As Chinese President Xi Jinping headed to Central Asia last week, Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in the northwest of China, hosted the 3rd annual China Eurasia Expo. While maybe not intentionally choreographed to take place at the same time, the two events have a significant parallelism to them, reflecting the importance of Xinjiang to China’s Central Asian policy. For China, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” that Xi spoke of in Kazakhstan starts in Xinjiang, acting as the connective tissue that binds China’s crowded and prosperous eastern seaboard with Eurasia, Europe and the Middle East.
China’s interest in Central Asia is primarily a selfish one. This is not unusual in national interests: foreign policy is naturally focused on self-interest. But with China in Central Asia, the key role of Xinjiang distinguishes it from China’s relations with other parts of the world. For Beijing, Central Asian policy aims at both increasing China’s connectivity to Europe and the Middle East as well as reaping the benefits of the region’s rich natural resources, but also about helping foster development and therefore long-term stability in Xinjiang. A province periodically wracked by internal violence and instability, Beijing has quite clearly made the calculation that to stabilize the province, more economic development should be encouraged.
The result is a surge in internal investment in the province, most recently typified by the figures to emerge from the China Eurasia Expo, where some $121 billion worth of domestic deals were announced. German-Chinese joint venture company VW-SAIC is opening a car factory outside Urumqi, a Sino-Turkish investment park is being opened on the other side of the city, while companies from across China are being actively encouraged to invest in the province. And across Xinjiang new infrastructure is being built – from the refurbishment of the Karakoram Highway, to a new airport in Urumqi, to new roads to connect Kashgar to nearby border posts with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all of which aims to transform the province into the “gateway to Eurasia” as former leader Wen Jiabao put it during his speech to the Expo last year.
But for this approach to work, it is essential that Xinjiang have a prosperous region around it to trade with – hence the heavy focus during Premier Xi’s visit on economic development and links. And it is important to note that it is not only a region to trade with, but also a region to trade through. Ultimately, Central Asian markets are quite limited and still relatively underdeveloped and poor. The real goal is to reach through Central Asia, into Russia and ultimately Europe. This is the Silk Road Economic Belt that Xi is talking about, and it is one that ends in the first instance at the new city being built with Chinese support outside Minsk in Belarus and similar developments near Tbilisi in Georgia, but really ends in the homes of European consumers.
An ambitious goal for sure, but from Beijing’s perspective, it is a means of re-connecting China to its Eurasian heritage, while also helping develop a province that has proven a difficult issue to resolve. It also provides China with a further avenue to markets that is not reliant on sea routes, as well as opening up links to a part of the world rich in natural resources.
The vision is good, but is it actually being realized? This year, cumulative deaths in Xinjiang are approaching 200, the result of a number of incidents. Almost three years on from the re-branded strategy and the “Develop the West” push, it is not clear that this approach is working. In fact, given that it increasingly seems as though incidents in Xinjiang are not the product of external direction, but rather internal anger, one could say that the problems are getting more intense.
So if the strategy is not quite working, what does China need to do to change it? What is missing, it seems, is an overarching vision that seeks to reach beyond simply making everyone wealthy, but also tries to address some of the fundamental underlying social and ethnic tensions that boil beneath the surface. Xinjiang-ren, or those who consider themselves natives of the province, will clearly not be happy just to be given jobs, trade prospects and prosperity. A larger, more holistic picture must be painted and one that is not solely reliant on trade or an iron fist. This must be the legacy of the New Silk Road: reconnecting Xinjiang and opening up the province in every way to enable it to prosper once again.
China is Central Asia’s most consequential power, a consequence of the intense focus on the region through Xinjiang. If Beijing really wants this policy to work, then it will need greater nuance and focus to transform it from a money-driven theory to one that better reflects local realities.
Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.