It will be difficult for China to navigate this terrain. While the term “Islamic world” suggests that these Muslim-majority areas are a monolithic group, they are in reality incredibly diverse. Shia and Sunni Muslims have differing practices and interpretations of the faith. In some instances, this becomes a divisive line among Muslims. There are also political power tussles, with Saudi Arabia and Iran vying for leadership of the Islamic world. If all of this is not enough to contend with, over 200 languages are used across the Islamic world. The sheer linguistic diversity poses a difficult challenge to any country seeking inroads. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy.
Fortunately for China, real politics runs strong in the Islamic world as well. The desire to resist American influence works in China’s favour, and the BRI is an effective bandwagon for this. In vein with, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, China also has a historically close relationship with Pakistan, with both countries aligned against India. This took root when India and China went to war over disputed borders. Now, India is also one of the loudest opponents of the BRI, and Pakistan plays a key role in one of the planned corridors.
Stability will also be a challenge for China. Many Belt and Road projects are infrastructure heavy, and are for the long haul, taking decades to complete. China is also the world’s largest crude petroleum importer, and Muslim-majority countries provide nearly 45 percent of the world’s supply. Regime change and transfers of power can be a problem. For example, Malaysia has shown that a new government can easily dismantle plans, although things appear back on track for now. This will be even more trying in the Middle East, where war and conflict has almost been a constant for the past half century.