Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Terrorism and Trade: China's Future in Central Asia

By Matthew McGeePublished November 9, 2014

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To help maintain regional stability as well as to increase its regional presence, China is planning to create a network of trade routes across Asia and Europe, in addition to giving significant aid to Afghanistan. However, opening up western China may prove to be a double edged sword that, though bringing in increased trade money, may also exacerbate already high ethnic tensions in the region and lead to more violence.
By Matthew McGee, 11/09/14

As the U.S. and coalition forces wind down operations in Afghanistan, the People's Republic of China is facing an imminent security threat from a resurgence of terrorism. In order to prevent this terrorism from spilling over into Xinjiang and elsewhere, China has decided to blend trade and antiterrorism; however, the extent to which this will actually be effective remains to be seen.

The past few months have been the bloodiest for Afghan troops fighting the Taliban since the U.S. invasion 13 years ago; there is no end in sight as coalition troops continue to wind down their combat mission even as the Taliban expands its control. In order to help combat this, China has recently pledged to work with Afghanistan to develop its antiterrorism capabilities. In addition, China will drastically increase its aid to $327 million through 2017 and help Afghanistan develop vital infrastructure.  These moves have been welcomed by the U.S. and even though it is extremely unlikely China will send any significant military aid, these actions will help maintain stability in Afghanistan. 

This can to an extent be seen as falling into the broader idea of China's "New Silk Road," a counter to the U.S.'s own New Silk Road initiative which greatly differs from the Chinese version. The U.S. version was developed in order to help ensure regional stability through trade links following its military departure from Afghanistan. However, the trade routes noticeably exclude Iran, Russia, and China, all of which are major powers that should be included in any sort of broad trade plan. Without these countries, smaller Central Asian nations that are already generally isolationist will continue to primarily trade with Russia and China and this New Silk Road will be largely ineffective in its goals. 

In contrast, China's version is two-pronged plan: the land route starts in Xi'an and goes to Rotterdam in northern Europe and then Venice in southern Europe, where it will connect with the sea route that starts in Fuzhou.  Hitting all of the major cities between the start and end points, these ambitious trade routes could both extend China's influence and help maintain stability in Afghanistan. However, as trade and travel increase through the restive Xinjiang region, there is a strong possibility that terrorism will increase from fighters coming from China's border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

As it is, terrorist attack related deaths increased to 76 in the first half of 2014, compared to 16 in the first half of 2013. Such developents, coupled with Al-Qaeda's recent call for jihad against China for its policies in Xinjiang, could seriously threaten stability in the region at a time when tensions are reaching all-time highs over Han immigration. 

As China begins to open up the western part of the country for increased trade, it may very well be faced with an increased security threat there. Helping Afghanistan better its infrastructure and antiterrorism capabilities may not be enough to stem the resurgence of terrorism there. Additionally, though China's ambitious New Silk Road plan may help regional economies, it may also provide a medium for an easier flow of fighters and weapons to be used to challenge Beijing's authority in Xinjiang.