By Raffaello Pantucci and Anna Sophia Young
First published in the Financial Times Beyond BRICS, August 10, 2016
The vast Chinese northwestern frontier region of Xinjiang may serve as a useful early indicator of how Beijing’s much-touted “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is supposed to work – and how successful it may become.
The region, which is home to several muslim minority peoples, has been wracked by ethnic turmoil for decades, prompting Beijing to seek to nurture social stability by driving economic development through hefty investments.
But for this strategy to gain traction, Beijing realised that it needed to boost development in the region around Xinjiang by building commercial corridors to neighbouring Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, Xinjiang was key motivator behind the BRI concept.
But so far the results have been underwhelming. In the three years since the forerunner of the BRI was launched, Xinjiang’s trade volume has not increased and it still constitutes an unchanging portion of total Chinese trade with Central Asia (see chart). This discrepancy between action and results raises questions about whether the BRI is a turning point in Chinese economic policy or simply old wine in a new bottle.
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region government is an active player in the BRI. Under its auspices, Xinjiang’s major energy companies are expanding Chinese energy trade with Central Asia.
Following its promotion as one of seven national centers for the development of Chinese wind power in 2014, the Xinjiang-based wind turbine company Goldwind won contracts to build plants throughout Central Asia in 2015. In addition, the Tebian Electric Apparatus Stock Company, one of China’s major power transformer companies located in Xinjiang, announced in 2015 plans to build a power transformation line in Kyrgyzstan and a power station in Tajikistan.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, called the power station in Tajikistan a symbol of the growing “friendship” between China and Tajikistan, highlighting Xinjiang’s importance to the political and economic objectives of the BRI.
In addition to this corporate activity, the Xinjiang Communist party leadership has represented Beijing in Central Asia. Zhang Chunxian, Communist Party Secretary in Xnjiang, has formalised trade partnerships initiated by Mr Xi with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. These include deals on agriculture, infrastructure and trade with Tajikistan after Mr Xi’s 2013 visit and a $2bn trade deal with Kazakhstan. Thus, Xinjiang is serving to implement the leader’s vision.
These BRI deals, however, do not in fact represent a departure from Xinjiang’s trade history. Special trade relationships with Central Asian states existed before the initiative was announced, and energy and commodities were already important in its regional trade.
The Kashgar Special Economic Zone was established in 2010 and is intended to deal primarily in regional commodities exports. Likewise, plans for the Kazakhstan Khorgos Border Cooperation Center, where duty-free trade between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang could occur, were already announced in 2011, though construction did not begin until 2014. The point being that many of the projects now tagged as BRI are in fact pre-existing projects that are being re-branded.
The lack of change in Xinjiang’s trade volume since the BRI was announced calls the connection between the broader vision and the deals into question. In 2015, Xinjiang’s trade volume with Central Asia declined more rapidly than the national volume, while experiencing a reduction in trade with every Central Asian country aside from Turkmenistan, which was involved in building a new pipeline to the region.
Xinjiang’s textile exports have increased in 2016, according to the Global Trade Review. However, textiles were already a significant part of Xinjiang’s trade to Central Asia, so the rebound may merely be the result of a weak 2015 base.
The discrepancy between Xinjiang’s visibility in the BRI and its steady proportion of China’s total trade with Central Asia suggests that – so far – the initiative is simply publicising trade relations that existed before, instead of changing China’s trade patterns.
If this pattern holds, it will be important for countries that deal with China to look beyond the visionary rhetoric of the BRI and engage instead with concrete and bankable projects. This requires a focus on what made sense before the BRI was announced.
Raffaelo Pantucci is director of international security studies and Anna Sophia Young is a research intern at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank based in London.