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The BRI’s strategic compass

Like numerous countries in various regions across the globe, China has made no secret of the fact that Central Asia and Russia are integral elements for the successful implementation of its ‘project of the century’, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

On account of their geographical location, these countries are vital to effectively connect China’s overland to Europe, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. As per the BRI’s official document released in March 2015 by Beijing, the initiative aims at “jointly building a new Eurasian Land Bridge and developing China-Mongolia-Russia, China-Central Asia-West Asia and China-Indochina Peninsula economic corridors by taking advantage of international transport routes”. As a result, the policy document clearly mentions that the Silk Road Economic Belt aims to bring together China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe (the Baltic).

Besides the political, security and geo-economic benefits to China, the Central Asian countries, like many other countries in the region and beyond, also recognise the BRI to be a source of much-needed financial injection to upgrade and improve physical infrastructure that could lead to better connectivity and enhanced trade, along with increased stability.

It has been argued that the involvement of Central Asian countries in the project is evidently quite profitable and will ensure them economic and political benefits in view of a better transport and communication infrastructure, increased stability, a better law and order situation, and enhanced trade.

Most Central Asian countries have considerable natural resources. However these resources haven’t reached a considerable number of people due to various factors, especially the lack of efficient infrastructure and proper dividends. Like Pakistan and many other countries where Chinese companies and state-owned enterprises have been investing in various sectors, massive investments in infrastructures under the BRI are expected to be highly profitable for Central Asian countries. These investments will promote interconnectivity, improve regional trade cooperation through the creation of a trans-regional transport network, and open up new markets for the landlocked Central Asian countries.

At the same time, there are also some challenges in Central Asia and elsewhere that China and other participating countries need to wholeheartedly focus on. In order to make the BRI a success in Central Asia, it has been asserted that respect for concerns about political independence, aspirations for economic development, and the desire for security and stability are of utmost significance.

While developing countries are eager to embrace Chinese President Xi’s signature foreign policy plan for their own benefits and a mutual ‘win-win’ situation, China mustn’t come up with policy conditionalities that could be detrimental to the sovereignty, and political and financial autonomy of these countries in the long run.

In addition to the Central Asian States, Russia has also expressed an interest in the BRI on account of the economic prospects that accrue with the project. It is believed that the initiative provides support for the development of regional infrastructure, most notably in the transportation segment. Apart from the economic potential of the BRI, Russia’s interest stems from the need to obtain reliable international partners for modernisation and long-term development, which could also help to address acute security issues.

Unlike any other Western country or a multilateral body, such as the EU or the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Russia finds a worthy partner in China. Although Central Asia has predominantly remained under the geopolitical influence of Russia, Beijing and Moscow have shared regional interests that pertain to ensuring security, stability and order as a key priority to pursue their increasingly converging foreign policy and economic objectives.

Furthermore, they share a mutual interest in establishing a multipolar, post-unilateral world order that can put an end to the global supremacy of the US. On account of all these factors, China and Russia have maintained cordial bilateral relations in recent years.

In view of the above, there is no doubt that the BRI has elicited a host of different reactions from abroad – from wholehearted acceptance to outright suspicion – and blunt rejection by some powers. While there has been considerable policy and academic research focusing on the various aspects and dimensions of the BRI; it has rightly been observed that there is at present no consensus about what the BRI is, how it will affect others, and how it will evolve.

At the same time, there is also an understanding broadly shared by most actors and stakeholders – both among the countries participating in the project countries and those opposed to it – that the Chinese initiative will have a tremendous impact on trade, FDI and transport systems in numerous countries across various regions.

While there have been varying interpretations within different theoretical and conceptual frameworks, foreign policy analysts has viewed this initiative largely through a geopolitical lens, perceiving it as China’s attempt to gain political leverage over its neighbours and beyond the immediate neighborhood: whether in South Asia, Central Asia or beyond.

Although there is no doubt that it could be a part of Beijing’s strategic compass, there are also various domestic imperatives behind the BRI. These include, alongside reducing regional disparities within Mainland China, domestic economic concerns, such as sluggish growth, consistent production overcapacity, an increasingly saturated construction market, creating new markets for Chinese companies, and disproportionate holdings of US dollars. With the successful implementation of the BRI, China aims to achieve both foreign policy goals and address some of the key domestic challenges faced by its economy in recent years.

It is fascinating how China has turned its domestic trepidations and liabilities into its foreign policy fortes and assets abroad and in the process has ignited the interest of the global community. If the Shakespearean saying is anything to go by, we can assume that “time will untie this knot” as the BRI will essentially put to test not only China’s economic and technological prowess, but also its true diplomatic capabilities and its frequently-touted benign posture by using phrases such as building a “community of shared human destiny”.

While China and countries that are participating in the BRI have high hopes for the initiative, there are also a number of challenges that warrant considerable attention: both in the case of Central Asia and elsewhere (including Pakistan, of course, as there has been considerable debate about the financial sustainability of CPEC projects).

For example, in the context of Central Asia, it has been aptly pointed out that one of the main long-term problems for Sino-Central Asia cooperation within the BRI will be the capacity of these countries to repay the huge loans granted by China. It is believed that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could especially suffer from this situation because they have no energy reserves, raw materials or goods to sell in international markets.

So, countries that lack considerable natural resources or are without a reasonable industrial base to diversify and bolster their exports could end up accumulating additional foreign debts and could thus jeopardise their own political and financial independence. There is already a negative public opinion in many countries regarding the growing Chinese influence. This could be a serious issue in the future and will arguably serve as a litmus test for China to use its soft power and its diverse relations with those countries that are participating in the BRI.

Dr Murad Ali, "The BRI’s strategic compass," The news. 2018-09-20.
Keywords: Economics , Economic objectives , Security issues , Foreign policy , Academic research , Chinese initiative , Conceptual framework , Political leverage , Economic concerns , Global community , Pakistan , Mongolia , Russia , China