By Raffaello Pantucci
First published on China Policy Institute: Analysis, October 7, 2016
Back in the late 1990s, then-PRC President and Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin noticed that the country was facing an imbalance. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had opened up the coastal cities, transforming them into beacons of international industry and development. Cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou were on their way to becoming international hubs. And yet looking inland, the difference was stark, with parts of the centre or border regions with neighbouring Southeast, South and Central Asia remaining poor and underdeveloped. Seeking to rectify this, and in part to help Chinese companies go out, Jiang Zemin instigated a ‘Develop the West’ or ‘Great Western Development’ strategies.
Academics like Zheng Xinli came back from their travels along China’s borderlands with southeast Asia with ideas of developing multilateral institutions that would help address one of the key problems in the region, a lack of infrastructure to help accelerate trade between parts of the world that were already deeply economically interdependent. To China’s west, the problems were political and had a security bent to them thanks to the proximity of Afghanistan, historical conflicts with Russia and an angry resident Uighur population. As the Soviet Union fell apart, China accelerated a process of border demarcation going on between itself, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into a process called the ‘Shanghai Five’ – named after the city in which they met. The priority was largely to define what China’s borders were, with a later attempt to move the discussion towards other economic and political goals.