Written by Michael Clarke.
Francis Fukuyama recently argued that President Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) strategy ‘represents a striking departure in Chinese policy’ whereby Beijing is ‘seeking to export its development model to other countries.’ The OBOR’s emphasis on ‘on massive state-led investments in infrastructure’ to facilitate trans-Eurasian economic interconnectivity, he notes, contrasts with the largely neo-liberal development model espoused in the West (and by international institution such as the World Bank and the IMF). For Fukuyama, the OBOR, if successful, will determine ‘the future of global politics’ by transforming ‘the whole of Eurasia from Indonesia to Poland’ and generating ‘immense prestige’ for China’s form of authoritarianism.
Fukuyama briefly notes that ‘there are important reasons to question whether One Belt, One Road will succeed’. Most notably, while China’s infrastructure-led development model has succeeded domestically as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ‘could control the political environment’, Beijing will not have this luxury across broad swathes of Eurasia ‘where instability, conflict and corruption will interfere with Chinese plans.’
What is striking about Fukuyama’s analysis is his failure to acknowledge the fundamentally problematic nature of Beijing’s infrastructure-led development model within China itself. In particular, the practice of the model in Xinjiang and its implications for the non-Han Chinese ethnic groups that inhabit it should give pause for thought. Xinjiang, as Owen Lattimore famously argued in 1947, historically constituted (along with Tibet and Mongolia) the ‘marginal Inner Asian zone’ of Chinese expansion). The region’s geopolitical liminality between the civilizational zones of East, South and Central Asia combined with the ethno-cultural dominance of Turkic and Mongol peoples to ensure only intermittent periods of Chinese control.
With the region’s “peaceful liberation” by the PLA in 1949, however, Beijing sought to negate such qualities that had oriented the region away from China-based states through encouragement of Han settlement and extension of the institutions of state power and control (e.g. the bingtuan) into the region. After the return of Deng Xiaoping and the launch of ‘reform and opening’ Beijing fundamentally transformed its approach to managing Xinjiang’s liminal qualities. From the 1980s onward, the approach has been defined by an attempt to turn Xinjiang’s geopolitical position to China’s advantage through instituting a “double opening” strategy to simultaneously integrate the region with China proper in economic terms and to establish security and cooperation with China’s Central Asian neighbours.
The core assumption has been that the delivery of economic development and modernization will ultimately “buy” the loyalty of such ethnic groups as the Uyghur – a strategy that was intensified with the institution of the Great Western Development campaign (GWD) in 2000. Under the GWD the region was envisaged as becoming an industrial and agricultural base for the national economy and a trade and energy corridor linking China to the energy and resource states of Central Asia and the Middle East.
This has been amplified with the OBOR. Indeed, the State Council’s National Reform and Development Commission’s (NDRC) March 2015 policy document on building the ‘belt and road’ explicitly identifies Xinjiang’s ‘geographic advantages and its role as a window of westward opening-up’ as key to the success of the OBOR.
While this approach has delivered economic development to Xinjiang it has not alleviated the underlying causes of Uyghur (and other ethnic minority) disaffection with rule from Beijing. Using state-led development to pacify restless frontier regions is not only not unique to China but has also proven to be ineffective in either quelling dissent or assimilating minority groups. Frequently it has had the reverse result of aggravating already discontented populations and such negative results are predictable when the development efforts do not take into consideration local people’s attachment to their historical homelands, to their cultural traditions (including religion), and to their language.
In Xinjiang it has been a long standing grievance of Uyghurs that their cultural traditions and language have not been adequately protected. This has only been compounded over the past three decades by a perception of widening inter-ethnic socio-economic inequality between Uyghurs and the Han Chinese majority and the often harsh repression of Uyghur religious practice.
A further disjuncture between the theory and reality behind the OBOR is to be found through an examination of the ‘new Silk Road’ narrative itself. The narrative that Beijing has constructed around initiatives such as the OBOR purposefully envisage these new ‘Silk Roads’ as establishing ‘a regulated, structural interconnectivity between Eurasian states’ with China at the centre due to ‘its location, economic clout, insatiable thirst for energy, and increasing geopolitical leverage.’
Yet, the core challenge for Beijing is that such transnational connectivity, while holding the potential to enhance China’s influence across its Eurasian frontiers, is also likely to create opportunities for the transmission of unregulated currents antithetical to its core goal of integrating Xinjiang. Moreover, the manner in which Beijing may choose to respond to such challenges may result in unforeseen consequences for its foreign policy.
Two issues loom particularly large here: Uyghur terrorism and its connections to radical Islamism in Central and South Asia and the Middle East.
Chinese authorities have long claimed that Uyghur separatism and opposition has been inspired and supported from external sources with, for instance, Beijing directing such charges during the Cold War at the largely secular Uyghur nationalist exiles based in Turkey and the Soviet Central Asian republics. The 9/11 attacks and the US-led ‘War on Terror’ however fundamentally changed this narrative with Beijing inevitably linking violence or unrest in Xinjiang to regional and transnational terrorist organizations based in Afghanistan, such as Al Qaeda.
In Afghanistan, it has been clear since the early 2000s that a small number of Uyghurs have been aligned with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) along the Af-Pak frontier. Beijing has generally sought to utilise its close relationship with Pakistan and a pragmatic approach to the Taliban (including encouraging a political settlement between Kabul and the group) to prevent the potential spill-over of Islamic radicalism into Xinjiang.
With the rise of Islamic State (IS) and the crises in Syria and Iraq since 2012, China has claimed that hundreds of Uyghurs have travelled to Syria, often via people smuggling networks via South East Asia and Turkey, to fight with various anti-Assad groups. More recently it has been reported that the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), a group China has blamed in the recent past for attacks in Xinjiang, has a battlefield presence in Syria and is aligned with Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra.
China has seized on such linkages as proof not only that Uyghur terrorism is “spiritually supported and commanded by foreign terrorist organizations,” but also to firmly embed counter-terrorism as a pre-eminent national security priority. Indeed, China’s concerns about terrorism in Xinjiang and Uyghur links to conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan played a major role in the creation of China’s first counter-terrorism legislation on 27 December 2015.
The law provides legal basis for the country’s various counter-terrorism organs, including in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP), to identify and suppress individuals or groups deemed to be “terrorists” and requires internet providers and technology companies to provide technical assistance and information, including encryption keys, during counter-terror operations. The law also includes a provision by which the PLA or PAP may seek approval from the Central Military Commission (CMC) to engage in counter-terrorism operations abroad.
Under President Xi two of the CCP’s core interests – the security of the one-party state and “stability” in Xinjiang – have increasingly intersected. The former has received enormous attention through nation-wide wenwei or “stability maintenance” campaigns, while the latter has been addressed through renewed yan da or “Strike Hard” campaigns against manifestations of the “three evils” of “separatism, extremism and terrorism” amongst the Xinjiang’s Uyghur population.
Significantly, some of the key elements of China’s national counter-terrorism strategy, as embodied in the new legislation with its emphasis on a nation-wide, inter-government coordination of counter-terrorism operations and expanded electronic surveillance, (ncluding monitoring of cell phones and internet “firewalls”), have been implemented in Xinjiang for some time.
A major problem for Beijing however is that many of the counter-terrorism policies it has implemented in Xinjiang, and which now appear to be the blueprint for a nation-wide counter-terrorism strategy, have been counter-productive and played a role in stimulating instability in the region. The law’s provision for the PLA or PAP to conduct counter-terrorism operations abroad also holds the potential to embroil Beijing in a range of hotspots around the globe (many of which lay within regions lying astride the OBOR) and tarnish its much-touted principle of “non-intervention”.
The problematic nature of the OBOR, then, lies not only in Beijing’s efforts to construct an alternative vision of world order (as alluded to by Fukuyama) but how that dynamic intersects with ongoing challenges to the party-state in such liminal frontier zones as Xinjiang.
Dr Michael Clarke’s research focus is on the history and politics of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China (PRC), Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia, Central Asian geopolitics, and nuclear proliferation and non-proliferation. For the past two years he has also provided advice and testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on Chinese policy in Xinjiang and China’s foreign policy in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Image Credit: CC by Martha de Jong-Lantink/Flickr.