China’s Westward Strategy
Image Credit: REUTERS/Rooney Chen

China’s Westward Strategy


The implication of Xinjiang’s Uighur minority in last October’s Tiananmen Square attacks has showcased Beijing’s failed ethnic policy. The incident not only caused deep shock within the ruling class in China, it has also had an inevitable impact on China’s westward pivot.

Most of the world tends to focus on China’s rapid seaward expansion to the east. Besides a strategic ambition of reaching out into the Pacific, China’s obsession with the East China Sea and the South China Sea also reflect a need to secure vital sea lanes for energy shipments from the Middle East.

Always energy hungry, the world’s second economic power has for the past several years been quietly exploring new supply routes in addition to the traditional ocean route extending through the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea and the East China Sea to one of the ports on China’s East Coast.

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One of the new lines being envisioned is what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called the “New Silk Road,” which extends from China’s western border through Central Asia to the oil-rich Middle East. Eventually, this Silk Road may reach Europe via rail. In fact, this grand project is also closely linked to a sweeping shift in China’s internal economic development.

Developing China’s West

The bottom line of China’s westward pivot is a shift in the focus of the country’s economic development from the economically saturated and rich coastal eastern regions towards the inland areas to the west. This shift has become all the more urgent because, as the Tiananmen Square attacks demonstrated, popular discontent in these poor inland regions is rising to dangerous levels. The social disgruntlement can be explained by many factors, including a failed ethnic policy and worsening religious conflict. However, the central government in Beijing seems to believe that it is mainly due to the region’s economic backwardness compared to the industrialized east. It hopes that lavishing economic resources on the poor inland regions will help soothe the worrying social instability.

This shift of economic resources has already brought the beginnings of an economic boom in the inland provinces, producing a particularly noticeable impact since 2010. As economic development proceeds in the western interior regions, more workers in these regions have opted to find work locally closer to home instead of migrating to the industrialized coastal regions to the east. This in turn has created a serious labor shortage as well as sharp wage rises in industrial areas such as Shanghai and Canton, contributing to a deterioration in the investment environment in China.

As economic activity has picked up in the Chinese interior, energy demand has risen accordingly. This is what has motivated Chinese strategists to explore a more direct supply route overland from the west, instead of the traditional approach of shipping energy resources from Mideast to China’s eastern ports only to ship them again on land to the western regions.

The New Silk Road

This scheme of direct supply from the west entails careful planning and the creation of a favorable international environment in China’s Central Asian neighborhood.

China has made a beginning, building an intimate relationship with Pakistan where it last year acquired the right to manage the strategically vital port of Gwadar at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Beijing has also given special attention to strengthening the solidarity of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which groups, besides China and Russia, all the Central Asian states. President Xi Jinping has recently toured these countries and returned with important energy deals as well as pledges of increased economic and security cooperation.

This effort also extends to improving ties with Afghanistan as U.S.-led forces withdraw. It is not often remarked, but China is an immediate neighbor of Afghanistan. The two countries share a narrow border at the Wakhan Corridor, which is 60 km north-south and 120 km east-west. Viewed from China, the oil-rich Middle East is only a few hundred kilometers away. This geographic particularity has Chinese strategists dreaming of one day building a pipeline from Iran, across Afghanistan, into China’s Xinjiang. When the fighting in Afghanistan began in 2001, China was quite uncomfortable with the presence of a huge U.S. armada in its backyard. But it soon realized that U.S. anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan played to China’s own advantages.

In fact, as the recent Tiananmen incident demonstrated, China has long been confronted with a militant movement for independence among the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. And the Beijing regime has tried in vain to stop cross-border infiltrations by Islamist extremists from neighboring countries in support of the Xinjiang insurgents.

The U.S. military operations in Afghanistan thus brought the unexpected but welcome result of weakening what China considers terrorist threats from neighboring Afghanistan. It was therefore not surprising that Beijing at one stage gave serious thought to a discreet U.S. request to open a new supply line from China for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor.

With the Americans leaving Afghanistan and the Russians still too traumatized by their own bitter experience in this country to want to return, China alone has the capacity to fill the geopolitical void in this part of the Eurasian Continent. Aware of this new role for itself, China has been preparing the ground, starting with investments in closer political ties, economic development and infrastructure building, while exploiting its carefully honed neutrality to nurture relations with the Taliban, which promises to remain a potent political force in postwar Afghanistan.

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