Zhou Yongkang, Islamic State and China’s Pivot West

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Zhou Yongkang, Islamic State and China’s Pivot West

The downfall of its oil and security tsar gives China a chance to salvage relations with its Muslim minority.

Zhou Yongkang, Islamic State and China’s Pivot West
Credit: REUTERS/David Gray

After years of living under the threat of the likes of Al Qaida, Taliban and other Islamic extremists, the world is discovering a new and much more fearsome brand of terror in the fast-spreading Islamic State, or IS, in the Middle East.

Few people in East Asia would feel directly concerned by the gruesome accounts of the battles and atrocities involving IS in the remote Middle East. But is the threat really all that distant?

In an August 11 article in Foreign Policy, Alexa Olesen observed how China (or at least segments of the Chinese media) is taking seriously a July 4 speech by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which he called for a jihad against countries that “seized Muslim rights.” China tops the list of the dozen such countries for the way it is accused of treating the minority Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. The IS chief even seemed to have threatened to occupy part of Xinjiang.

Even though the threat of occupying a chunk of Chinese territory seems far removed from reality, the Chinese do have a legitimate reason to brace themselves against what amounted to a declaration of war from what is now the most feared Islamic extremist organization in the world. Apart from foreseeable terrorist acts against Chinese citizens and interests both at home (especially in Xinjiang) and abroad, Chinese strategists must also worry about the future of their cherished westward pivot through Central Asia.

As I noted in my January 15, 2014 piece for The Diplomat, China has been exploring a new Silk Road, extending from its western border across Central Asia into oil-rich Middle East, in hopes of achieving an overland supply route for the resources-thirsty country.

As Xuexi Shibao, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, pointed out on September 8, China has been pushing for two “Silk Roads” to link it to the resources-rich Middle East. One is the traditional sea lane which runs through the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and East China Sea, and which has been re-baptized by President XI Jinping as the “Maritime Silk Road.” The other, less noticed, consists of building a new supply route overland through Central Asia and into the Middle East.

Viewed from China, the Maritime Silk Road is, geopolitically speaking, risk-prone, going through territories that are not necessarily China-friendly. Along this sea lane, China has to deal with regional powers such as India and Indonesia on one end and Japan on the other, not to mention omnipresent U.S. forces. Recent Chinese efforts to beef up its influence along this lane (investing in port facilities in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, for example) have met with a thinly veiled and determined counter-effort from a strategically invigorated Japan. The same sea lane is as vital for Japan as it is for China and, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tokyo has embarked on an extensive diplomatic drive in Southeast Asia and in South Asia, in part to make sure that these regions will not be seduced into Chinese sphere of influence.

This geopolitical complexity around the Maritime Silk Road explains why Chinese strategists attach such high expectation to the “Westward Strategy,” with its projected overland Silk Road as an alternative to the maritime one. Compared to the sea lane, the Central Asian region crossed by the overland route is practically denuded of U.S. influence and would therefore constitute a much friendlier and safer environment for China.

The grandiose Westward Strategy implies, among other things, the need to build a positive image of China in Central Asia. In this respect, China, thanks partly to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization regrouping all countries in the region, has been quite successful in building friendly relations with the governments of these nations, having concluded with them large-scale partnerships mainly in developing and importing natural gases.

However, as the Islamic State threat has demonstrated, this diplomatic success in the region risks being cancelled out by China’s clumsy management of the increasingly radical Muslim Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang.

This is regrettable for China. For a long time, there has been some awareness in China of the need to deal carefully with the Uighur unrests as well as to remain strictly neutral in the war in Afghanistan so as not to arouse hostility in the Islam-dominated Central Asian region. It is obvious that a future network of pipelines linking western China to the Middle East across Central Asia would not be viable if it were to be exposed to attacks by hostile extremists in this predominantly Islamic region. In this sense, the de facto declaration of war addressed by the Islamic State to China cannot be taken lightly. Among other headaches, Beijing will have to expect a sharp rise in the number of jihadists fighters who have already been crossing the border into Xinjiang from neighboring Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, to support the Uighur separatists fighting against Chinese rule.

It is quite possible that this new situation for the Westward Strategy will be closely linked to the evolution of a major internal political upheaval underway in China: the recent purge of Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, and known as one of the top nine “emperors” in the former regime of Hu Jintao.

As every China watcher knows by now, Zhou, who is accused of having amassed an astronomical amount of wealth through corruption, was the tsar of both oil and public security in China. This double portfolio placed him squarely in a position of overseeing both the oil-oriented Westward Strategy and the crackdown against Uighur insurgents in Xinjiang.

It was therefore not a coincidence that it was Zhou who became the first Chinese top leader in nearly 50 years to visit neighboring Afghanistan in September 2012. The visit was mainly aimed at securing China’s (and Zhou’s) influence in the reconstruction of postwar Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal. It is also easy to imagine that the visit also aimed at (1) securing Afghanistan as a passage for future oil/gas pipelines from China to Iran or to the Persian Gulf via Pakistan, and (2) helping Kabul strengthen its security forces in the hope that elements of Islamic extremists (in surplus supply in Afghanistan) would be thwarted in their attempts to cross the border into Chinese Xinjiang Province to support the Uighur insurgents.

It is not clear whether the recent surge in violence in Xinjiang and the threat addressed by the Islamic State had anything directly to do with the ruthlessness of law enforcement in the restive Western Chinese province. What is certain is that the public security situation in this western province has gone from bad to worse under Zhou’s watch, with repeated bloody armed clashes between Uighur insurgents and security forces. And it is possible to predict that the fall of this powerful oil and security czar cannot but help produce significant changes in the way China deals from now on with the Uighurs in Xinjiang as well as the pursuit of its oil-oriented Westward Strategy.

Already, it is reported that the oil “empire” of Zhou is undergoing tectonic upheavals following his downfall, with many executives in State-owned oil conglomerates being placed under arrest. The determination of President Xi Jinping’s administration to dismantle this huge and corrupt empire is forcing a rapid retreat of Chinese oil ventures and interests in various parts of the world. Whether this retraction will go as far as affecting the Westward Strategy will become clear in the coming months.

The question now is who will inherit the two juicy portfolios of (now former) Comrade Zhou. Depending on the new bosses of public security and of oil, one might hope that China will learn from past mistakes and adopt a more reasonable and inclusive ethnic policy in Xinjiang so as to salvage its tarnished image in the Islamic world and achieve a more favorable environment for its pivot westward.

Yo-Jung Chen is a retired French diplomat. Born in Taiwan, educated in Japan and naturalized French, he has served in French diplomatic missions in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore and Beijing.