China’s Belt and Road Initiative, often referred to as the “New Silk Route”, is one of the most extensive infrastructure projects in the world. This project was initiated by the government of China and is fueled by the ambitions of China’s president Xi Jinping.
The Impact Of China’s Belt And Road Initiative
Xi originally announced the strategy as the “Silk Road Economic Belt” during an official visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013. “Belt” is short for the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” referring to the proposed overland routes for road and rail transportation through landlocked Central Asia along the famed historical trade routes of the Western Regions; whereas “road” is short for the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road“, referring to the Indo-Pacific Sea routes through Southeast Asia to South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Examples of Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investments include ports, skyscrapers, railroads, roads, airports, dams, coal-fired power stations, and railroad tunnels.
While China drives its ambitions, numerous concerns about the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on the environment and biodiversity have been raised. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, which is an international NGO investigating environmental crime and abuse, the international proliferation of traditional Chinese medicine – touted as a pillar of the BRI – poses potential risks for biodiversity around the world, and might fuel illegal wildlife trade.
In fact, A little-known aim of China’s Belt and Road Initiative is ‘people-to-people cultural exchange’, including active promotion of traditional Chinese medicine in countries part of the Belt and Road Initiative. On a global scale, this is likely to increase both traditional Chinese medicine demand and the sourcing of wildlife-based ingredients from new areas.
Especially infrastructure projects located in areas which are already hubs for wildlife trafficking might increase illegal wildlife trafficking activities in these areas. In addition, there are concerns that the Belt and Road Initiative might connect remote regions with a rich biodiversity to the routes of illegal wildlife traffickers. It seems that many west and central Asian countries have hitherto been less engaged in this supply chain, possibly because of remote locations, less-developed transportation networks and easier availability of other sources of supply.
Let’s discuss a few exemplary regions in which the Belt and Road Initiative might fuel the illegal wildlife trade.
Pakistan is rich in biodiversity, particularly in the arid and semi-arid regions which cover almost 80% of the total land area. A number of animal and plant species are already threatened or endangered largely due to over-exploitation and loss of natural habitat.
The envisioned China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, traverse key habitats for large and endangered carnivores, which are highly marketable species in China and Southeast Asia. By creating new access to wildlife and supply corridors, the Belt and Road Initiative poses a significant risk of increasing illegal wildlife trade in the Pakistan region.
Djibouti And Ethiopia
Djibouti is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It is bordered by Somaliland, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. It also has direct access to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is strategically located near some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, controlling access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. It serves as a key refueling and transshipment center, and is the principal maritime port for imports from and exports to neighboring Ethiopia.
As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has heavily invested in this country. For example, the Djibouti government enlisted the services of the China Harbor Engineering Company Ltd for the construction of an ore terminal.
Referring to illegal wildlife trafficking, the port of Djibouti plays a crucial role in shipping wildlife contraband to Asian countries, including China. Products that are leaving Djibouti primarily originate from the bordering Ethiopia. Ethiopia itself is a major source country for wildlife products that are required for traditional Chinese medicine. However, Ethiopia does not have the large-scale shipping infrastructure that Djibouti has available. Consequently, 95% of Ethiopia’s maritime trading activities, including the export of illegal wildlife products, go through the port of Djibouti. At the same time, 85% of the port activity of Djibouti originated from import and export operations in Ethiopia, according to the World Bank.
Kenya has Africa’s richest biodiversity and is home to a number of iconic species. In the past, large populations of elephants, rhinos, and pangolins would have their habitats in Kenya. However, the poaching and wildlife trading activities have already led to a significant decline in the population of rare species.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has already played a very vital role in Kenya’s economy after the construction of the $3.2 billion Mombasa-Nairobi railway, also known as the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) in Kenya. However, conservationists have already raised concerns about the railway upgrade as it runs directly between two national parks (Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks) as well as through Nairobi National Park, and could block wildlife migration routes and threaten wildlife populations.
In addition, the port of Mombasa was improved and expanded with Chinese funding. Given these developments, the significance of the port for illegal wildlife trafficking may increase too.
Conclusively, any rapid increase in wildlife demand risks exacerbating illegal and unsustainable trade but, with careful management, the Belt and Road Initiative, as it is related to traditional Chinese medicine, could also present opportunities for well-governed supply chains, creating sustainable livelihoods for rural harvesters. With China reaching out to countries part of the Belt and Road Initiative to cooperate on the marketing, registration and promotion of traditional Chinese medicine products, there is now a critical short-term window for the identification of these risks and opportunities, and to ensure that sustainability is built into these markets from the start.
Some analysts believe the Belt and Road Initiative is a means for China to expand its economic and political influence. The Belt and Road Initiative has been couched in the context of Halford Mackinder’s heartland theory by some geopolitical analysts. Scholars have observed that the official PRC media tries to obscure any strategic dimensions of the Belt and Road Initiative as a motivation. China has already invested billions of dollars in several South Asian countries, including Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, to improve their basic infrastructure, with implications for both China’s trade regime and military influence.
What Was The Original Silk Road?
The original Silk Road arose during China’s Han Dynasty’s (206 BCE–220 CE) westward expansion, when trade networks were established in what are now the Central Asian countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as modern-day India and Pakistan to the south. These routes stretched over 4,000 miles to Europe.
However, the Crusades and Mongol advances in Central Asia slowed trade, and today, Central Asian countries are economically isolated from one another, with intra-regional trade accounting for only 6.2 percent of all cross-border commerce. They are also heavily reliant on Russia, particularly for remittances, which account for one-third of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s GDP. Due to Russia’s economic woes, remittances had fallen from their 2013 highs by 2018.
One of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road. The vast collection of development and investment initiatives, launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, would stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence.
Some analysts see the project as an unsettling extension of China’s rising power, and as the costs of many of the projects have risen, opposition in some countries has grown. Meanwhile, the US shares some Asian concerns that the BRI could serve as a Trojan horse for China-led regional development and military expansion. Under President Donald J. Trump, Washington has expressed concern about Beijing’s actions, but it has struggled to present a more appealing economic vision to governments in the region.