The possible geopolitical motives of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the commercial viability of the projects that comprise it, and whether Xi’s multitrillion-dollar global development campaign is being implemented sustainably continue to be hotly debated. In contrast, the topics of crime and terrorism remain largely unmentioned.
Incidentally, the BRI proponents I have spoken to outright dismiss the premise and possibility that the BRI is (or could be) inadvertently facilitating illegal activity. If these individuals were to just casually glance at a map of BRI transportation projects alongside a map of black market networks, then they would see that key paths of the initiative correspond to and elongate transnational trafficking routes.
Although it is fairly self-evident that the BRI and illicit activity are somehow connected, barely any research has been conducted to quantify or qualify the nature and magnitude of these relationships. To this end, a foremost priority should be to investigate how crime flows are being affected or altered by the BRI.
I predict — to the relief of BRI supporters, and regret of BRI detractors — the findings of such research would be mixed, rather than outrightly negative. Diversified yet targeted Chinese-led investment (particularly in critical infrastructure) would probably be found to accelerate socioeconomic growth by augmenting mobility and connectivity. Simultaneously, how, and to what extent, criminals and terrorists are (or can be) benefiting from regional integration would also be revealed. I believe this is the primary reason why said research has yet to openly take place — because BRI stakeholders would prefer to deny the problem, rather than actually address it. The result is that fledgling governments and aloof corporations remain unaware of evolving BRI security challenges, and fail to adapt, accordingly.
If crime and terrorism along the BRI were methodologically examined, then proactive measures could be taken to holistically treat the underlying causes of these phenomena. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. Private military contractors (PMCs) are being reactively deployed to merely mask the most visible symptoms.
In the past, I described PMCs as an intriguing, albeit short-to-medium-term, surgical solution to imminent threats to the BRI. I warned, though, that if PMCs were overused, then their presence could further alienate already suspicious host country populations.
In a new report, Odil Gafarov of Chatham House chronicles the rapid “rise of China’s private armies” in the BRI era. He notes that the Frontier Services Group (FSG), which was established by Erik Prince (of Blackwater infamy) in 2014, is the first of possibly many “hybrid” (Chinese-owned, foreign-operated) PMCs to be birthed by the BRI. Previously, foreign involvement in Chinese PMCs was virtually nonexistent.
In a similar report for the United States Institute of Peace, Zi Yang writes that in BRI locations where Chinese PMCs are not permitted to operate (such as Indonesia), or where they simply lack experience (such as Iraq), host country or transnational Western-based PMCs are retained instead.
In my view, the emergence of a BRI-driven private security industry is not necessarily harmful. After all, in exigent circumstances when certain governments are unwilling or unable to furnish basic protections, it makes sense for private forces to fill the void. However, if this nascent industry remains unregulated (and thereby becomes ever more rogue), then trust between China and its BRI partners will inevitably be eroded.
Gafarov, an Uzbek national, argues that the deployment of PMCs to protect BRI interests in Central Asia is unnecessary. This is because, in his estimation, the security challenges facing the BRI are not a side effect of inadequate safety provisions. Rather, he says, tensions between host-country communities and Chinese enterprises are to blame — citing locals’ “deeply-rooted fear that an influx of Chinese workers might affect demographics.” This dilemma is not new, nor is it unique to the Central Asian context.
An official, albeit less talked-about, objective of the BRI is to reduce domestic unemployment (and the potential for related unrest) by shifting China’s excess production capacity abroad. If you believe the State Council’s statistics, which indicate that joblessness has fallen from 4.1 percent to 3.8 percent in the past five years (which equates to 4.25 million Chinese finding work since the launch of the BRI), then this objective is being met. However, host country populations have become increasingly resentful that BRI ventures are engaging Chinese laborers rather than their own communities — so much so that their governments (especially in electoral democracies) and Chinese enterprises have been forced to take notice.
The louder host country complaints about the BRI have grown, the more apparent the necessity of corporate social responsibility (CSR) — which encompasses human resource management (HRM) matters, such as hiring practices and employee welfare — has become. Case in point, a study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School found that of 142 Chinese overseas projects that failed (from a survey of 2,000 ventures, between 2005 and 2015), 44 were directly due to a “CSR problem.” In areas of conflict — from Marawi to Aleppo to Caracas — where China has ensconced itself via the BRI as an agent of reconstruction (and mediation), the significance and urgency of CSR is even greater.
In my 2017 piece (and in the thesis that inspired it), I wrote that if Chinese enterprises demonstrate their tangible commitment to host country communities by embedding substantive CSR into their operations, then locals would become more inclined to support the BRI.
In order for Chinese CSR to be most effective, though, it should be responsive to the needs of the citizenry. In my writings, I have advocated the use of criminal risk assessments — which can be multilaterally designed and dispensed — to identify and evaluate these needs. The logic is that if Chinese enterprises understood the reasons why people in given areas and conditions commit illegal acts, then they could implement tailored CSR programs to mindfully assuage the factors that induce offending behaviors, thereby mitigating and preventing security threats to the BRI.
Evidence-based approaches (like the one I am suggesting above) have yet to be adapted — probably for the same reason why BRI stakeholders remain reluctant to broach the matter of crime and terrorism in the first place. Nevertheless, Chinese CSR has evolved significantly over the past two years.
In January 2018, Chinese media outlets claimed that 84 percent of state-owned enterprises had “formulated” CSR plans, although they also conceded that less than half had actually “set up” systems to administer these plans. In May 2018, the China Communications Construction Company published the first Chinese report on CSR along the Belt and Road. While comprehensive, the report is rather self-congratulatory, and relies on gimmicky devices (such as the “smiling face model”) to convey serious information. In September 2018, EY’s China Overseas Investment Network dedicated an entire periodical to Chinese CSR in the BRI context. Marked increases in host country hiring by Chinese enterprises are chronicled therein via several laudatory case studies.
However, the reality on the ground is much more complex than the aforementioned sources would have you believe. I recently spoke with several Pakistanis who are either involved in or affected by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — arguably the most important, but also most dangerous, artery of the BRI — about whether it is swaying the regional security situation and being carried out in a socially responsible manner. Adding further layers of complication to these dynamics are the current escalation of tensions in Kashmir, and the possibility that Afghanistan may join CPEC — which would explain Beijing’s attempts to influence the ongoing peace process, and the growing contingent of Chinese troops in Tajikistan. Shaharyar Ahmad (an Islamabad-based CPEC consultant) and Adnan Aamir (the editor of Balochistan Voices) best encapsulate the two prevailing, albeit dueling, perspectives of many Pakistanis.
“More than 85 percent of the employees working on CPEC projects are Pakistani, only 15 percent are Chinese,” Ahmad asserts. “Yes,” he acknowledges, “the Chinese hold all of the strategic positions. However, their presence will be short-term, once these projects are up and running.” When I asked him about Chinese CSR, Ahmad was quite effusive. “CSR has obviously increased Pakistan’s support for the CPEC, as it has helped a very marginalized segment of the population to join the mainstream workforce,” Ahmad told me, upon delving into several detailed examples. His conclusion is that the corridor has “tremendously decreased” crime and terrorism by providing employment and training opportunities to people, who, otherwise, “out of desperation,” would be drawn to illicit activities.
Aamir agrees with Ahmad that the CPEC has created local jobs — although he disputes how many. “[Chinese companies] bring workers from China, even the unskilled labor,” he contends, calling into doubt the official figures from Islamabad and Beijing. In terms of security conditions, Aamir believes “there is no direct evidence linking crime with the CPEC.” However, he remains worried about corruption, namely kickbacks and land grabs that Chinese entities are allegedly using to circumvent Pakistan’s “mammoth bureaucracy.” Regarding terrorism, he believes there has “definitely been an increase” in attacks (especially in Balochistan) since the launch of CPEC. In his view, CPEC worksites and personnel represent alluring soft targets for the various extremist groups that seek to sabotage the Corridor.
Aamir, like Ahmad, is receptive to the idea of Chinese CSR. He also feels there is widespread national demand for it. “Support [for CPEC] would definitely increase among the underprivileged people who would be direct beneficiaries of this CSR,” he says. However, Aamir does not think that terrorism trends can be linked to Chinese corporate behavior. “Terrorism is due to nonstate actors who object to the Chinese presence in Pakistan,” he told me. “So they will not be pacified if China pours more money [into the country] in the form of CSR.” In Aamir’s view, this entire conversation is moot — since he insists, to date, Chinese entities have “not shown any willingness” to embed substantive CSR into their operations. “They have made some token claims,” he scoffs, “but that’s negligible.”
As the divergence of opinion between Ahmad and Aamir illustrates, we are no closer to knowing whether the BRI is increasing crime and terrorism now than we were back in 2017 (when I first posed the question). The only way we will make any progress to this end is by conducting multilateral research and analysis. The fate of the Belt and Road Initiative (and the countries participating in it) depend upon our collective ability to put aside our differences, objectively answer this question, and proceed accordingly for the greater good.