In recent years the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), previously known as the "One Belt, One Road" strategy, has emerged as the cornerstone of China's foreign policy under Xi Jinping. Presented as a cooperative endeavor motivated by China's willingness to bring economic prosperity, growth, and stability to its wider periphery, BRI nevertheless has more than one purpose. As part of its New Silk Road project launched in 2015, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) has been studying BRI in detail over the last several years. We have unpacked its drivers, ambitions, and strategic implications.1 We have analyzed its possible impact on the Eurasian continental and maritime energy environment,2 described and assessed regional responses,3 underlined the challenges and uncertainties it faces,4 and participated in policymaking assessments of the initiative.5
This Asia Policy roundtable follows in the footsteps of these groundbreaking research activities, this time with the intention to shed light on BRI's military and security implications in South Asia. The roundtable has been made possible by the generous support of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, which partnered with NBR on a new project launched in 2018 dedicated to examining how China's expanding interests along the belt and road affect its military and security calculations and shape its external security behavior. [End Page 2]
As China's economic and political footprint expands along the continental Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, an increasing number of Chinese diplomats, businessmen, and workers are venturing into areas that were until now largely outside China's traditional reach. Along the belt and road, the security situation is often volatile due to insurgency and destabilizing spillovers from regional conflicts. How the Chinese military and security elite are trying to protect and secure China's interests along the new Silk Roads is one of the issues critical to BRI's sustainability and success.
Nowhere is China's tentative response to BRI's security challenges more apparent than in South Asia. The significance of this geographic space is self-evident, as this subregion is where the continental "belt" meets the maritime "road" and connects three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia—via land and the Indian Ocean, a crucial artery for international commerce and energy supplies. But it is also where BRI faces a whole gamut of serious security challenges, from traditional conflicts centered on territorial and border disputes, to potential naval competition with India, to nontraditional terrorist and religious insurgencies, to energy security challenges.
Pakistan epitomizes most of the security challenges BRI faces. Using the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a test case to assess how China attempts to secure its assets, Filippo Boni finds that the responsibility to protect Chinese citizens and assets is delegated to the Pakistani military and police forces, who have benefited from increased cooperation with their Chinese counterparts. Pakistan is also the only example of a South Asian country where Chinese private security companies operate so far. Meia Nouwens notes that the lack of either international or domestic regulations, combined with these companies' relative inexperience with operating in hostile environments, increases risks of miscalculation. Widening the geographic focus to the entire Indian Ocean, Nilanthi Samaranayake looks at China's first attempts in securing the Maritime Silk Road. Although Beijing's efforts still seem limited in scope and constricted by local and regional counterbalancing, the situation could change in the long run. It is precisely against the possibility of losing their strategic edge in the Indian Ocean to an expanded Chinese naval presence that both India and the United States should strengthen their countervailing response, argue Gurpreet Khurana and Arzan Tarapore. Considering the national security risks posed by China's expanded influence on its traditional periphery, India should promote military and geoeconomic [End Page 3] solutions, argues Khurana. Viewing BRI as an essential element of China's grand strategy, Tarapore advocates enhanced U.S. partnerships with regional states, with India at the core, and a comprehensive U.S. strategy that blurs the traditional economic and security fault lines (not unlike BRI itself).
Taken together, the essays presented in this roundtable offer a...