BRI: Labour pains in the birthplace of the Silk Road

China should showcase its sustainable goals in Central Asia: report

Cranes and containers are seen at the Yantian port in Shenzhen, following the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Guangdong province, China May 17, 2020. Picture taken May 17, 2020.

Cranes and containers are seen at the Yantian port in Shenzhen, following the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Guangdong province, China May 17, 2020. Picture taken May 17, 2020.

REUTERS/Martin Pollard

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed that China and Central Asian countries build an “economic belt along the Silk Road,” a trans-Eurasian project spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. 

Xi announced his new silk road while speaking at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, making Central Asia the cradle of his flagship global economic policy. 

He said the proposed economic belt “represents the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential.” 

Xi was on his first Central Asia tour – and said at the time that “a nearby neighbour is better than a distant relative.” 

Central Asia, with a population of around 72 million, consists of five republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and China now accounts for some 25 percent of all trade, surpassing the former Soviet Union in terms of economic influence in the cradle of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

But the crumbling infrastructure, corruption and scepticism over BRI means a firm set of sustainable policies must be introduced to protect the people and the environment, according to a recent report. 

The strategic and historical importance of this region means China has been investing heavily, but a new report by Oxford University’s Silk Road Society, in conjunction with the IIGF BRI Centre in Beijing, suggests there may be trouble ahead if decision-makers continue on the same route as they attempt to open up Central Asia. 

The report, entitled ‘The Central Asia Way: Promoting Environmental and Social Sustainability in the BRI’ states: “Central Asia is in need of development, energy, and infrastructure, and the BRI can offer these. However, as a region facing trans-boundary disputes, food and water security problems, and corruption, stakeholders must put in place regulations and incentives to ensure the BRI also accounts for the long-term health of people and the environment.” 

Opportunities and Risks 

In partnership with the Green BRI Centre, Oxford University Silk Road Society’s policy report 'The Central Asia Way' analyses the social and environmental impacts, risks, and opportunities for regional partners and China as BRI projects continue to expand into Central Asia. 

“From biodiversity and debt for nature swaps to blockchain anti-corruption and the wildlife trade, this report maps out the intersection of BRI with Central Asia’s development path, and argues that an opportunity is open to explore innovative responses to the challenges of green governance.” 

Dr Christoph Nedopil Wang, Director of the IIGF Green BRI Centre, said: “How, in a region that is not only vast and hard to govern, but that encompasses many rare and valuable natural resources can sustainable development be achieved? How can development protect nature and climate, improve livelihoods of people, while providing some economic returns for investors. It is indeed a challenge, however, a challenge that, if done right, provides many opportunities for investors, people and nature. 

“To shine light on some of the most important challenges and provide solutions to utilise opportunities to drive sustainable development in Central Asia and make true the promise to build a lean and green Belt and Road Initiative, this report provides relevant insights for investors and developers, including those coming from China.” 

Climate change 

Central Asia now faces a new set of environmental challenges in addition to on-going water security. A hotspot of global climate change, Central Asian states are experiencing rapidly melting glaciers, increasing desertification, and a host of threats to biodiversity.  

Kazakhstan’s water scarcity issues are compounded by poor infrastructure, with electricity output at just over 20 percent efficiency. Corruption is endemic, with contracts enlarged by as much as 30 percent to accommodate demands. 

China has emerged in place of the now-defunct Soviet Union as a key player in Central Asian economic, political and security affairs, surpassing Russia as the region’s main trading partner and now accounting for almost 25 percent of Central Asian trade. 

According to the report, a Central Asia Protest Tracker lists 63 protest events in the region from January 1, 2018 to August 31, 2020 alone, where China was a key issue. “Studies have estimated that shutdowns from protest can cost mining projects up to $20 million per week, and even more than that in opportunity costs and cost diversions. Without resolving underlying tensions, protest and discontent will continue to put financial and political strain on BRI projects for both host countries and China,” the report states. 

Ben Hales, from Oxford University’s Silk Road Society, said: “Coming from a holistic perspective, “sustainability” to us includes as many broad factors as possible. Often taken as an emission-focused aspect, we should also consider social and environmental factors including biodiversity, land rights, social equity, transparency and more. 

“There are always opportunities to improve the ecological impact of existing projects. Some of our research, for instance on expanding biodiversity protections in Kyrgyzstan, suggests that income from existing projects and debt sunk into them can be transformed via mechanisms such as debt-for-nature swaps into improving future conservation capacity in partner countries. Furthermore, as China moves towards entrenching its claims to “ecological civilisation” and the much-rumoured post-pandemic “BRI 2.0” takes shape, there is substantial space to reassess existing planned projects and integrate social and environmental equity. 

“We are obviously concerned that, in 2020, China generated 53 percent of the world’s coal power, which jars somewhat with its stated desire for ecological development, and indeed China’s position as a leader in green technology, notably solar panels. That being said, I am reminded of a former Premier Wen Jiabao’s line, “When you multiply any problem by China’s population, it is a very big problem. But when you divide it by China’s population, it becomes very small.” We have a strong belief that China has vast potential to take up the mantle of a global renewable energy leader, however, to do so will require a comprehensive acknowledgement in Beijing that the fossil fuel age is over. 

 “We do our work in the anticipation that BRI has the potential to extend globally China’s greatest policy success; the fastest and most substantial decrease in extreme poverty in human history. That being said, the achievement of such development must be sustainable. We wish to move forward in collaboration with Chinese partners, partner countries, and non-BRI states to ensure BRI reaches its highest potential in this regard. It is only through this commitment to socio-environmental sustainability that BRI will be considered a long-term force for good.” 

(Writing by Charles Lavery; Editing by Anoop Menon) 


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