The ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) Initiative is China’s biggest and most ambitious economic development strategy to date. The multifaceted strategy includes the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt,’ which aims at rebuilding the ancient silk road that connected China to Europe via Central Asia, and the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Since its inception in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has highlighted the importance of economic interconnectivity in the Central Asian region. The crux of the OBOR Initiative lies in the importance of mutually beneficial cooperation between the member states. The project aims to promote economic development in all participating countries by endorsing economic, social, and cultural exchanges. The Initiative will further assist China to culturally opening up to the outside world and to cooperating economically with Asia, Africa, and Europe as it tries to liberalize .
While the proposed infrastructure projects are China’s way of asserting itself as a global and regional contender, domestically they will contribute to the integration of China’s poorer inland regions with the global economy, thereby addressing some of China’s growing income inequality.
China’s ambitious maritime initiatives have the world focused on the South China Sea, but have failed to address some major issues that have the potential to cause economic integration on land to fail, hereby, leaving parts of Asia vulnerable to economic and social disasters.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh – China – India – Myanmar economic corridor (BCIM) are two of the many extensions to the new Silk Road. The CPEC will connect to the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, giving it access to the rest of Asia, Africa, and Europe while the BCIM economic corridor will extend to the ports of Cox Bazar in and Chittagong in Bangladesh.
The two corridors raise important concerns regarding security, drugs, smuggling, and human trafficking. At present, both the routes are problematic because they lie in territorially disputed areas. The CPEC passes through Baltistan in northern Pakistan, Xinjiang in western China, and occupied Kashmir. All three regions have a long and violent history. The introduction of the economic corridor has been greeted with animosity by local Pakistani residents and a few Indian officials. The BCIM enters a small portion of disputed territory between India and China and a part of the stretch is insurgency-prone, making the region unstable and unsafe.
China’s air pollution hit a record high last December. Beijing was faced with two red alerts, and pollution levels have continued to remain high throughout the country. A major component of the OBOR Initiative is based on China’s reliance on its steel and coal capabilities. The country’s recent economic slowdown has been a major concern for China, the world’s largest steel producing country.
The OBOR Initiative will create a huge demand for the country’s raw materials, most notably steel and iron. The use of Chinese raw materials and infrastructure will provide a major financial incentive to the regional Chinese governments and also reduce China’s reliance on commodities imported from overseas, but at the same time it is destined to increase the air pollution levels in the country.
While the Chinese government has highlighted the economic importance of the OBOR and the affect it will have on China’s relationship with its neighbors, the country’s recent role in the water crisis in Southeast Asia has not put China in a good light. China’s neighbors have repeatedly accused the large nation of abusing its control over dams and hydroelectric power plants situated on the Mekong River, thereby aggravating the water crisis in the region.
Autonomous Regions Hurdles
The ‘One Road’ portion of the OBOR is scheduled to begin in Xi’an in northwestern China before stretching West through Urumqi to Central Asia. Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is the largest city in western China. While Urumqi and Khashgar are the two biggest commercial centers in western China, the area is surrounded by vast desert area, with a limited human population.
China has long battled with separatist movements in different parts of the country. Urumqi is one of the important Chinese cities that has been the target of separatist attacks over the years. In 2014, the Urumqi South Railways Station explosion killed 3 and injured over 70 people in the city. The Chinese government has long believed that the unrest in Xinjiang has been fueled by external extremist militant groups. The East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the main aggressor against Chinese sovereignty in the region, has grown in size and aggressive capacity over the years by forging ties with Al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups.
The presence of extremist militant groups and a Uyghur minority community has often left the Chinese government open to international backlash. The Chinese government has been criticized for its counter-terrorism techniques in Xinjiang as they are often seen as a way to curb Uyghur freedoms. The new Silk Road and its many extensions would increase regional and international connectivity between western China, Central Asia, and the Middle East, thereby greatly benefiting the ETIM and other militant organizations in the region.
The OBOR Initiative has already begun in parts of western China and South Asia. While China keeps focusing on the economic benefits Asian, Middle Eastern, European, and African interconnectivity, only time will tell whether the Chinese-led initiative will live up to its exceptional ideal or whether the hurdles will prove too arduous for China.