The vast Chinese northwestern frontier region of Xinjiang may serve as a useful early indicator of how Beijing’s much-touted “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is supposed to work – and how successful it may become.
The region, which is home to several muslim minority peoples, has been wracked by ethnic turmoil for decades, prompting Beijing to seek to nurture social stability by driving economic development through hefty investments.
But for this strategy to gain traction, Beijing realised that it needed to boost development in the region around Xinjiang by building commercial corridors to neighbouring Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, Xinjiang was key motivator behind the BRI concept.
But so far the results have been underwhelming. In the three years since the forerunner of the BRI was launched, Xinjiang’s trade volume has not increased and it still constitutes an unchanging portion of total Chinese trade with Central Asia (see chart). This discrepancy between action and results raises questions about whether the BRI is a turning point in Chinese economic policy or simply old wine in a new bottle.
From 1949 until the late 1990’s Central Asia was conspicuous in Chinese foreign policy by its absence. China has since “rediscovered” Central Asia. Twice.
China first rediscovered the five Central Asian republics as a crucial source of energy and the key partner in fighting against separatists in North-west China. In the first decade of the 21st century, bilateral trade—primarily in the form of Chinese imports of energy and exports of manufactured products—witnessed extraordinary growth, reaching $51.1 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established in 2001, and one of its main missions continues to be to “maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region”. Continue reading →
Kazakhstan has faced many security challenges during its 23 years as an independent country. Its geo-strategic position at the heart of Eurasia has led to its adoption of a multi-vector foreign policy championed by its leader and widely emulated in the region. Consequently it has looked to maintain good relations with all its neighbors and has sought membership of a range of international organizations and institutions that it believes enhance its foreign policy objectives. In recent years China has included Central Asia as a region for its economic ambitions, and in the process China has challenged Russia’s historical dominance in this region. As China’s economic activity grows in the region, it would be reasonable to assume that China would seek influence in the sphere of regional defence and security, including that of Kazakhstan. Continue reading →
Parts of this article were adapted from the authors’ “China and Central Asia: A Significant New Energy Nexus” in The European Financial Review, April 30, 2013, accessible here.
Over the past decade China has aggressively developed its energy cooperation with Central Asia, which has an abundance of oil and natural gas deposits, and relative political stability. Through its energy relationship with Central Asia, China not only diversifies its access to new energy sources but also gains greater flexibility in playing regional geopolitics that advances its broader national interests.
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of IHS Jane’s)
China’s northwestern Xinjiang province has again made headlines in 2014, largely because of a number of brutal attacks carried out by militants within the province’s Muslim Uighur population. Among the most notable attacks, 29 people were killed in a 1 March knife attack at a train station in Kunming; on 22 May, 39 people were killed in a market attack in Xinjiang’s capital, Ürümqi; and in July, the Chinese authorities reported that 59 “terrorists” and 37 civilians had been killed in Shache county during an attack on a police station, followed by the murder of a Uighur imam.
The death toll among the militants may, in reality, be much higher as a result of the authorities’ hardline security response. Although the Chinese government interprets such attacks as a product of religious extremism, many Uighurs view them as protests against the discrimination they experience at the hands of the authorities.
Xinjiang will soon see the launch of its first high-speed railway train that will run from Lanzhou city in neighboring Gansu province to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The government has hailed this as a significant move that will boost Xinjiang’s economy through more open trade, tourism and connectivity into Central Asia as part of the leadership’s vision of the new Silk Road Economic belt. Yet, the Guardian has countered that the high-speed railway in Xinjiang may end up exacerbating the growing economic inequality in the province.
The 2009 Urumqi riots marked a watershed for Beijing’s policy towards the region. Largely ignored by the capital as a backwater that was ruled over by strongman governor Wang Lequan, the scale of the riots in Xinjiang obliged then President Hu Jintao into the embarrassing situation of having to leave a G8 Summit in Italy to come and take charge of the situation. In the wake of the rioting, numerous senior security officials in the province were sacked and a year later the 15-year provincial head Wang Lequan moved back to Beijing. At around the same time in 2010, the government announced a new strategy towards Xinjiang, focused heavily on economic investment and developing the province’s trade links with Central Asia. Continue reading →
Tashkurgan is a small town of about 40,000 people (or over 60,000 population if it includes Chinese military personnel, tourists, and businessmen), situated in the south-eastern corner of the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The town represents the seat of the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. One of China’s remotest counties, placed in a barren high plateau at over three thousands meters above sea level, Tashkurgan has a long and rich history. Here were excavated artifacts produced by some of the earliest cultures of the region. It is believed by some that Tashkurgan – which means Stone Fortress (or Tower) – was in fact the stone tower mentioned by Ptolemy, where western and Chinese merchants performed their trade exchanges. Nevertheless, Tashkurgan’s role as a market town seems reinvigorated today by the presence of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the road connecting Kashgar to Islamabad that represents the backbone of the projected “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”. A legacy of the legendary Silk Road, the KKH was opened to civilian traffic in 1982 and has since brought immense changes to Tashkurgan, a once forgotten outpost of the PRC.