With more than 140 countries and 80 international organizations supporting and participating in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the concept initiated by China is expected to enter a new stage in 2018. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently claimed at the opening ceremony of the Seminar on International Developments and China’s Diplomacy in 2017 that China is ready to work with each party to “strengthen new driving forces for and further upgrade Belt and Road cooperation.”
Nonetheless, it is worth noting that new security risks are hanging over the mammoth initiative. Though both the Syrian and Iraqi governments have declared victory over the Islamic State, the terrorist threat confronting the Belt and Road Initiative is actually increasing rather than decreasing. If in the past, trade deals and infrastructure projects along the BRI largely avoided the terrorist menace by circumventing the places where terrorists gathered, this tactic will no longer work.
The militants are being driven away from their footholds in Syria and Iraq and are now dispersed in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, which are all important “bridgeheads” along the BRI. In particular, the mountainous terrain and existing terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan make the two countries likely to become new focuses of the Islamic State, which has not surrendered its arms. This means that the terrorist threat is coming even closer to China, the initiator of BRI, and core BRI projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Political instability raises another concern for BRI. To begin with, the political environments of unstable countries along the BRI have hardly improved. According to the Fragile States Index (FSI), Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq remain the most fragile countries in the world. The killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former Yemeni president, by Houthi rebels and riots in Iraq’s Kurdish region suggest that the situation of these countries may even deteriorate further.
In addition, political instability is increasing in a growing number of countries which had been perceived as stable along the BRI. One example is Turkey, whose overall score on the FSI has dropped 3.5 points, as the country is currently undergoing a fierce armed struggle between the government and Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), as well as suffering spillover from the Syria crisis. Another example is Ethiopia, which has witnessed deepening social and political fissures. Furthermore, a number of countries along the BRI, including Russia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, will face elections in 2018. One potential risk of power transfers in these countries is discontinuity in government policies toward China and the BRI. What is worse, China may become a campaign topic for candidates. Certain candidates may adopt anti-Chinese and anti-BRI frames to rouse electoral support, as happened during the presidential election in Mongolia in June.
Last but not least, increasing big power games in various parts of the world are likely to escalate regional conflicts. In the Middle East, for instance, Trump’s attempts to decertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal and wade into Jerusalem hornet’s nest will both intensify tensions in the region and stir up conflicts between Palestine and Israel as well as between the “Shiite axis” led by Iran and the Sunni coalition headed by Saudi Arabia. Intending to take over the role of regional broker by criticizing Trump’s policies, Russia and EU countries, epitomized by France, have increased their presence in the region by arranging frequent visits to the Middle East and actively mediating regional disputes. The struggle between great powers in the Middle East may further complicate the regional situation, which will not only bring new risks for China’s infrastructure projects in the Middle East, but will also make it difficult for China to maintain its “neutral” role in the Arab-Israeli conflict and Saudi-Iran conflict.
All in all, the dispersion of terrorists, increasing political instability in a growing number of countries along the BRI, and escalating regional conflicts pose new challenges to the BRI in the coming year, calling for a response to security risks that have become more scattered than even before.
Chuchu Zhang is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies in the University of Cambridge and Middle East Director of OBOR International at Cambridge.
Chaowei Xiao is a PhD candidate at the Department of Land Economy in the University of Cambridge and China Director of OBOR International at Cambridge.