The evolving terrorist threat to China’s Central Asia projects

The evolving terrorist threat to China’s Central Asia projects

With its infrastructure projects and business investments, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) initiative has the potential to transform Central Asia. But Chinese plans will face rising terrorism and extremism risks in the region. In order to address these security concerns, China will have to work closely with Central Asian republics. If successful, in the longer term the SREB’s positive impact on economic growth and regional integration will improve the security outlook.

An opportunity for Central Asia

Central Asia is a vital part of China’s plans for the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the SREB is the largest component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative — an ambitious program aiming to invest as much as $1 trillion in new transport and trade infrastructure across Asia and beyond.

The Silk Road Economic Belt will create a network of railways, roads, pipelines, and utility grids linking China to Central Asia, West Asia, and parts of South Asia. The China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC) will be the SREB’s overland route passing through Central Asia. Starting from Xinjiang and crossing Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, this corridor will link China and the Arabian Peninsula. The intention is to save transit time relative to sea routes, mainly for high-value, low volume goods.

The SREB could transform Central Asia, which suffers from lack of basic infrastructure and funds to support local development. Chinese investments could not only improve connectivity and trade but also agriculture. Presently increasing food insecurity and the ineffective use of available resources impacts agricultural productivity. The faulty irrigation system causes the waste of more than 50% of water used for irrigation. With its advanced water saving irrigation system, China could help modernise water infrastructure in Central Asia, thus improving regional food supply.

At the regional level, Chinese investments and economic pressure could push Central Asia towards greater integration. Already, practical steps are being taken in this direction. Earlier this year, the former President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev and President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev reached an agreement on the construction of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway.

Confronting terrorism and extremism

Although the SREB has received a certain degree of enthusiasm since it was launched, the Chinese initiative is by no means without risks. Among the problems that China will have to face, there are serious security challenges.

Central Asia is an increasingly fertile ground for violent extremist activity, though the threat is often exaggerated. It’s in the interest of some of the region’s governments to create an enemy that justifies arrests and the suppression of opposition under the guise of Islamism – and the pretext of fighting terrorism can also be a source of funds and military aid from abroad. The most prominent group in the region, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has operated there for some 15 years, has been substantially weakened.

That said, there is certainly cause for concern. Over the past five years, up to 4,000 Central Asians have reportedly travelled to the Middle East to join jihadist groups, most joining Daesh (also known as Islamic State).

Marginalisation and bleak economic prospects are crucial factors contributing to the radicalisation of Central Asian nationals. Most Central Asian countries, especially parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the Fergana valley, suffer poor economic development. Poverty leads to unemployment and by extension to a large number of marginalised young people who are highly vulnerable to the extremist cause.

Another critical factor that contributes to the growth of Islamist extremism in the region is a high rate of corruption. Corruption has decreased governments’ capacity to tackle organised crime, especially related to drug trafficking. Further, trafficking and extremism are closely linked in Central Asia. Radical Islamist movements have often resorted to drug trafficking to finance their activities. With its security already fragile due to corrupt institutions and the drug trade from neighbouring Afghanistan, Tajikistan has faced a outbreaks of violence and terrorism.

The basic premise of SREB is that economic development will help Central Asia to tackle inequality and high levels of corruption, which are responsible for increasing terrorism and extremism. In some ways it may. However, if China fails to share prosperity equally, inform local societies on initiatives that affect them and ensure that reforms of institutions keep up with foreign investments, SREB could in fact exacerbate these challenges.

Particularly significant to Chinese security interests is the presence of Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) fighters in the region. The TIP is a largely Uyghur jihadi movement. Uyghur militants advocate the independence of the Chinese province of Xinjiang, and are treated as a serious threat by the Chinese authorities. The August 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek by TIP fighters demonstrated that Chinese assets and personnel in Central Asia are potential targets of politically motivated attacks.

Given Uyghur aspirations for greater political autonomy, China’s westward opening-up might foster attacks on SREB’s routes and infrastructures. Between 2010 and 2014, 468 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. Some of these incidents – such as the 1 March 2014 Kunming railway station attack or the 30 April 2014 suicide bombing attack to a railway station in Urumqi by Uighur separatists – demonstrate that rail transportation facilities present potentially inviting targets for Uighur militants. The significance of its geographical position, which links Xinjiang with Central Asian states, makes the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor more at risk of being targeted. Ironically, the construction of a new rail system might increase terrorist attacks. SREB infrastructures will in fact expose formerly isolated provinces and provide extremist groups with access to areas, which were previously too remote to reach.

Stabilising Factors?

Despite the security concerns around the SREB in the short term, in the longer term Chinese investment could have a stabilising role in Central Asia.

For this to succeed, China will have to take the interest of local communities into account. Supporting an economic agenda that enhances prosperity for Central Asian nationals would ultimately reduce the risk of extremism in the region. China will have to combine infrastructure initiatives with projects aimed at increasing ordinary people participation in trade. In economic terms, this means to pursue investments that benefit local growth, for example through financing small businesses. .

Moreover, to address the growing threat of Islamic militancy, China will have to boost coordination of counterterrorism operations with Central Asian counterparts. China’s Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in Counter Terrorism initiated with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan emphasises China’s attempt to boost security in the region. That said, building a robust security apparatus will not be enough to tackle extremism in Central Asia.

Over-reliance on conventional security arrangements may be counterproductive and may actually be increasing extremism. China should combine counterterrorism operations with non-coercive measures, particularly using preventative approaches to mitigate ideological and social grievances. This could be achieved through pushing Central Asian governments to give more support to Islamic education as well as investing in training programmes to provide Imams with tools to fight extremist ideas. If efforts in this direction are developed, China would address some of the drivers of radicalisation, thus making it possible the long-term effectiveness of counterterrorism capabilities.

The fight against corruption will prove more difficult. Central Asian governments are willing to pass corruption laws, although they have been unable to implement them. Anti-corruption campaigns usually target individuals within the elite who have fallen out of favor. Chinese investments in Central Asia have themselves been accused of high-level corruption, especially bribery.

The only way forward is greater engagement with governments to achieve a more responsible investment policy. To the same end, by addressing corruption in Central Asia, China would mitigate the risks of corruption surrounding Chinese investments. Part of the problem is that Chinese companies have to deal with complex and corrupt bureaucratic systems. If China manages to engage with national government structures and bolster institutional reforms, this will also foster a greater transparency from Chinese investment partners.

On the other hand, focusing solely on intergovernmental relations is not going to be enough to overcome security challenges. China will ultimately need a long term strategy to deliver benefits to each segments of Central Asian society. In short, If SREB ends up being designed to provide benefits to mostly Chinese companies and labour, this may in fact exacerbate the inequality and social grievances that aggravate violent extremism in the region.

About Author

Federica Reccia

Federica graduated with a first-class honours in Eastern European Studies from the University of Naples l’Orientale and holds an MA in International Relations from King's College London. Federica specialises in Russia and the independent states of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus. Her previous experience includes Intelligence, Security and Counter-terrorism. Formerly a researcher for the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, Federica is currently a security assessment officer at PwC.