Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a highly public trip to Islamabad to cement Pakistan’s place in his Silk Road Economic Belt. He also used the opportunity to highlight the importance of counterterrorism to the success of these plans. In doing so, Xi is acknowledging that China’s biggest obstacle in constructing the Silk Road might not be mountains or rivers. Instead, it is ethnic and religious tensions across Central Asia that threaten to scuttle the project – and China doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.
China is well aware of these tensions, and it fears them. In fact, many argue that China’s Silk Road strategy is partly a security measure meant to combat extremism and terrorism, the idea being that economic development will quench these forces. This, combined with iron-handed security measures, has been Beijing’s approach to governing Xinjiang and Tibet. And it seems now that China is trying to extend that model across post-Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, as recent unrest and terrorist attacks in China show, there are limitations to this approach. For example, Xinjiang, the homeland of China’s Muslim Uighur population, has seen an upsurge in deadly attacks in recent years. Ironically, massive Chinese investments in Xinjiang have only fuelled violence, as Uighurs fear that their cultural and religious identity is being eroded by the flood of Han Chinese money, businesses, and workers.
We already see this situation unfolding in Pakistani Balochistan, home to the Gwadar port. Baloch leaders have come to see the port, which will play a critical role in China’s Maritime Silk Road plans, as a symbol of oppression and foreign domination. If discontent turns to violence, the port in Gwadar may be the first victim.
Farther north, in post-Soviet Central Asia, the security situation is only marginally better. While terrorist attacks are few and far between, ethnic and religious tensions simmer just beneath the surface. The stability that Central Asia enjoys today may be gone tomorrow – and the economic belt along with it.
There are many reasons for these social tensions, not least corruption, historical grievances, bad governance, illegal trafficking, and abject poverty, as well as complex ethnic and religious currents that are too often overlooked by policymakers. As the countries along the Silk Road grow in importance to China, the urgency of addressing these issues will also grow.
Yet, just as in Xinjiang, large investments in infrastructure and security will not suffice. Not only do these projects primarily benefit elites, they also feed deep-rooted popular fears of Chinese demographic and cultural domination. It is no surprise then that in countries such as Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, nationalist and religious leaders often oppose what they see as China’s economic incursions.
China ignores these warning signs at its own peril. Deep structural changes are needed to address these seeds of instability, but neither the local governments, much less Beijing, are willing to address them. Even so, China must ensure that its projects do not simply fan the flames of ethnic and religious extremism. To this end, there are some practical steps that it can take to ease tensions and build trust.
First, Chinese corporations need an “emerging market strategy” that includes ethnic and religious factors. Simply put, Chinese companies need to think through the risks involved in each project, bring in relevant expertise, and then come up with a strategy. This is harder than it sounds, and will mean building a deep bench of religious, demographic, and cultural competency for Chinese companies working abroad – and then creating corporate cultures that can actually use these resources. But once this is done, Chinese companies can engage these issues head-on.
This leads to the second point, which is a “track 1.5” approach to economic development. This means bringing track 1 (government officials) and track 2 (such as civil society, religious leaders, and NGOs) together to discuss issues of mutual concern. This would have to be more than just a meeting – rather, bring religious and community leaders into the planning process alongside government officials and corporate executives. This would be unprecedented, even jarring, for Chinese (and Central Asian) leaders, but doing so rightly acknowledges the locals as stakeholders and ensures that their concerns will be heard.
Finally, Chinese projects need to benefit local residents. Because of rampant corruption, large infrastructure projects only enrich government officials and oligarchs, fueling rage among common people who already chafe at their societies’ inequality. The government should instead invest more in small-scale projects that provide sustainable food, water, and energy security in local communities. A local and inclusive approach to infrastructure projects would build trust and address long-term sources of resentment.
These steps are practical, cheap, and easy to implement. But for China, and the region, a small investment in trust can pay big dividends.
Cory Bender is the Program Officer for Eurasia at the Institute for Global Engagement. James Chen is the Vice President for Programs at the Institute for Global Engagement.