Xinjiang, meaning ‘New Dominion’, is the largest province of China, which is located in the country’s extreme west. Its geostrategic significance, inter alia, lies in the fact that it borders eight countries; including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. While the primordial Chinese Empire dwells the earth since antiquity, Xinjiang became part of the three-thousand-old civilization only in the eighteenth century. Among myriad reasons, rugged terrain including the vast Gobi desert, nomadic life style, Islamic fundamentalism and past derelictions of the Chinese Government are a few, which contribute towards its present undeveloped state. The conundrum extends its reach into Pakistan and beyond under the banner of reviling the old ‘Silk Route’.
With a nine-thousand-mile coastline, several natural harbours and efficient riverine system, the Chinese civilization has always been centered close to its littoral areas in the East. It was all but natural for the opposite end, with amorphous borders to the west, to be neglected and ignored. But with a burgeoning economy, increasing regional and international Chinese influence and presence of vast natural resources including oil, gas and copper, Xinjiang’s importance is not lost to Beijing. Moreover, Xinjiang is the gateway to President Xi’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’, which envisions connecting all of Eurasia from Eastern China to Western Europe by a complex web of highways, rail links and pipelines. In that regard, Pakistani PM Imran Khan, while speaking at the second BRI Forum, has proposed to make BRI more than just a trade route.
For uninhibited manifestation of this vision, the stability and prosperity of not only Xinjiang but also Central Asian Republics (CARs) is of prime importance. Chinese investment and trade with these countries has trebled in the recent past and so has its clout (which is necessary to stymie any support base to their fellow ethnic Turkic Uighurs to destabilize the region). Two major pipelines are already afoot; one carrying oil from Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, while the other carrying natural gas from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Xinjiang. Moreover, China is also mining for copper in Afghanistan and building roadways in its Wardak province. This surge in Chinese sway has ostensibly bedeviled Russia who has always held carte blanche in this region.
China has initiated enormous amounts of infrastructure development and modernization programs in Xinjiang to make it ready for its role in BRI. Migration of ‘Han Chinese’ from East is another step to bring requisite technical and technological know-how in the region. In the longer run, this will also contribute towards population integration to prevent any separatist tendencies by one specific ethnicity. There have been reports, especially by the western media, of massive crackdown on dissidents and human rights violations with special emphasis on ‘Re-education camps’ for Uighur Muslims. Ironically, this is rich coming from the same West which is either complicit, approver or at best indifferent to the plights of the Muslims across the globe including Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Kashmir.
With the rapid economic growth of past three decades in hindsight, it is imperative that the Chinese juggernaut will implacably espouse its economic policies and will ruthlessly suppress any domestic or foreign actors who come in their way. A new age is heralding where China is finally in a position to use its economic leverage over other countries to further its geostrategic goals. Instead of resorting to the American way of announced economic sanctions, embargos and diplomatic isolation, China has successfully experimented with silent punitive measures against nation states, with Japan, South Korea and Philippines to name a few, who crossed the red line.
With the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a subsidiary to the BRI, which connects Gwadar port in Pakistan to Kashghar in Xinjiang, the stability of this region is of paramount importance for economic revival of Pakistan. While several voices of sympathy for Uighur Muslims are being raised within various segments of the Pakistani society, it goes without saying that the state stance on the subject matter should be of non-interference in Chinese internal matters. Moreover, it must be ensured that no palpable support is being provided to the militant elements in Xinjiang by any religious group from within Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the Chinese model of development and upgradation needs to be followed particularly in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan to bring those areas at par with the rest of the country and reap maximum benefits out of CPEC. This will not only assist in provision of employment opportunities and poverty alleviation, but also will help address the dying, albeit highlighted, separatist tendencies in Balochistan.
The second BRI Forum brings together China, Pakistan and Russian along with other higher officials from other countries as well. The conundrum holds the potential of realigning regional alliances and China’s Xinjiang is the way through it.
Aisha Saeed is an independent analyst on media and foreign policy .She tweets @MsAishaK.