China, Central Asia and the BRI

Updated: Mar 12

Developing Alliances and Global Influences

By: Puck Holthuis


China’s economic and political influence in Central Asia is rapidly expanding. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) strategically crosses through the region and onwards through Europe, aiming to improve the welfare of these nations as well as that of China itself. However, the BRI’s effects do not stop there.


What is the BRI?

The BRI is an extensive route, stretching from Eastern China all the way to Latin America by land, sea and cyberspace. Closely resembling the ancient Silk Road, the BRI is commonly referred to as the ‘New Silk Road’. This route allowed for significant economic, cultural and religious development in the region through which it ran 1400 years ago. Nevertheless, the Silk Road was gradually abandoned during the rise and fall of various Eurasian empires. The new and improved BRI is comparable in size and includes 140 countries in five continents, their people together making up more than 60% of the world population.


The objectives of the BRI are numerous. They echo those of the Silk Road but are perhaps more ambitious this time around. They include elevating economic prosperity in the countries along the route, strengthening of their cultural and political ties and scaling up their infrastructure, to name a few.3However, there are more objectives to consider as well.


Central Asia and the BRI

The BRI has already proven itself valuable in many aspects. In a timespan of three years (2014-2017), the BRI resulted in $6 trillion in trade between China and the participants of the BRI. However, like many projects on a massive scale, it is not a flawless endeavour. According to China Power, $26 trillion is required for the infrastructure of the BRI, of which China has undertaken to give $1 trillion. A number of the participating nations, however, simply don’t have the funds to spend on this large undertaking, leaving many of them taking loans from China.


The original Silk Road also left a lasting impression on the Central Asian nations that are partaking again this time in terms of their economy, culture and politics. Various nations in Central Asia (e.g., Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) were, until recently, economically dependent on Russia. Now, we are seeing a dependency shift towards China. When we zoom in on some of these individual relationships, we quickly land on Pakistan and China and their shared initiative of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).


CPEC and the lives of locals

The Gwadar Port in the province of Balochistan in the South of Pakistan is one strategic end of the CPEC, connected to the other end in Kashgar, China. Balochistan is Pakistan’s poorest and most underdeveloped province. Consequently, China’s investment in the region is a welcomed idea. In an interview in early February, Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi said that “[…] CPEC projects have greatly improved Pakistan’s infrastructure and energy supply,” and added that “[CPEC] will bring a large number of job opportunities to the Pakistani people.”


However, the local situation in Balochistan continues to present various difficulties to its residents and obstacles for BRI shareholders. The area around Gwadar Port lacks basic necessities such as electricity, and water is scarce. Development surrounding CPEC has been rather quiet, leaving many promises of improved welfare unfulfilled. Balochs themselves are growing impatient with the little progress CPEC has thus far made, and Baloch separatists, such as the Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS) or the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), pose a growing threat to both Chinese and Pakistani government commercial activities in the region, condemning them as exploitative.


These militant groups will continue to be a (growing) concern both the Chinese and Pakistani government have to face. In fact, Yumi Washiyama of The Diplomat states that: “If the BLA cannot be brought to the table or completely dismantled, then the outlook for the security risk environment remains bleak.” Why, then, does China continue its efforts to develop this area?


Pakistan and China: cooperation and interdependence

Despite the mentioned predicaments, Gwadar is economically relevant and continues to be a strategic entry point into China’s North-western Xinjiang province, the country’s current ‘front-gates’, which are an undeniably important part of the BRI. In other words, Gwadar cannot be missed from the BRI equation.

China’s investment can certainly help alleviate poverty and foster the desired development. Nevertheless, with more loans taken out to facilitate the BRI’s progress, Pakistan is increasingly dependent on China and the Chinese economy for the country itself to continue flourishing. This has created an interdependent relationship between these two nations that, on the one hand withholds China from leaving Pakistan and, on the other hand, cultivates a stronger alliance.


Additionally, Gwadar serves another vital purpose. The development of the Gwadar port, among other Pakistani regions, was previously an objective of both the USA and the Soviet Union. Pakistan played a key role in times of conflict for these nations during the Cold War, and billions were spent to develop the region long thereafter. This plan failed, however, and Southern Pakistan remains in an uncompleted state today.


As a result, China has possibly taken an interest in the region for this reason, too. With the development of the Gwadar port, China is taking on the challenge that powerful nations have failed to overcome in the past. It gives China a chance to showcase its relevance on the global stage by proving it can succeed in Gwadar. Additionally, the BRI and Gwadar in particular grant China the opportunity to develop and expand their economic, social and political network in Central Asia and beyond.


The BRI is all encompassing in the sense that the initiative could bring economic prosperity as well as stronger cultural ties in Central Asia and China itself. Simultaneously, the BRI serves as a bridge from China to Europe and further West. This possibly brings with it new political dynamics and cultural influences from the East to the West that may reshape our shared future.


This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group, as part of the 'Defending Chinese Strategic Interests in the Eurasian Heartland' research project led by Anton Witchell-Chibber and Bob Rehorst.


For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Author:


Puck Holthuis is a master student Conflict Studies & Human Rights at Utrecht University. She recently relocated back to The Netherlands after living abroad since 2006. During that time, she spent many years in South Africa and China. Puck continues to develop her passion for analysis; studying foreign cultures and using that to strengthen her intercultural communication skills.

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