These fears also underpin China’s Eurasian connectivity and economic initiative – the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) announced in the year 2013, by President, Xi Jinping during his address at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University. Much of the deliberations on the SREB is driven by the view that the 21st century Silk Road would serve China consolidating its political and economic influence in Eurasia. Current interpretations treat the SREB initiative as a demonstration of what a China centric International order would look like.
This debate that seeks to understand the SREB initiative however falls short on two accounts. First, the current discourse is dominated by the views that are apprehensive of China’s rise and fail to consider additional reasons that motivate Beijing to undertake the SREB initiative. Second, though some identify China’s logic to pursue the SREB initiative as an outgrowth of domestic concerns, they fail to locate SREB initiative at the intersection of China’s foreign policy priorities and its domestic challenges.
Since the focus of the SREB would be westwards as the new Silk Road seeks to improve China’s connectivity with Central Asia and eventually Europe, the issue of Uighur ethnic unrest in Xinjiang (China’s sole province that shares a border with three Central Asian republics) inadvertently becomes part of the SREB dynamic. Being China’s largest province that is proximate to Central Asia, Xinjiang is not just a geographically relevant region but is also a source of concern for Beijing due to the troubled nature of relationship between the Han ethnic group and the Uighurs who are predominantly Turkic-Muslims. The inimical relationship between the two groups was evident following riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi in the year 2009. Though China faces ethnic unrest in the Tibet autonomous region as well, the ethnic unrest in Xinjiang is of more concern to Beijing for several reasons.
Sharing cultural and geographic linkages with Central Asia, Xinjiang occupies a prominent place in China’s foreign policy towards the Central Asian republics. Central Asia is a priority in addressing China’s concern about energy security, and relevant in the context of the SREB initiative. The success of the SREB relies much on utilizing Xinjiang’s geographical linkages with Central Asia, and in co-opting the political leadership in the region against the threat posed by Uighur separatist groups. The volatile situation in Xinjiang induced China to lay the foundations of the Shanghai five multilateral initiative in the year 1996, and its subsequent evolution into the SCO or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - an organization that scholars argue has allowed China to carve a sphere of influence in Central Asia and rival other powers in the region such as Russia. Since the 1980s, Beijing has recoginised the need to co-opt the Central Asian States’ leadership due to the emergence of numerous Uighur secessionist organizations such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) and the East Turkestan National Center (ETNC).
The aforementioned factors underline China’s concerns about stability and control over Xinjiang. Though China’s larger geo-political interests are often identified with the SREB, the initiative is also an outgrowth of China’s concerns over its territorial integrity threatened by the Uighur unrest in Xinjiang. China’s white paper on Xinjiang released in the year 2003 also necessities the use of all means to consolidate control over Xinjiang.
The desire for a unified and centrally governed China is rooted in CCP’s ‘Sino centric’ belief that a unified Chinese nation has developed out of a single Han race. As a result, the Hans have an overarching influence in almost all spheres of Chinese society. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) believes national minorities such as the Uighurs should willingly accept Sinification (Hanhua) and assimilate into a single Han culture. In addition, acceding to the Uighur demands of greater cultural and religious autonomy, the CCP fears a cascading effect on other minority groups in border regions such as Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Despite being a minority population in Xinjiang compared to the Uighurs, the Hans dominate the most lucrative occupations and industries of the province.
At the very same time, China acknowledges that the regional economic imbalance between its eastern coastal provinces and the western ones, including Xinjiang would only galvanize the Uighur discontent. To address this, China initiated the ‘go west’ development program in 2001 that aims to accelerate economic development in the Western region. This approach relies heavily on improving connectivity between China and Eurasia that could then facilitate greater economic activity and trade. The Chinese also envision a frontier province like Xinjiang as a trading hub, enhancing economic activity with a contiguous region like Central Asia.
During an inspection tour of Xinjiang province in the year 2006, former Chinese President Hu Jintao declared that it should function as a China’s bridgehead to Central Asia and beyond. This is analogous to what Xi Jinping conceived of the Yunnan province in the year 2009 during his inspection tour. Xi proposed that Yunnan become a strategic bridgehead strengthening China’s trade with South East Asia. The infrastructure push accompanying the SREB should also be seen in this light.
The SREB would help sustain China’s export surplus, holds the potential of revitalizing China’s economic growth rate that has slumped over the last few years and could certainly have an impact on Eurasia’s political and economic landscape. However, it remains to be seen whether the SREB would effectively address the disparity among China’s various ethnic groups including the Uighurs that is partly embedded in CCP’s Sino centric views and evident biases against the ethnic minorities.
The SREB initiative is a reflection of China’s economic marvel, and much of the debate on the SREB has been fixated upon China’s larger geo-political and economic interests that would be served by such an initiative. However, as noted above China’s internal tensions such as the troubled relationship between the Hans and the Uighurs could be a motivating factor behind the SREB. Given this linkage, it could offer another illustration that a state’s foreign policy is an extension of its domestic priorities and concerns.
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Heiner Lupke Senior Researcher DIW GermanyRead More +