In other words, China has very big plans for Xinjiang as a critical region from which to project its economic power westward, and these plans could completely change the geopolitical dimensions of power in both Central and South Asia for the foreseeable future. If realized, China’s development of Xinjiang as a commercial, financial and perhaps industrial center and its efforts to turn Central Asia and Pakistan into transit hubs serving China via Xinjiang have the potential to make the People’s Republic the indisputably dominant geopolitical force throughout the region for the coming decades, much in the way that it has already established itself in Southeast Asia over the last ten years.
As far as the Chinese state is concerned, the Uyghurs are welcome to join in these plans, but only through terms determined by the Chinese government. To the extent that Uyghurs have not bought into these grand development plans, they are quickly becoming an obstacle to their realization. Moreover, while Beijing thus far has cautiously welcomed the Central Asian states and Pakistan as equal partners in its plans, China already has substantial leverage over these countries as their largest trading partner.
One can expect this leverage to only grow in the future, enabling China to dictate its own terms economically and politically in the region in the same way it now does in Southeast Asia. In this context, China’s projection of its economic power westward via Xinjiang has the potential to make enemies of a wider swath of local Muslims than just its own ethnic Uyghur citizens.
For the United States, China’s apparent willingness to expand its economic footprint in Central and South Asia is often viewed as a positive development, based on the assumption that China could carry more of the weight in the region once the American military has pulled out of Afghanistan. But the recent violence in Xinjiang should be a cautionary tale for those holding such views.
Unless China dramatically alters its top-down, mega-project approach to development, violence will continue in Xinjiang as a form of local resistance to being force-fed grand development plans without any consultation. Furthermore, China may experience similar resistance as it extends its economic power into Central Asia and Pakistan. In this sense, the seemingly unremarkable acts of violence in Xinjiang this month may be a sign of things to come in the future, not only for Xinjiang, but for Central and South Asia more broadly as China becomes the de facto dominant force in a fragile region where it has already proven incapable of understanding the needs and desires of local Muslims. This could have dramatic ramifications for stability both in China and in the states it borders to the west.
Dr. Sean R. Roberts is Associate Professor and Director of International Development Studies at The George Washington University and has been working in both academic and applied capacities in Central Asia since 1989.
Kilic Bugra Kanat is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie, and a research scholar at the SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C.