China's Belt and Road Initiative: Its Landscape (and Trajectory) in the Islamic World

China's Belt and Road Initiative: Its Landscape (and Trajectory) in the Islamic World

Muhammad Khalil Khan (Zhejiang University, China) and Cornelius B. Pratt (Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, China & Temple University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8980-8.ch006


China's multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a common fixture on the radar of policymakers and researchers because of the massive financial investment it involves and the economic opportunities it provides disadvantaged Eurasian states. BRI promises fast-track infrastructural development, transnational connectivity, and unimpeded trade. It predicates economic growth in developing countries on the shared development model. However, BRI has also engendered sensitive economic and security challenges. The Islamic world embraces BRI even as China's engagement there poses critical challenges to its foreign policy. This chapter highlights key markers on the landscape of BRI projects in the Islamic world and presents their implications for China's foreign policy. It also provides useful policy guidelines for a more effective implementation of BRI-related projects, thereby protecting China from possible conflict with regional and global powers.
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China’s government is changing the trajectory of global and regional discourse on geopolitics, geoeconomics and finance—and on transnational collaboration. It is making a difference in people’s well-being, upping the ante on the true meaning of regional and international integration. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious, proactive, and globally driven strategic foreign policy venture announced by President Xi Jinping’s government in September 2013, is a cornucopia of a large number of international infrastructural development projects and opportunities for economic cooperation for mutual benefit and regional integration. It promises vibrant networks of roads and railways for landlocked economies of Asia, Africa and Europe. It seeks to link China with South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, and Western Europe through the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” and the South China Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian Ocean (Figure 1). China is developing six economic corridors: (a) China–Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, (b) China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), (c) Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Economic Corridor, (d) China-Central and West Asia Economic Corridor, (e) New Eurasian Land Bridge, and (f) China–Mongolia–Russia Economic Corridor, supplemented by networks of oil and gas pipelines, high-speed fiber optic cables and developing infrastructure geared to enhance regional connectivity, economic activity and transportation among nations. The Chinese government acknowledges that the absence of regional and international economic integration through land hinders the economies of Eurasia; therefore, BRI is a significant step toward building stronger bridges between those economies and China (Rolland, 2017).

Figure 1.

Infrastructural network of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Source: Mercator Institute for China Studies, 2015

In recent years, China has significantly increased its political and economic stature at the global level. Now, it is seeking strategic partners and alliances to promote, through BRI, its strategic interests in the region and beyond. China’s unprecedented economic growth, its diplomatic policies and military rise earned it reasonable influence in the Islamic world, which has embraced BRI as a means toward developing its communication and energy infrastructure and toward refurbishing its economies. In addition, the West’s, particularly the United States’, political meddling in the Islamic world’s internal affairs; the favorable policies toward Israel vis-à-vis the plight the Palestinian people; and the military intervention in sovereign Islamic states have all generated concerns among the Muslim Ummah that are seeking an alternative power to provide leverage in helping to settle lingering political disputes. China has often been viewed as a more reliable partner than the United States in the Islamic world. Therefore, BRI provides a strategic opportunity to China to fill the vacuum created by the mistrust of the United States in the Islamic world and to establish strong political and economic relationship with the Islamic world. China’s cordial relationship with the Islamic world will not only fulfill China’s future energy needs but will also provide strategic and political support to world powers. BRI projects are active in 30 Muslim countries; therefore, the initiative can play a vital role in boosting China’s political, economic and social influence in the Islamic world. However, China’s engagement in the Islamic world will also engender serious political, economic and cultural challenges.

The purpose of this chapter is to highlight issues immanent on the BRI landscape, which offers mammoth opportunities for international collaboration, even as it is fraught with ground-level uncertainties and occasional tensions. This chapter is organized into three main parts. The first presents disparate views on Sino-Islamic relationship and BRI, the second focuses on opportunities and challenges that emanate from that relationship and that comprise the trajectory of the BRI landscape, and the third makes recommendations for enhancing BRI in an environment associated with apoplectic geopolitical and geoeconomic concerns and religious tensions. Why BRI vis-à-vis China’s Islamic relationship? Because the infrastructural program is implemented in 30 Islamic nations whose populations—e.g., those of Indonesia and Pakistan—are among the world’s highest and whose economies are historically tied to that of China.

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