ASIA-PACIFIC: What China’s Silk Road Project Aims At

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By Shastri Ramachandaran*

MUMBAI (IDN) - There is more to China’s Silk Route Project — from the sea lanes of East Asia through South and Central Asia to Europe — than is generally perceived in India.

India has been invited to join the project for rebuilding the ancient Silk Road that connected India, China and Central Asia to Europe and reviving the Maritime Silk Route for linking countries in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean. Most of India’s neighbours see it as an opportunity that should not be missed.

However, given the misgivings in India, the debate on the Silk Route is limited to: Should India be ensnared by the project’s economic logic? Or, should India resist this Chinese “strategic ploy” to encircle India?

Such limited viewpoints ignore the larger dimensions of the Silk Road Project with its enormous transformative potential for Asia as a whole. These outcomes — be it “encirclement of India”, “upgrading of the Karakoram Highway” or enrichment of Central Asia — however, are not the primary purpose of the Project.

The $40-billion Silk Route initiative may broadly be divided into the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The initiative’s stated aim — such as win-win cooperation between Xinjiang province and neighbouring countries and between China and South and Southeast Asia — may turn out to be a game-changer. The result may well redefine geopolitics, re-set economic equations from Indonesia to Europe, reduce disparities within Asia, develop new hubs and tracks of trade and energy flow, and create a new security rationale to fight terrorism and separatist threats.

This is the narrative that emerges from a week spent in Xinjiang — the emerging core zone of the Silk Road Economic Belt — and talking to experts on China’s development strategy and ethnic policies with particular reference to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which has witnessed recurrent terrorist attacks including bomb blasts, mass killings, riots and arson.

Xinjiang, much more than Tibet or Hong Kong, poses a potent challenge to the idea of One China. The militancy of Uyghurs — the most populous among 55 minorities in the province — makes XUAR a powder keg, where jihadis from outside too are suspected to be active. Xinjiang, adjoining Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), shares borders with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Separatist groups in Xinjiang, such as the Uyghurs’ East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) have forged links with militants and extremists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics. Jihadis are said to be eyeing Xinjiang, where bomb blasts and clashes between Uyghur separatists and security forces left a few hundred dead last year. One of the deadliest attacks — after the 2009 riots that claimed nearly 200 lives — was in July last. At least 97 — including 59 “attackers” shot by the police — were killed.

In Beijing’s view, the “three evils” — separatism, terrorism and extremism — rampant in Xinjiang are a threat to the security and stability of China as well as Central Asia, Russia and “Afghanistan’s neighbours” (including India and Pakistan). The economic, infrastructural, commercial, industrial and financial development of Xinjiang and bordering countries — as part of the SREB connecting China and Europe by rail and road — is essentially a counter-terrorism strategy to stamp out the three evils.

Economic development in these poor, less developed parts is dictated by the urgent need to smother the restive minorities, especially the Uyghurs, with prosperity and bind the troubled region to the rest of China and in an interlocking arrangement with Central Asia and Russia.

The domestic ramifications of the SREB came across clearly in presentations made to visiting journalists by experts not only on economics, reforms and development but also on religious, cultural and minority policies.

Ma Jin, head of the region’s Department of Religious Affairs, said: “Ethnic splittism and illegal religious activities are the two major dangers affecting Xinjiang.” The key issue in Xinjiang, he said, is how to strengthen unity among minorities and the biggest mass work is how to achieve national unity and religious harmony. “The religious issue in Xinjiang is closely related to overall social stability and long-lasting security,” said Ma.

The population of ethnic minorities has been increasing at a higher rate than the national average in the last 60 years and is still rising as a proportion of the national population, said Wang Ping of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission’s Department of Politics and Law. He attributed this to the “loose family-planning policy” for minorities, reduced child mortality, higher life expectancy and better living conditions.

Beijing wants to eliminate tensions and terrorism arising from ethnic discontent through tougher security measures and lavish spending on development. Global capital, particularly from the West, is heavily invested in Xinjiang and the Silk Road Economic Belt. As stakeholders, investors have to support security and anti-terrorism operations, if only to protect their assets, network of energy pipelines, investments and profits.

*Shastri Ramachandran is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator. This article first appeared in DNA on December 24 and is being reproduced by arrangement with the writer. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 25, 2014]

Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping with Indian PM Modi | Credit: DNA

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