The perils of China’s Silk Road revival

China aims to put a modern twist on the ancient Silk Road in a move to boost trade with Europe, but obstacles remain.

Despite possessing some of China's largest oil reserves, Xinjiang is one of the poorest provinces [Johan Nyman/Al Jazeera]

Xinjiang, China – China’s President Xi Jinping aims to put a modern twist on the ancient Silk Road in a move to boost trade with Europe, as well as cool off tension in the volatile northwest province of Xinjiang. But travelling backwards in the footsteps of Venetian explorer Marco Polo – who some 700 years ago opened western eyes to the richness of Central Asia and China – may prove a difficult balancing act. 

In ancient times, merchant caravans crossing the Taklimakan desert on the Silk Road would stop for relief at the oasis towns. Travelling through the world’s second largest shifting sand desert today still leaves one with an eerie feeling of being cut off from civilisation – with one significant difference.

On the sides of the narrow highways, large numbers of oil pumpjacks can be seen across the vast landscape, pumping relentlessly up and down in rotating motions. On closer inspection, one can see black puddles of oil spread in the sand next to the big nodding donkeys, so thick that you can write your name in it.

It might seem like a sign of wealth and prosperity for some, but for others it is more of a curse. 

A girl walks a horse pulling a cart at the old market in the former Silk Road city of Hotan, Xinjiang province [Reuters]

“The oil is the cause of all problems in Xinjiang,” says Orkesh, a young man belonging to the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghur ethnic group. “Before the oil, we lived here in peace. Today it’s chaos.”

According to several reports, economic expansion in the Xinjiang region has mainly been harvested by government-controlled energy and infrastructure companies. Although possessing some of China’s largest natural gas and oil reserves, it is one of the poorest provinces in the country.

Political unrest is common. Ethnic and religious minority groups resent Beijing’s heavy-handed attempts to establish central control. The influx of Han Chinese migrant workers to the region – as part of Beijing’s effort to dilute the ethnic concentration – has fuelled anger among the Uyghurs for years.

In the past few months more than 100 people have been killed in the violence.

However, Xinjiang is not entirely cursed by its geography. It is the only major overland route from China to Central Asia and so throughout the history of the old Silk Road, it was a valuable region.

This is what President Xi wants to take advantage of now by re-establishing the trade route through Xinjiang and the Central Asian states it borders, all the way through to the hearts of European consumers.

By doing so, Xi hopes to kill several birds with the one stone: To increase economic development and cool off separatist movements in Xinjiang, secure natural resources in its neighbouring countries, and lower dependence on the country’s coastal ports.

‘Silk Road Economic Belt’

During a tour in Central Asia last year, the president presented the “Silk Road Economic Belt” with trans-Eurasian road, rail, and pipeline systems. During state visits, he also made pledges of financial support and called for further diplomatic, security, and energy cooperation with countries such as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

His vision was repeated during the G-20 summit in St Petersburg, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek last year.

Even if the strategies that the Chinese government is trying to implement work, they will take years to put into practice.

by - Raffaello Pantucci, security expert

“It’s extremely ambitious,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a security analyst who studies China at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a think-tank in London. “But China is facing many challenges.”

The first challenge is creating economic development that will pacify anger and separatist elements among the Uyghur population. Previous attempts have failed.

“Even if the strategies that the Chinese government is trying to implement work, they will take years to put into practice. This means that the situation probably is going to get worse since people don’t see benefits coming directly, while the influx of migrants continue to increase,” says Pantucci.

Local minorities feel discriminated against in the job market and guidelines by Beijing to employ more Uyghurs have been unhurried to implement. Several people – including Uyghurs and Han Chinese – say getting a qualified job in state-controlled energy companies is next to impossible for the Uyghurs, especially women.  

Johan Lagerkvist, who is a China specialist at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, an independent research institute in Stockholm, says the Chinese government has realised that both carrots and sticks need to be employed to calm the Uyghurs.

“The problem is that the carrot and stick get transformed by local dynamics that the leaders in Beijing can’t control,” he says. “Often, the stick hits too hard and the carrot doesn’t reach the local community.”

So far, violence in the region has had only a limited impact on business. However, the importance of maintaining calm, especially in the cities of Kashgar and Hotan, is increasing, according to a report by global intelligence company Stratfor. 

“Kashgar will likely see additional violence in the coming years as Han migration, industrialisation and escalating property markets stir ethnic and civil tensions with the local population,” the report says.

External conundrums

Another issue concerns the neighbouring countries. Efforts to develop overland transport routes to and through Central Asia may be constrained by distance, terrain, and political and security risks.

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For example, the trade corridor between Kashgar in Xinjiang and Gwadar in southwest Pakistan “will be easy targets for local separatists or jihadist elements with ties to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in Xinjiang and Pakistan’s Waziristan region,” the Stratfor report says.

Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at Australia’s University of Sydney, also warns that Central Asia is likely to pose hard diplomatic questions for China in the years ahead, despite flourishing trade links.

“For Beijing, there is the constant shadow of instability in its new-found allies. Central Asian countries are beset with governance and corruption issues, with many of them being poor on observance of rule of law and human rights. The possibility of future unrest is therefore never far away,” he wrote in an analysis of the situation.

The China-Europe line will be especially vulnerable to shifts in Moscow’s relations with other countries along the route. This could risk drawing China into a face-off for influence with an increasingly insecure Russia, Brown says.

Just like the deadly pandemic the Black Death, which spread from China to Europe via the ancient Silk Road, unwanted elements may take advantage of the new trade route today – such as rebel fighters.

As the number of roads connecting Xinjiang to Central Asian states increases, it is likely the volume of weapons and drug trafficking in support of organised crime and rebel networks in China will grow, the Stratfor report says.

Also the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan may cause another headache for China. The pullout is unlikely to trigger an immediate breakdown in regional security, but increased volatility is to be expected.

All in all, the new trade routes may be prove to be as hazardous and eventful as the ancient one, leaving China just as vulnerable as the merchant caravans crossing the desert.

“The new Silk Road is likely to be a place of hard-nosed pragmatism, rather than romance in the coming decade, and one which China will be very wary of travelling too fast along,” Brown says.

Source: Al Jazeera