Cultural and Linguistic Links between China and Central Asia: An Advantage or a Concern for “One Belt, One Road?”

Cultural and Linguistic Links between China and Central Asia: An Advantage or a Concern for “One Belt, One Road?”

Winding road in Zhangjiajie, China (Source: Liu Tao, Flickr)

Winding road in Zhangjiajie, China (Source: Liu Tao, Flickr)

The “One Belt, One Road” policy in China has received a great deal of attention over the past few years. This policy is the focal point of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy and domestic economic plan. While it is often referred to as “One Belt, One Road” or OBOR, the policy is in actuality a combination of two individual parts. The first part, the “Belt,” is a network of oil and natural gas pipelines as well as road and rail routes that span the distance between Xi’an and Western Europe. The second part, the “Road,” refers to waterways or a chain of ports and infrastructure projects on China’s coasts that travel from South and Southeast Asia to East Africa all the way to the north Mediterranean Sea.

One subject of particular interest with regard to the policy is the set of opportunities and challenges it presents, both for China and the countries it directly affects. Michael Clarke, in his report “Beijing’s March West: Opportunities and Challenges for China’s Eurasian Pivot,” points to several of these challenges and opportunities. Among the opportunities, Central Asia can act as a safety valve for China as US influence in the region tapers off. On the other hand, the stability of the far west regions of Xinjiang and Tibet is a challenge that China will continue to face as it pursues this policy.

OBOR and Linguistic and Cultural Linkages

An additional relevant topic is the ordinary people along these new routes and the prospects for increasing development and cooperation across borders. According to Reuters, in 2015 Wang Zhengwei, the head of China’s State Ethnic Affairs Commission, pointed out that China has both linguistic and cultural links between its own ethnic minorities and those living in neighboring countries. He stated that these cultural lin

ks are useful in not only developing the border areas, but also in constructing “One Belt, One Road.” His comment in the context of Clarke’s analysis raises two questions: How might China make use of those linguistic and cultural links? Given the unrest in the past few years, how likely is the possibility?

(Source: WikiCommons)

(Source: WikiCommons)

Ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have a number of links with neighboring Central Asian states. The Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek ethnic groups, all Turkic in origin, have their own states in Central Asia. While the Uyghurs, another Turkic ethnic group, do not have their own state, they nevertheless speak a language related those spoken in Central Asia. There are also religious connections. Many Muslims live along the routes currently under construction, which also have ties with not only the Central Asian states, but also the Middle East.

Drawing on Clarke’s analysis, these links represent another opportunity for China as it embarks upon implementing this policy in Central Asia. The lack of development in China’s western regions is often accused of causing unrest in the border regions. Some of the tenets of the One Belt, One Road policy, however, suggest ways to create employment that might benefit ethnic minorities. Thus, ethnic minorities in China would be directly involved in the development of their own regions, which would create more development opportunities in the future. How would the policy do so?

One part of the policy with particular relevance here is the “Information Silk Road,” designed to connect regional information and communications technology networks. There is potential for job creation here: individuals on both sides of the border will not only need to gather information, but translators will also need to be employed to ensure that states can properly share information. In addition, there is also the literal construction of the roads, rail routes, and pipelines on both sides that can employ millions of people. The idea here is that developing the regions and involving the people most affected by that development in the process itself will lead to future stability.

Stability and Security Along the OBOR

While there are certainly advantages to utilizing these cross-border connections more efficiently, is there any possibility that it will happen? Security concerns shed some doubt on the matter. Wang also mentioned that ethnic kin outside of China are responsible for provoking much of the unrest. Thus, there is a tension inherent in his positions: these potentially useful linguistic and cultural ties are also the same ones that cause instability.

According to Clarke, over the years, state-led development in China has not resulted in suppressing dissent or assimilating the ethnic groups. Furthermore, with regard to promoting closer relations with Eurasia, closer cross-border relations between co-ethnics may in fact open up new avenues for security issues that do not effectively integrate Xinjiang with the rest of the region. Of grave concern currently is terrorism. The past several years have seen a multitude of terrorist incidents in western China. A knife attack in a coal mine in September of 2015 left 50 people dead, over 150 people died in similar violent attacks in 2014, and in October of 2013, a car crashed in Tian’anmen Square, killing two and injuring 40.

In addition, ISIS has come up on China’s radar. China believes that Uyghurs have traveled to Syria to fight against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, China fears that these individuals will return home, thus developing more international ties between terrorists in the Middle East and Xinjiang. There are also reports suggesting that the Turkestan Islamic Party has a presence in Syria and has worked with the Al-Nusra Front.

At issue here is that the cross-border connections between co-ethnics represent both an opportunity and a challenge. While there is certainly an opportunity to make use of cultural and linguistic ties, there’s also a challenge with regard to security: to protect the very borders that boast those ties. Given the recent violence that has arisen at the same time as the One Belt, One Road policy, it appears that, at least for the time being, security will be the main priority.

The author is George Washington University Ph.D. student conducting research in China.