One Belt, Whose Road?

China National Highway 215, a new 641km road in China’s Aksai Kazakh Autonomous County that’s firmly aimed at Kazakhstan.

With remarkably sparse international fanfare and a great deal of nominal confusion, China’s première, Xi Jingping launched the largest development push since the Marshall plan onto the world. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an increasingly catchy term, will profoundly impact Central Asia. The Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) forms the BRI’s key component, it is a development strategy that focuses on infrastructure investment; especially construction materials, railway and highway construction, automobile production, real estate creation, and power grid generation.

At an estimated $900 billion, the SREB project is set to be the largest investment program in human history. The investment billions will be channelled into projects throughout Central Asia, with the official aim being to help them to move away from an export-oriented economic model, particularly in terms of natural resources, along with better connecting China to growing (i.e. Western Africa), as well as established (namely European) markets. Current discussions regarding the project typically focus on what the initiative implies in the context of a rising China. Many overlook the fact that the other participants in the initiative are equally important.

The Belt and Road Initiative promises infrastructure developments on a scale never before seen.

Geographically, the Central Asian states connect Tibet and the Xinjiang province to the Caspian Sea, they also serve as a halfway point between Europe and Africa. In the past, they formed the meeting point of the East and the West; in today’s world, the quantities of undiscovered resources surrounding the region are at the core of competing world powers’ materialistic interests, especially in the context of climate change. Indeed, the first stage of the project indicates that billions will be devoted to establishing rail and road links to Central Asia and across it to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey, and Europe. The goal is to minimise physical, technical and political barriers to trade, with a long-term vision of a free trade agreement in the region.

Whether this will empower Central Asian states in their newfound independence, or consolidate them as either vassal states of China (or, if China’s designs fail, and Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union takes root, Russia) remains to be seen.

Certainly, the multilateral ties built through the Initiatives will be very useful in expanding the China’s global soft power capacity. There have been debates on how the SREB symbolises a contest between Russia, China and potentially India in terms of ‘latent’ control over Central Asia. However, coming from an alternative perspective, having the agential power to choose who to support enables different states to become more active in the region. It has been said that the Central Asian states now dare to openly criticise Russia, such as how the President of Kyrgyzstan openly addressed how Kyrgyz migrants have been under attack in Russia because of xenophobia in one of his speeches. Whether this will empower Central Asian states in their newfound independence, or consolidate them as either vassal states of China (or, if China’s designs fail, and Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union takes root, Russia) remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, beyond the focus on capital provision, the plan inherently carries an ideological meaning. Ultimately, the whole development strategy is deeply relevant to the so-called ‘China model’, with an emphasis on state-led approach. It also reinforces the Chinese investment model that prides itself on not forcefully imposing any conditionality on the receiving parties, as has been demonstrated in a number of African cases. In such circumstances, it is vital to not forget about the lived experiences of such projects. For instance, In the case of Kenkiyak, where the Kazakhstan–China oil pipeline passes through, the town kindergarten has become a hostel for Chinese workers. Moreover, the quality of their living environment has also deteriorated subject to pollutants produced by the project. And as for the allure of promise jobs, the best roles are granted to Chinese workers rather than locals.

The BRI seeks an infrastructure development programme on a scale unseen since the Marshall plan — but will it trap Central Asia in debt?

It is widely acknowledged that Western media has paid limited attention to the Central Asia region. And as this development initiative catches the world’s attention, the region gradually develops its own voice as well. Some may say that such views exaggerate the significance of Central Asia, because the region per se does not cast much impact other parts of the world; Their names are barely seen. However, it is not the case that there is nothing to study or to understand; rather, throughout human history, there has been a tendency to overlook what we deem as inapplicable in or irrelevant to our contexts, often to be proved spectacularly wrong. Situated at the crossroad of the world, the area is embedded with a diverse array of historical stories and buried knowledge. In light of the SREB, it may be high time for us to a rediscover Central Asia.