enthusiastic European supporters and provision their security needs.
Fig. 1 – Geopolitics in the Intermarium region (source: authors)
The figure above summarizes key elements of the geopolitical landscape in the region, juxtaposing the security and military element with the economic and infrastructure development elements which have, institutionally, remained separate but are, in practice, inseparable. Between a sometimes aloof Europe playing its own games and a resurgent Russia pursuing what it perceives as legitimate interests in its near abroad, the countries of the Trimarium will have to maintain group cohesion and translate economic success into security gains. Neither is Russia the only issue for concern in the region. Less noted is the likely result of the Three Seas Initiative in keeping Europe (Germany) and Russia from pursuing a rapprochement based on complementary interests and structural compatibilities. That Germany is a developed Western democracy does not make the historical connotation of what were until recently ever closer ties any less poignant. Andrey Devyatkov, with the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the Institute of Economy (Russian Academy of Sciences), wrote that: “The German decision makers do not seem to want “to push Russia out” of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space (in comparison with some political circles in other Western and Eastern European countries). Vice versa, they see Russia as a Gestaltungsmacht (structural power) whose legitimate interests should be accepted. The only one issue which is of huge importance for Berlin is its need for Russia to obey some basic rules and principles of international law, particularly in its policy towards European countries”.
Romania reflexively support constructivist approaches to handling the various issues of governance and is an active participant in the Three Seas Initiative, the various Chinese initiatives and has been touted as a possible member of the V4+, in addition to its own efforts to organize the Bucharest 9 and, in the past, the Craiova Group and POLROB (Poland-Romania-Bulgaria). The predictability of its environment and the rules that govern it are an important element of Romanian national interest, whether globally or regionally.
The infrastructure focus of the Three Seas Initiative is welcome, given Romania’s lagging performance in this regard among its peers, as is the perspective of improving regional trade ties. It also complements Romanian participation in the Danube Strategy, in the 16+1 Initiative for cooperation between China and its Central and Eastern European Partners, as well as the Belt and Road Initiative. While there are exceptions to this rule, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, the North-South connectors (along with commercial exchanges, people-to-people contacts) are weaker than the East-West connectors that lead Eastern European countries to their main trading partners in Western Europe. This issue was noted by the Atlantic Council and Central Europe Energy Partners (CEEP) in their 2014 report, “Completing Europe – From the North-South Corridor to Energy, Transportation, and Telecommunications Union”, which led to the coalescence of the Three Seas Initiative.
Ultimately, however, this apparently purely economic issue also turns back to security. Firstly, we have the problem of critical infrastructure protection, which is compounded by the creation of more infrastructure (75% of infrastructures which will be used in 2050 have not been built yet), as well as the challenging security environment and the prospect of cascading disruption of infrastructures not only within the ever more tightly integrated EU, but also within global production and supply chains. The European Program for Critical Infrastructure Protection specifies obligations, best practices and mechanisms for European level infrastructures, but there are categories of threats which are ever increasing, such as cyber threats and others related to hybrid warfare.
Fig. 2 – Elements for a holistic approach to developing the Three Seas Initiative (source: authors)
At the same time, the countries of the Three Seas Initiative, especially those who feel themselves most threatened (Poland, the Baltics, Romania) will reflexively weigh the security potential of even a supposedly purely economic program. For instance, in the experience of the authors, discussions between experts from the same group of nations in the context of the 16+1 cooperation initiative also turned to the security risk posed by Russian assertiveness and the likely impact on consumer and investor confidence of the high level of tensions. This necessitates a countervailing factor to provide security and stability along the New Silk Road and its Eastern European offshoots, a role that China is not willing to embrace (though it has conducted tentative military diplomacy in the Black Sea, with Chinese naval vessels visiting Odessa and Constanța in 2012 and 2014). Ultimately, while the Three Seas Initiative seemingly accounts for the need to build up key assets and key resources for regional development, it must not neglect the importance of actively managing regional risk perceptions (fig. 2).
Romania’s interests lie in utilizing the current momentum of the Three Seas Initiative to develop a coherent institutional framework that addresses the common needs of participating nations and complements EU and NATO roles. Security must definitely factor into the equation, though the extent to which an evolution in this direction is possible politically or even desirable, to avoid duplication of efforts with other initiatives, remains debatable. Also of interest is to draw the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and, if possible, Georgia into a partnership with the Three Seas Initiative, as a complementary avenue of increasing cooperation and capability to the much more developed Northern one.
The Black Sea perspective
One of the likely problems with the Three Seas Initiative is that each sea will have “a mind of its own”, responding to sub-regional concerns and perspectives to formulate agenda for the countries in question, especially given the current lack of a formalized coordination mechanism under the Initiative. The current center of gravity for the Initiative is in the Baltic Sea, on account of the concentration of population, wealth, governance capacity and existing infrastructure. When the potential for expansion is discussed, the Scandinavian countries are, with good reason, the first to be mentioned, especially since they actively share the CEE concerns regarding Russian influence and aggressive posture. This advantage is likely to persist and grow, since Poland and the Baltic countries display an admirable “discipline of messaging” which is observable in issues pertaining to NATO presence in their countries, the NATO Baltic agenda and the reaction to Russian assertiveness.
From a Romanian perspective, the Black Sea space should not be neglected, not only as a source of opportunities, the positive focus of the Initiative, but also as a source of instability and threats stemming from a complex security environment. If the Initiative is to contribute to regional capacity for problem solving and coordination, then, as the Southern anchor of the old Intermarium idea, the Black Sea must find itself near the top of a future enlarged agenda, containing also dimensions of non-military security.
It is easy to list regional economic advantages and assets for Romania and Bulgaria – the Romanian port of Constanța is the largest container port in the Black Sea and its capacity is underutilized, the Bulgarian energy port at Burgas, the Danube-Black Sea Channel infrastructure, the Danube as a TEN-T corridor leading from the Black Sea to the heart of Europe and subject to the European Commission’s second Macroregional Strategy after the Baltic Strategy etc. Opportunities abound and companies are planning to access them, as with the new class of container ships for transport company CMA CGM designed specifically to maximize capacity for passing through the Bosporus, the first of which, out of a planned 28, was called the Danube. However, as an economic space, the Black Sea region as a whole is the least developed of the three seas, in terms of infrastructure and accumulated wealth. Political fractures have prevented the formation of pan-regional infrastructure networks and current conflicts and geopolitical hotspots are diminishing the region’s wealth and attractiveness for investors. The proximity to the Ukrainian conflict, the unrecognized change of borders following the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, including its Exclusive Economic Zone abutting that of Romania, have been a wake-up call for the country. The unease is heightened by the transformation of Turkey and the resulting uncertainties regarding its policies and future with European and NATO cooperation.
As Dimitrios Triantaphyllou noted, the Black Sea suffers from having too many competing and conflicting narratives for its countries to coordinate effectively, no matter what formula is used to define the region (the six littoral countries in a strict geographical sense or the EU and Organization for Black Sea Economic Cooperation formula, featuring an additional four and six countries). It is also the most diverse area, especially from a civilizational perspective, with transregional dimensions pertaining to South-Eastern Europe or the Middle East, and sub-regional dimensions such as the South Caucasus. The proximity of the Caspian Sea space and its own issues, which are nevertheless vital for the Black Sea as an asset, only heightens the complexities.
At the same time, unlike the other regions, the Black Sea has always suffered from the lack of an institutionalized security architecture to pursue communication and coordination not only to lessen secessionist tendencies or ameliorate the frozen conflicts, but also to address issues such as the smuggling of contraband goods, drugs, people and even nuclear materials. A report from the Kadir Has University, authored by Igor Delanoë, stated that: “As of December 2013, five of the seven most recent trafficking incidents involving HEU (ed.n. highly enriched Uranium) outside authorized control had taken place in the Black Sea region. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), such material has been seized on four separate occasions (2003, 2006, 2010, and 2011) in Moldova and Georgia. The former Soviet Union, and most precisely Russia (nearly 100 trafficking incidents recorded between 1991 and 2012 involving nuclear material) and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia (92 trafficking incidents recorded in Central Asia between 1991 and 2012), has been identified as the primary source of proliferation”.
Regional stakeholders are divided by the lack of a regional identity, by strategic competition (Russia and Turkey, Russia and NATO), by ethnic and religious conflicts, frozen and “lukewarm” conflicts, and the lack of pre-existing functional and successful institutions. Attempts such as the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation, the GUAM formula, the Community of Democratic Choice have largely failed to promote meaningful change. Even in the Baltic region, which had a more developed institutional framework, there have been issues. The resurgence in Russian assertiveness has stalled or frozen cooperation arrangements in the Baltic Sea, with the “Northern Dimension” launched by the European Union encountering difficulties, the Council of the Baltic Sea States not having had a high level meeting since 2014, the Nordic Council closing its offices in Russia in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, the disruption of Russian participation in the Interreg Baltic Sea Program (2014-20) and the EU Strategy for the Baltic Region being given a restrained posture towards Russia by its Baltic members. Stefan Gänzle argues in favor of macro-regional strategies to provide multilevel governance and embedding new EU Members into a cooperative framework that can then become an avenue for EU-Russia “reconciliation”. There is very little such institutional capital in the Black Sea, and it is not backed by multilaterally developed countries in addition to the EU such as in the Baltic Sea.
Ultimately, it is difficult decide whether, for the Three Seas Initiative, for Europe and for NATO, the Black Sea is a border region, a buffer region or a bridge, and the rhetoric changes in accordance with domain and the crisis of the moment. We should not forget that we are discussing not only Russia in the Black Sea, but also the proximity of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
While the American presence during the Warsaw Summit of the Three Seas Initiative was an important factor in the validation of the Three Seas Initiative, also present was a Chinese government representative who discussed the compatibilities with China’s initiatives. There is a significant degree of overlap between the Three Seas Initiative and the 16+1 Initiative between China and its Central and Eastern European Partners, with Austria missing from the 16+1 and the Western Balkans, outside of Croatia, from the Trimarium. The future launch of a 5+1 formula for Scandinavian countries also dovetails with the aforementioned Three Seas Initiative expansion possibilities. China’s pursuit of structural economic change and enhanced relations with Eastern Europe as a logical addendum to the already significant Western European relations places it in a position to support the Three Seas Initiative, through coordination primarily on infrastructure construction in transport and energy, though other avenues may become apparent. This is because China is exploring synergies with the macro-regional development policies of the EU, such as the Danube Strategy, itself having a significant overlap with the Three Seas Initiative.
The process is also taking place in reverse, with Poland and a number of other Three Seas Initiative countries becoming members or candidates for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and relying on the rapid growth of Chinese investment in Eastern Europe to complement the European funding in order to accelerate growth. Whether such feats of coordination are possible with the numerous and heterogeneous stakeholders remains to be seen, but the potential is there. While the United States, a European power in its own right, has been skeptical of the Belt and Road Initiative and its numerous offshoots (also opposing the creation of the AIIB), seeing it as a Chinese non-military push for Eurasian hegemony, there have been recent signals that the benefits of China shouldering the costs of development in Central Asia and beyond, as well as having a vested interest in the maintenance of a stable and predictable security environment, could make the US more accepting of the Belt and Road Initiative and also inclined to take advantage of the possibilities. Gal Luft wrote in Foreign Affairs that the “the Belt and Road Initiative could become either a source of great-power competition or a force for stability and collaboration”. He added that: “This passive-aggressive approach is misguided: it allows China to shape Eurasia’s economic and political future without U.S. input; it denies American investors opportunities to profit from major infrastructure projects; and, insofar as it seeks to weaken the initiative, it could stifle a source of much-needed growth for Asia’s developing economies and Europe’s stagnating ones. As the failed U.S. attempt to prevent its allies from joining the AIIB shows, resisting China’s regional economic initiatives puts Washington in an uncomfortable position with some of its closest partners”.
As its Central and Eastern European partners are wont to do, Romania is attempting to leverage the synergies of the various initiatives in which it has become involved to not only pursue the stated objectives of economic growth and infrastructure development, but also to highlight its own comparative advantages to foreign partners in the regional competition between the nations cooperating in the Three Seas Initiative.
The Three Seas Initiative is still in its infancy, but has a good basis from which to build, having established a coherent common interest among its members (infrastructure) and gained political capital through overt American political support. Romania’s interests lie in developing its role within the Initiative and exploring synergies with the other ones of which it is a member along with other Eastern European countries. In the medium and long-term, as will likely be on display during the 2018 Bucharest Summit, Romania will seek to shape the agenda and institutional profile of the Initiative to match key national interests which are shared with other members, in particular countering Russian assertiveness and ensuring a continued security subsidy of the wider area from its American, European and, possibly in the future, Chinese partners. The Black Sea’s challenging security environment should be a priority for a functional Three Seas Initiative, as its dysfunctions threaten the general security environment of the entire region and acts as a conduit for threats stemming from outside Europe.
Ultimately, Romania’s must establish and develop new partnerships on the European chessboard (V4+, other trilateral initiatives) to increase the potency of regional cooperation and to strive for Bucharest 2018 to be not just a photo opportunity, but also a validation of the formula with concrete results.
The article was first published, in a modified form, in the Limes Italian Geopolitical Journal.
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