While people commonly perceive the Belt and Road Initiative (referred as “Initiative” hereafter) as China’s grand economic strategy and a solution for domestic overcapacity by opening foreign markets and connecting with Eurasia economically, many failed to see the opportunities of international security and diplomacy that the Initiative will bring to China. Besides binding countries all across Eurasia together under economic cooperation and large-scale investment, this grand strategy of Xi Jinping will build up a China-lead Eurasian security corridor that connects China with existing security infrastructure and thus strengthen China’s position in shaping regional and international order.
Belt and Road Initiative + SCO
In the first place, the Initiative will strengthen the ties between members of Shanghai Cooperation Organization. SCO’s political agenda has always focused on regional security issues such as counter-terrorism, border control and intelligence cooperation. Based on SCO’s current political framework, the Initiative will completely include all SCO members and raise multi-dimensional cooperation among member states to a new level, which will eventually lead to the regional political and economic integration which SCO has long been pursuing. Meanwhile, the Initiative will bring large-scale investment in regional infrastructure with particular attention to transportation and energy. The perceivable economic growth and the resulting increase in employment because of large-scale investment will inevitably eliminate the economic root for regional terrorism in SCO member states. More importantly, this new network of infrastructure in Central Asia will essentially enhance SCO’s competency to address non-conventional security issues, capacity in counter-terrorism, and ability to maintain peace and stability of the region. With these new approaches to regional integration and solutions to security issues brought by the Initiative, China will necessarily take the leadership of SCO in the near future, making other member states inclining towards a Sino-centric regional order.
Belt and Road Initiative + EU
As the west end of the “Belt,” Europe is also a critical piece of China’s security puzzle. In 2012, China and the European Union announced the Joint Declaration on Energy Security, which called to enhance energy security by establishing an “open, transparent, efficient and competitive energy market” and to strengthen EU-China cooperation on building energy infrastructure. As the Initiative connects China and Europe through Central Asia and the Gulf region, it provides an excellent opportunity for China and Europe to collaborate in building energy infrastructure alongside the belt and road as well as a chance for the two parties to establish trans-regional energy market and to take active roles in global energy governance. In other words, the Initiative will very well serve the core interests of both China and Europe in energy security.
On the other hand, China and the EU may take the chance to cooperate in fighting against drug/human trafficking, smuggling and other illegal activities that have long been residing in Central Asia. According to projects and researches done by the EU and other international organizations, 90% of drugs sold on European market came illegally from Central Asia – while Afghanistan has always been a major producer of drugs, other Central Asian states, with domestic turmoil and lack of law enforcement, have become hubs for drugs to be transported to Europe. Meanwhile, with EU’s expansion in 2004, 2007 and 2013, Central Asia is no longer a “remote” part of the EU’s foreign policy – it has become the EU’s new frontier. Therefore, the illegal trafficking network in Central Asia has become an immediate threat to EU’s security. China faces a similar situation on its northwest ethnic frontier. Central Asia has become a major base for a number of known terrorist groups, which pose severe threat to China’s homeland security. With the platform built upon the Initiative, China and the EU can enhance their cooperation in border control, combating drug/human trafficking and many other security matters, while the EU and China together are also capable of providing tech support to Central Asian states to fight against their domestic illegal activities.
With the foreseeable increase of cooperation in conventional/non-conventional security between the EU and China, the latter will have a proper cause to intervene into regional issues within Central Asia or even East Europe as an effort to promote security and stability of the region. Multilateral organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have established centers and offices in Central Asia to collaborate with local government and law enforcement against crime and illegal activities, China may draw lessons and make similar moves by establishing cooperative institutions in the region to strengthen its own political presence. Meanwhile, China, with this grand initiative, will potentially take a major role in the emergence of Eurasia – we may expect China to become a major player in Central Asia, just like Russia and United States, in the near future.
Belt and Road Initiative in Reshaping Security Infrastructure of Central Asia
While this Belt and Road Initiative will open the door of Central Asia to China, the leadership of China will definitely not miss the chance to shape the security infrastructure, or even regional order, in Central Asia.
As a part of the former USSR, Central Asia has a very special geo-political environment and a highly complex regional security situation. With the close proximity of Russia and the intervention of the United States, Central Asia fails to establish its very own political and security infrastructure since the collapse of USSR; meanwhile, Central Asian states have been struggling with domestic turmoil, border and territory conflicts, terrorist threats, and conflicts on resource and energy. Meanwhile, the US military operation in Afghanistan, though taking out the Taliban regime, failed to reshape the political order of the country and has brought more tension and conflict to the region – whether or not a regional order can be established will very much decide the future of Central Asia. Given the ongoing rape of ISIS across Central Asia and the Middle East, such regional order is needed more than ever.
China has the political power to reshape regional order and security infrastructure. On one hand, China shares good relationship and mutual trust with Central Asian states. After the collapse of the USSR, China quickly settled its border disputes with three neighboring states Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan, leaving no obstacles for bilateral relationship. Meanwhile, the trading relationship between China and Central Asia has been warming up for years, with cooperation or joint programs in transportation, energy, agriculture, telecommunication and many other areas developing at a rapid pace. At the same time, the existing multilateral organizations such as SCO and Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) can provide enough support so that China doesn’t need to start from point zero. Most importantly, China, throughout the past two decades’ relationship with Central Asia, showed no ambitions to territory or sphere of influence and never tried to force the acceptance of its own value – this will certainly be the rhetoric of China as opposed to the conduct of Japan and United States, as the latter tried hard to impose its values and system onto Central Asia.
On a practical level, the top priority of this political order and security infrastructure China will build is to control the potential conflicts in Central Asia, which could jeopardize the entire Initiative. With the Belt and Road Initiative, the interaction and trade between Central Asian states will experience a rapid increase within a short term, it will indeed help avoid potential conflicts in trade, energy or resource and reduce the chance of confrontation or conflict between regional players. Meanwhile, with the Initiative, Central Asia will become the hub of two continents; the network that connects Europe and Asia will meet in Central Asia, while the engagement of the EU, China and other players in regional issues will help mediate the tensions by promoting multilateral dialogues. Moreover, the economic growth and the engagement of the EU and China will bring regional integration to reality – this will be the future basis for Central Asia’s stability and prosperity.
With China’s leading role in SCO and other multilateral mechanism, the new security infrastructure will also be able to address security matters, especially the urgent need for combating trans-national terrorism. With SCO’s expansion and enhancement and China’s increasingly aggressive military policy, we may expect rapid reaction force of SCO, with China and Russia sharing the leadership, conducting counterterrorism, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and other missions in Central Asia in the future.
However, uncertainties of China’s Belt and Road Initiative exist. To some extent, the uncertainties of the future are so big that they may destroy the entire plan.
Uncertainty #1: Russia
The first uncertainty is Russia. The Belt and Road Initiative will definitely strengthen China’s tie with Central Asia even with East Europe in terms of economy, energy and infrastructure, while the foreign policy of relevant countries will incline towards China for a significant degree. This expectation of a policy shift will make Russia, who for a long time has seen Central Asia as its backyard, very anxious. Given the situation that occurred during the Ukraine crisis, Russia will definitely not want such a problem to occur again in Central Asia. After all, whether or not China can win Russia’s support for the Initiative in the future will heavily rely on the mutual trust on Central Asia between Russia and China as well as China’s ability to control the potential crisis with Russia.
Meanwhile, Russia’s confrontation with the West since the Ukraine crisis has become devastating – its relationship with Europe has dropped to the lowest point since the USSR’s collapse. Under such circumstance, China will need to protect its Initiative from being “kidnapped” by Russia and becomes Russia’s weapon against the West; on the other hand, China will also need to prevent the “Russian syndrome,” that Russia’s participation threatens others willing to join. To accomplish these two goals, China needs to balance Russia’s influence to the Initiative very carefully.
Uncertainty #2: United States and Japan
China is not the first one to make Central Asia a major focus of foreign policy. Japan has already made Central Asia a particular emphasis of its diplomatic priority as early as the end of the 20th century. Former Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro announced his “Eurasian Diplomacy” in 1997 and called Japan’s diplomacy towards Central Asian states as “Silk Road Diplomacy.” Since then, Japan has been participating more actively in Central Asian affairs and strengthening political ties with Central Asian states, while Japan has also provided ODA to push forward democratization and marketization in Central Asia.
In 2004 and 2006, Japanese government further announced its “Central Asia + Japan” and “Action Plan” which aimed to enhance bilateral cooperation with Central Asian states. Following the announcement of “Action Plan,” Aso Taro, Japanese Foreign Minister at that time, proposed the idea of “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity,” which aimed to help Central Asian states as well as other NICs to build stable political institutions and achieve prosperity. Alongside Japanese government’s huge effort to engage with Central Asia, Japanese companies have participated massively in Central Asia economy including Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli Oil Plant, Kashagan Oil Plant and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline Project. With China’s increasing political presence and huge infrastructure investment in the region, there is no doubt that Japan will perceive China as a competitor and a threat to its interests in Central Asia. More importantly, with nearly two decades’ cooperation, Japan and Central Asian states have gained significant mutual trust in each other, as Central Asian states publicly supported a permanent seat in the UN Security Council for Japan. It will increase the chance of conflict and confrontation if China’s increased engagement with Central Asia eventually forces Central Asian states to choose sides between China and Japan.
Former State Secretary Hilary Clinton also proposed similar initiative in 2011 called “New Silk Road Initiative” aiming to rebuild the devastated national economy of Afghanistan. In her plan, Afghanistan would become the hub that connects Central and South Asia, which together compose a trade route for Central Asia’s energy and South Asia’s consumer goods. In this initiative, the State Department proposed to increase ties between Central and South Asia in regional energy market, trade and transportation, border security, as well as business and human-to-human exchange. In conclusion – this seems very much like a “prototype” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, except that Afghanistan may not be a big concern of China. Therefore, the problem between China and the US is very much similar to that between China and Japan: how will the US perceive China’s increasing presence in Central Asia? To avoid potential conflict with the US, China will have to move carefully and send clear signals that it will not intend to challenge the US in Central Asia.
Uncertainty #3: Central Asia
In fact, the most uncertain parties to China’s Belt and Road Initiative are those non-major players. For instance, Central Asian states more or less are facing domestic problems. Massive demonstration and protest against former President Bakiyev occurred in Kirghizstan in 2010 while the domestic situation didn’t calm down until 2011, when Atambayev was elected the new President. Even so, the coalition government under Atambayev’s leadership was fragile and almost collapsed on several occasions; the future of Kirghizstan’s domestic politics remains uncertain. Uzbekistan’s immediate threat is more urgent – the largest political opposition Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s top priority is to overthrow Karimov’s regime and establish an Islamic state under Sharia; meanwhile, IMU is connected with international terrorist groups such as AL-Qaeda. While the Belt and Road Initiative essentially relies on Chinese enterprises to “go out” first, the security outlook of many regions and such domestic turmoil mentioned above may discourage Chinese businesses, even threaten their oversea investment. Therefore, the most serious question, also an uncontrollable one, is whether or not the target countries and regions are ready to welcome China’s grand strategy.