Report

Rough Ride on the New Silk Road

Rough Ride on the New Silk Road

A bloody bombing and knife attack Thursday in the capital of China’s western Xinjiang province, apparently timed to coincide with a high-profile visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, was awful in its own right, leaving one dead and almost 80 injured.

But the attack, which Beijing blamed on Muslim Uighur separatists, also underscored the perils of China’s plans to build a new "Silk Road" between western Chinese provinces like Xinjiang and central and southwest Asian countries like Pakistan. For now, at least, both ends of that trade route are threatened by Islamist extremists. Until those militants are defeated, the new Silk Road, the centerpiece of Beijing’s plans for diversifying its energy supply, may largely remain a pipe dream.

Losing the Silk Road would be a blow for China. Since it became a net oil importer in the early 1990s, China has watched with alarm as its economy has become increasingly dependent on the oil carried aboard the massive tankers snaking from Africa and the Middle East to the bustling east China coast. Transporting that oil using overland trade routes, like the caravan trails that connected China and the Middle East thousands of years ago, would go some way toward freeing Chinese leaders from constantly worrying that the United States will cut off their economic lifeline in the event of conflict by preventing oil tankers from bringing their precious cargo to Chinese shores.

The Obama administration is trying to pivot the United States to Asia by increasing its diplomatic, economic, and military presence in the fastest-growing part of the world. China has been trying to pull off its own pivot, to the west. The strategy involves spending billions of dollars to build roads, railroads, and energy pipelines between western China and countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan.

The idea is to promote economic development across a stretch of the world — including a large swath of China — that has seen far too little of it. At the same time, the plan offers Beijing a way to get more energy from central Asia and the Middle East. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor, for example, is meant to give China access to ports within spitting distance of the Middle East, while helping Pakistan spur growth in a moribund economy.

Ironically, a "New Silk Road" was also a mainstay of Hillary Clinton’s tenure at the head of the State Department. But U.S. plans to promote greater trade and energy links across central and southern Asia as a way to help countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan have basically come to naught.

China’s own Silk Road, in contrast, was a highpoint of Chinese cultural and commercial influence under ancient dynasties, and was formally resuscitated last year by top Chinese officials. Unlike the American version, China’s new Silk Road seems to be proceeding apace, with ambitious building projects, high-level state visits, and bucket loads of cash.

The problem? Violent, Islamist-inspired separatists are becoming increasingly brazen at both ends of that corridor, with deadly attacks in southern Pakistan and Western China in just the last month. Uighur leaders swore in March to wage war on China. And President Xi’s vow to crack down on Uighur separatists in the wake of the latest attack has some observers worried Beijing will create even more tensions in a region already resentful of Han influence.

On the other end of the route, in southern Pakistan, terrorism is a growing problem, even by the country’s depressingly high standards. One of the notable points to emerge from a February meeting between Pakistan’s president and China’s premier was Beijing’s insistence that Pakistan crack down on domestic terrorism, which threatens multi-billion dollar Chinese investments.

"For decades, the U.S. has been dealing with Islamabad" in an effort to make Pakistani interests and U.S. interests align, said Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Managing that relationship, combined with growing Chinese reliance on oil imports from Saudi Arabia, is "going to have a similar impact on Chinese foreign policy as it did for us," he said.

China’s foothold at the other extreme of that future trade corridor is the little-used deep-water port of Gwadar, which it helped build and which it gained control of last year. Nestled in the southwestern corner of Baluchistan, a restive and rebellious Pakistani province, Gwadar represents both the promise and the perils of China’s approach to diversifying its energy flows.

The huge port complex is built to handle massive tankers and container ships, and is located less than 200 miles from the Persian Gulf. That is important to China, the world’s biggest oil importer. Shipping crude from the Middle East into Gwadar, and then loading it onto pipelines bound for China can shave thousands of miles off the route that oil tankers have to take all the way to Asia.

That’s no small matter for a country which has spent the last decade obsessing about the so-called "Malacca Dilemma," China’s huge reliance on constricted and potentially vulnerable sea lanes in Southeast Asia for the overwhelming majority of its energy imports. China’s pivot to the West is a way to avoid depending too much on maritime chokepoints, a strategic vulnerability which keeps Chinese navy planners up at night.

But the move west, and the hopes and nearly $2 billion China is investing in Gwadar, carry their own risks.

In recent years, the once secular region of Baluchistan has become home to an "exponentially growing" sectarian security threat with little prospect the Pakistani government can rein in the violence, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted in a report last year. Energy infrastructure, including pipelines, is a favorite target for violent attacks there. Separatists in Baluchistan have on several occasions attacked Chinese workers developing the port complex at Gwadar. Pakistani security forces and Baluch separatists traded violent blows several times in the last month.

And it’s not just the port itself that is at risk: The land link between China and Gwadar is an old, 800-mile road, the Karakoram Highway, which is prone to natural disasters and unnatural sectarian violence. China is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the old highway, and Pakistani forces regularly patrol the route, but it remains a vulnerable chokepoint for overland connections between the two countries.

Greater Chinese reliance on Pakistan and the greater Middle East could have one silver lining for American policymakers, said Kuchins of CSIS: Beijing would likely be more inclined to support U.S
. efforts to stamp out all varieties of Islamist-inspired terrorism, rather than just worrying about its own militant Uighurs.  

To be sure, the road from Xinjiang to Gwadar is far from China’s only effort at diversifying the source of its raw materials. Beijing has built pipelines and highways to tap the oil, gas, and other resources of Central Asian countries in recent years. It also has an overland pipeline through Myanmar that offers another end-run around its maritime vulnerabilities. And Beijing and Moscow could sign as soon as next week a historic accord to increase energy trade between the two countries.

But as shown by China’s adventures in Africa, and especially in South Sudan, the quest for resources often brings with it unexpected foreign-policy commitments and the need to invest heavily not just in roads and airports, but in shaping the internal politics of countries where China is heavily invested.

For the future of the new Silk Road, that means trying to make sure that Islamabad makes cracking down on terrorist groups, especially those linked to Uighur separatists, as big a priority as Beijing has. If past is prologue, China can expect a long and bumpy ride.