The transition in Chinese leadership since November 2012 has been observed with significant changes in Chinese foreign policy under the leadership by President Xi Jinping. The initiation of Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is seen as one of the major contour of Chinese foreign policy and can be linked with the ‘peaceful rise 2.0. In this behavior, Beijing adhered to declare ‘peaceful development’ policy which not only aimed to maintain a strong and stable external environment conducive to its ascendance, but the manner in which it did seek are magnificently different.
In the context of BRI, the rhetoric casts it in terms of economy but it has also well-organized security and strategic aspects which contributes to the overall Chinese national security. Many Chinese sources suggest that BRI investment is being used as a means of securing energy supply routes, stabilizing border regions, and cultivating stronger economic and diplomatic relations with partner nations. However, the goals are constrained by dual security challenges; both traditional and non-traditional security threats which are intertwined.
The global great powers in the area of BRI have already put forward their own regional initiatives aimed seeking the regional influence. Other than the great power geopolitical games, Chinese territorial and island disputes, and regional political turmoil in host countries, Beijing is countered with multiple strong and serious non-traditional security threats. The growing activities of three important forces (terrorist forces, national separatist forces and religious extremists), threatening the BRI initiative is becoming one of the grave asymmetric security threats in the region.
Despite the basic difference in these organizations’ political objective, personal composition, organizational forms, the common feature stands same; they reject secular regimes and propose to set up an Islamic state. Basically, as a result of regional security plan, and international anti-terrorism situation, these organizations are characterized by a guiding ideology, decentralization, cross-cutting of personnel, fragmentation and strong linkages with other International terrorist organizations. The activities of East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) against Chinese targets are one such threat to Chinese people’s property and personal safety.
In addition, maintaining secure sea access is one of the key features of BRI initiative which will make it sure the sea channels remain open. The Indian Ocean routes are strategically significant for world’s trade such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Mendoza and the Strait of Malacca. Most of Chinese oil trade is passed through the Strait of Malacca, and the Indian Ocean to Middle East and North Africa thus making these channels the lifeline of China’s economic growth.
Therefore, it becomes imperative for China to maintain secure these sea routes. The security challenge mainly comes from the United States which also endeavors to control the Strait. In this scenario, any security breach in the Strait of Hormuz may result in deteriorating security situation within the region. Moreover, pirate threat in the Mande Strait can not be ignored especially off the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden.
Besides the terrorist activities and open sea access, BRI initiative is also affected by the regional economic integration pressures. The core purpose of BRI initiative is to establish trade and economic ties with Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe, to promote China’s economic rebalancing and upgrading, to develop mutual cooperation, and to encourage regional prosperity through investment and technology. In this situation, the United States proposal to establish Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TTP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement (TTIP) and later to divide the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have actually tried to block the BRI objectives.
It is worth mentioning here that transnational organized crime has increasingly become rampant and has affected the social stability and economic development of BRI partner countries. According to the United Nations General Assembly, ‘three major world catastrophes’ are not only hampering the economic and trade relations of BRI countries but also having direct impact of China’s national security. Other transnational organized crimes such as the large production of opium and its spread to the world from Afghanistan, religious extremism in Central Asia, transnational economic crimes (specially telecommunication frauds and money laundering), and illegal immigrant crimes are having direct impact on BRI’s overall security.
Facing these security challenges by the Beijing, the effective interaction lies in playing the role of a ‘pivot’ state as BRI initiative is having common areas of interest for Pakistan and India in South Asia. Since China and India have long-standing territorial disputes, Pakistan can play the role of a ‘pivot’ state which can be ensured by China-Pakistan all-weather strategic cooperative partnership. To secure the western China, Pakistan’s influence can be used on Afghanistan including ETIM forces in Central Asian region. Moreover, China can also use Pakistan as a bridge for security cooperation between China and the United States.
Subject to naval forces constraint, China needs to participate multi-level exercises with Pakistan to ensure the safety of sea lanes. The China’s growing influence in Gwadar port also plays an important role in fighting against piracy in Indian Ocean west coast thus ensuring the energy security in the Gulf region.
Well-aware of all these risks and security threats, Beijing is not only marshalling all its resources to create a secure and safer context for BRI but also improving its ability to undertake non-traditional security operations such as disaster relief missions and non-combatant evacuations for longer period.
At a security level, China is also encouraging other options such as host nation support, law enforcement initiative and private security firms for securing BRI assets and personnel. Whereas, at a strategic level, high-level engagements, economic inducements, and public diplomacy are being carried out to decrease the potential risks and competition with other major powers. Furthermore, Beijing also needs to set up more cooperative and open concept to mobilize the region in active participation and implementation of BRI initiative thus ultimately achieving a win-win situation.
*Zaheema Iqbal is a Research Associate at Institute of Maritime Affairs (IMA), Islamabad. Her areas of expertise are cyber security, cyber terrorism, cyber threats, terrorism, non-traditional security threats, radicalization. She can be reached at [email protected]