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President Xi Jinping’s travel to the Middle East

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Historically, the Silk Road was established during the Han dynasty, between 206 B.C and 220 A.D., after the long Chinese exploration of Southern and Western Asia which had started at least two thousand years before.

As the original myth of Eurasia’s foundation has it, it was in those areas – among nomadic and warring populations – that the Son of Heaven became, for the first time, a shepherd of sheep flocks, and escaped the wild beasts which wanted to kill him and then devour the whole Han dinasty.

President Xi Jinping, the new Son of Heaven, embodying positive forces both at political and mythical levels, followed again the Silk Road and hence returned to the Middle East, by visiting Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

This was meant to rebuild the original strategic projection of China’s First Red Empire – hence to make China regain its ancient role based on the philosophical principle of “All under Heaven”.

The visit to the three Middle East countries was paid by the CCP Secretary on January 19-22, 2016, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the mutual recognition between China and the Arab League.

Until 2015 Saudi Arabia was the most important China’s crude oil supplier – a position currently held by Russia as primary seller.

The travel to these three Arab and Islamic countries is the first visit paid by the CCP Secretary in 2016 and this makes us understand the special importance that Xi Jinping and his China attaches to the commercial, political and strategic relationship between China and Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

As is well-known, Xi Jinping’ strategic project is the new Silk Road, which he called “One Belt One Road”.

Xi Jinping’s project was made public in October 2013. It is divided into a maritime part and a land part, which will both connect China with Central and Western Asia, the Middle East and finally Europe.

To put it in a metaphor of the Taoist sages – and Mao Zedong was so – the void (of power) of the United States and of the European Union itself, completely devoid of a real foreign policy, will be “filled” by a link with China and Eurasia on the part of the Sunni and Shi’ite Islamic world.

In Asia, where it originates, the new Silk Road will be connected with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and with the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (BCIM).

After the globalization which was an Americanization, the Chinese-style globalization will prevail, which will unite all the losers of the first globalization by tying them at first to Eurasia and later to China itself.

Since the diplomatic recognition between Russia and Saudi Arabia in 1990, trade has increased by 230 times, up to 70 billion US dollars in 2014.

Currently, in Saudi Arabia, 160 Chinese companies operate not only in the oil sector but also in the logistics, transport and electronics sectors.

China wants to support the Arab world with a stimulus to the domestic production differentiation and the reduction of those economies’ oil dependence.

For China, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is the strategic link with the Sunni country closest to the United States which, however, does not want to be tied hand and foot to the United States.

Saudi Arabia has every interest in dealing with China so as to avoid having only North America as counterpart – a relationship and a situation which, devoid of any counterbalance, would obviously be less favourable to Saudi Arabia.

The most important project binding China and Saudi Arabia is the Yarseef refinery which is worth 10 billion US dollars, 62.5% of which funded by the Chinese Sinopec.

President Xi Jinping has defined Yanbu – the Red Sea port where the Yarseef refinery is located – as the regional point of arrival of the Silk Road and, at the same time, the axis of the new Saudi industrialization.

Another essential aspect of Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia is the idea of establishing, by 2017, a Free Trade Zone together with the Gulf Cooperation Council, another component of the “Silk Road” which, in these areas, connects its maritime way and its land stretch.

Later, in his visit to Egypt, the CCP Secretary followed up the themes already developed during the visit paid by the Egyptian President, Al Sisi, to Beijing in December 2014.

The idea is to implement a “comprehensive strategic partnership” based on 15 major projects, to the tune of 15 billion US dollars.

These projects are related to infrastructure and transport, considering that Cairo and the Egyptian coast will be the Mediterranean point of arrival of the new maritime Silk Road.

Other investments in the “comprehensive strategic partnership” regard the Egyptian energy sector while, during Xi Jinping’s visit, additional 21 new investment projects were defined with an additional soft loan to this country equal to 1.7 billion US dollars, managed by some Egyptian banks.

A geopolitical level, Xi Jinping’s attention is mainly focused on the Egyptian and Shi’ite region, with a probable mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia which has materialized during the Chinese leader’s visit.

This means that China fears the expansionism of the Isis/Daesh “Caliphate” and, above all, the return of hundreds of Uighur foreign fighters living in Xingkiang.

At diplomatic – and probably at operational – level, China has supported Egypt in its fight against the Qaedist jihadist area, at first, and later against the Caliphate jihadist aera in the Sinai. It will certainly distribute its investments across the Middle East, based on the each country’s ability to fight against the jihad.

If Europe and the West will not be able to support the new autonomous development of the Middle East – and we can currently perceive all their limits in this regard – this region will become – between Russia and China – the Southern and maritime part of Eurasia.

This will be the new Sino-Russian Heartland which will hegemonize the Mediterranean region and much of the “great European plain”, as the French philosopher Raymond Aron called it.

Another significant geopolitical sign is that Xi Jinping urged Al Sisi’s Egypt to participate, as observer, in the next G20 Summit to be held in Beijing next September.

The last Middle East country visited by the Chinese leader, was the Shi’ite and not Arab nation of Iran.

Xi Jinping was the first leader of a world power to visit Iran after the lifting of sanctions, to which the Chinese and Russian activity within the P5+1 contributed significantly.

It is a very important symbolic fact.

Certainly China has never taken the sanctions against Iran into account. In fact, as early as 2014, China has replaced Germany as first business partner of the Shi’ite country, with a bilateral turnover exceeding 70 billion US dollars.

Obviously Xi Jimping came to preserve the Chinese position reached in Iran, but also to support Iran in its strategic differentiating from Europe and NATO, as demonstrated by the open support he showed during some interviews in Iran for the presence of Shi’ite forces in Syria.

Unlike many naïve Western experts and the even more childish leaders of a gutless Europe believe, the Syrian issue is not the fight against a “tyrant” such as Bashar al-Assad so as to restore a very unlikely “democracy”.

In the Middle East democracy is imposed to make a country strategically “viable”, which means devoid of reactions to the operations carried out by other players on the field.

Therefore the real Syrian issue is the fight against those hegemonizing the Greater Middle East in the future.

It may be Turkey, which wants to conquer Syria’s vast Sunni area for its mad neo-Ottoman dream.

Or the Russian Federation along with Iran, which will annex the Shi’ite and Alawite Syria to the corridor stretching from Ukraine to the coast towards the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

Or finally Saudi Arabia, which wants to manage its own “Sunni and Wahhabi International” so as to dominate the whole Middle East region and its oil, without the constraints of OPEC, which is now a residual cartel.

Xi Jinping, however, proposes to Iran a greater Chinese presence in the local banking and financial sector, the building of seven fast railway lines to be connected, in the future, with the networks already existing in China and, of course, a greater Chinese presence in the Iranian oil and gas sector.

According to Chinese analysts, trade between China and Iran is expected to increase tenfold, up to reaching 700 billions a year by 2017.

Hence, considering all the actions undertaken in the three Middle East countries he visited late January, the core of Xi Jinping’s operation is the creation of a joint Free Trade Zone between the three countries with China’s support – a topic we have already raised at the beginning of this article.

This is a move intended to rebalance the free trade agreement between the United States and other 11 Pacific countries, as well as to fill Western Europe’s “void” throughout the Middle East.

China has reached the free trade agreement with all the six Persian Gulf countries, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman.

China wants to put enemy countries together so as to mediate in a credible way.

The agreement is supposed to be signed by the end of 2016.

Hence the “void” of the United States and of an ever weaker and inward-looking West, obsessed by the idea of “exporting democracy” or by a naïve, self-defeating and self-destructive “geopolitics of values”, is “filled” by a China exporting economic support, political influence and credible skills and abilities to mediate between all regional players.

China’s proposed One Belt One Road project, which is the geopolitical matrix of all Chinese operations in the Middle East, stems from the current leadership’s perception of a now unrenounceable geoeconomic power projection.

It also stems from China’s feeling to be geographically surrounded by confined and enclosed spaces, mountains and deserts which must be overcome so as to avoid the Middle Kingdom – which has a much greater production potential than its territory expresses – remaining blocked.

This is the contemporary version of the structural crisis between the evolution of production ratios and the growth of productive forces, which has always been fatal to Marxism applied in practice.

It is worth recalling that the “productive forces” are science and technology with their applications to the production process, namely the whole organization of work, while “the development of production ratios” regards the relations established by those participating in productive work, including those which are outside the actual production process, such as owners and shareholders.

Hence if the development of productive forces is expanded beyond a certain limit, its expansion is made at the expense of production ratios, as an increasing share of manpower is replaced or marginalized by new technologies.

It was the problem Stalin had to face shortly before his death. It was Mao’s demon from the Great Leap Forward onwards and it is currently the concept underlying the One Belt One Road project.

In other words, for Xi Jinping the issue lies in projecting productive forces outside China’s land and sea borders, so as to prevent its internal production ratios from being distorted up to jeopardizing the State and the Party.

Obviously the project of the new Silk Road is also a way for ensuring the security of the first Chinese loop, namely Central Asia’s, and freeing from dangerous opponents the Chinese secondary loop, stretching from the Greater Middle East to Western Europe.

The two geoeconomic processes to ensure security regard both the Earth and the Sea, two entities which, in the Western tradition synthesized by the philosopher Carl Schmitt, tend to be two opposing entities.

Hobbes’ Leviathan, the biblical sea monster epitomizing the future British thalassocracy, is opposed by Behemoth, the terrestrial State which enslaves its citizens.

It is the constant plot of Western political thought.

Furthermore the One Belt One Road project involves the Russian Federation which, after the different globalization to which the USSR and post-Maoist China were subjected, de facto unites the two countries that had radically changed the relationship between productive forces and production ratios in an anti-capitalist way.

The One Belt One Road line, or rather lines, starts from Xi’an – the former capital of 13 dynasties, where there is the Mausoleum of the Qin Emperor Shi Huang, the first unifier of China, and his famous “terracotta warriors”.

It must never be forgotten that the Chinese universe, today as in its earliest stages, lives on symbols it uses in a way we can define apotropaic both for the unity of “all-under Heaven” and against external enemies.

From Xi’an – with connections to Beijing, Zhanjiang and Shanghai – the terrestrial route reaches up to Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, and hence the area characterized by a strong Islamic presence where the Turkmen arrived following their expansion eastwards, which was also a return to the origins.

The previously mentioned city of Zhanjiang, the old Fort Bayard until 1946, is the capital city of the Guangdong Province and a very active port, the future geopolitical axis of the new China-led “Indochinese Union”, which will obviously be very different from the one favored by French occupiers from 1899 until 1946.

From Urumqi, the Silk Road terrestrial route reaches Almaty, the old Alma-Ata of the Soviet era, which is the oldest and most populous city of Kazakhstan, the former capital city until 1993.

The new “Silk Road” will then directly reach Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s oil axis, up to Tehran.

The reasons for the particular interest currently shown by China in Shi’ite Iran are the following: it is an oil supplier needed for its continued development; it is an anti-jihadist rampart, as we can currently see in the role played by Iran’s paramilitary forces in Syria; for the China of the new Silk Road, it is the point of control over the whole region of the Greater Middle East.

China will never lift a finger against Saudi Arabia, which is peripheral compared to its new strategic axis, but it will play an essential role in stabilizing the infra-Islamic clash, which China sees as a direct threat to its oil and geopolitical interests.

A Middle East in flames destabilizes the Islamist Uighur minorities, blocks the large commercial networks being created and devastates the economies of New China’s primary buyers.

From Bishkek there will be a line connecting the terrestrial Silk Road with the maritime one. A transport line will link the Kirghizistan capital city to Gwadar, the Pakistani port located in the Balochistan province, an area already acquired by China.

Gwadar is China’s strategic sentinel toward the Strait of Hormuz.

From Tehran the One Road will reach directly Istanbul and will then deviate – again on a land route – towards Moscow, the real military and political pivot of current China vis-à-vis the Eurasian peninsula.

All “Eurasist” theories and approaches which currently inspire Russia imply substantial unity between China and Russia, with a view to preserving Eurasia and its hegemony over current Europe.

This is the theoretical and operational foundation of Russia’s presence in Syria.

In Syria, Russia wants: a) to block any kind of US and its allies’ hegemony in the Middle East; b) to ensure its presence in the Mediterranean region, which will become a military, economic and political presence; c) to impose its hegemony over an area where there are no longer global players, with the gradual withdrawal of the United States and NATO.

The very recent Munich agreement, regardless of its duration, is the reaffirmation and certification of the special role played by Russia in the region, while temporarily enabling the United States and its allies to save face.

From Moscow, the new Silk Road will reach Rotterdam and, southwards, up to Venice, the city which, thanks to Marco Polo, is associated with the West’s new discovery of China.

As already seen, the Chinese maritime Silk Road will start from Zhangjian, and will reach Jakarta, through Kuala Lumpur, in the Straits of Malacca which are the jugular vein of international maritime trade. It will then head to Colombo, in the ancient island of Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – and northwards to Kolkata, the ancient Calcutta.

From both Eastern ports, the maritime Silk Road will reach Nairobi and then, through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, it will reach the Suez Canal up to Athens.

Hence this is the meaning of Xi Jinping’s current visit to Cairo, the Eastern closing point of the maritime Silk Road and the military closure of the Middle East instability area.

From Athens to Venice, the two Belts will reconnect.

A “Taoist” geopolitical project: the two natural opposites oppose and merge because they are both “the Way.”

Moreover, in the Middle East, China (and Russia) are completely rethinking their relations with Israel.

In the Jewish state, China seeks advanced technologies and, in fact, in mid-December last year the two countries signed a treaty for the co-financing of some advanced research.

The Chinese banks are now strongly present in the funding of many Israeli projects, as was the case of China CreditEase with the Hapoalim Bank.

Obviously this new link between Israel and China stems from a choice of the Israeli leadership that now sees minimized its relations with the European Union, which is increasingly heading towards dangerous anti-Semitism, as well as its relations with the United States, which are now de facto abandoning the Middle East.

The geopolitical and military alternative option for the United States will be a new cold war with the Russian Federation, a true strategic nonsense which, however, will serve to preserve the old “political-military complex” of which even President Eisenhower feared the choices.

Keeping Europe ever more irrelevant at strategic level and often ridiculous in foreign policy, so as to contain Russia and then China, is the US project, which will be followed also by Barack Obama’ successor, irrespective of his/her political complexion.

It is worth noting that this new North American stance is not at all in contrast with the great project One Belt One Road which, as you can easily understand, is designed to support some countries, namely the less close to the United States, and exclude the others, namely those which are more traditionally in line with the North American Grand Strategy.

In all likelihood, Israel will be a de facto point of arrival of the maritime-terrestrial “Silk Road” while, in the future – once stabilized the Syrian chaos – China will propose itself as a credible mediator and broker between the Jewish State and the Islamic countries.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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East Asia

China’s soft power and its Lunar New Year’s Culture

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Authors: Liu Hui & Humprey A. Russell*

As a common practice, China has celebrated its annual Lunar new year since 1984 when the leaders of the day decided to open mysterious country in a more confident and transparent way. So far, the lunar new year gala has become a part of Chinese cultural life and beyond. The question then arises why China or its people have been so thrilled to exhibit themselves to the world, as its economy has already impressed the world by its rapid pace and tremendous capacity.

As it is well-known, in international relations, peoples from different cultural and ethnical backgrounds need to enhance their understanding which eventually leads to mutual respect and tolerance as the key to the world peace and stability. China is well-aware of this norm. As a rising power with 1.3 billion people, it is necessary for China to introduce its culture and notion of the peaceful rise to the audiences globally. Joseph Nye, Jr., the founder of the concept of the soft power, has argued: “The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. During the information age, credibility is the scarcest resource.”In light of this, China has been steadily involved in cultural promotions abroad.

China is an ancient civilization but diplomatically it is a new global player in terms of its modern involvement into the world affairs, particularly in terms of reform and openness. Yet, since China has aspired to rejuvenate itself as one of the leading powers globally, it is natural for the world en bloc to assume Beijing’s intention and approach to the power transition between the rising power like itself and the ruling powers such as the United States and the G-7 club. Consider this, China has exerted all efforts to project but not propagate its image to the world. Here culture is bound to play the vital role in convincing the countries concerned that “culturally China has no the gene of being a threat to other peoples,” as Chinese President Xi has assured. The annual lunar gala is evidently a useful instrument to demonstrate Chinese people, culture and policies as well.

Culturally speaking, the Chinese New Year celebrations can be seen as follows. In a general sense, similar themes run through all the galas with the local cultural and ethnical ingredients, for instance, Chinese opera, crosstalk and acrobatics, as well as the lion-dancing or the dragon-dancing from time to time. Yes, the galas play the role of promoting the Chinese communities over the world to identify themselves with the Chinese culture which surely strengthen the cultural bonds among the Chinese, in particular the younger generations. Moreover, the dimension of the Chinese culture can be found beyond the country since its neighbors like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Malaysia, as well as Chinese communities in many other areas also perform those arts at the holiday seasons. The message here is clear that China, although it is a rising great power, has never abandoned its cultural tradition which has emphasized the harmony among the different races and ethnics.

Recently, the lunar new year celebrations across China have invited professional and amateur artists from all over the world. Those foreign guest artists and many overseas students studying in China have been able to offer their talents in either Chinese or their mother tongues. No doubt, this is a two-way to learn from each other because Chinese performers are benefited from the contacts with their counterparts globally. In terms of public diplomacy, Beijing aims to send a powerful and sincere message to the world: China can’t be in isolation from the world because it has aspired to be a great and inclusive country as well. To that end, the rise of China is not going to challenge the status quo, but will act as one of the stakeholders.

As usual, realists have difficulties and even cultural bias to accept the rhetoric from a country like China since it has been regarded by the ruling powers of the world as an ambitious, assertive and communist-ruled country with its unique culture. To that challenge, the Chinese government and the people have done a great deal of works to successfully illustrate Chinese practice of harmony at the societal level idealized by Confucius’ doctrines. This social harmony is made possible only by the realization of the Taoist ideal of harmony with nature – in this case, harmony between humans and nature. This explains why panda and many other rare animals are now viewed as new national symbol of China. Although they are unnecessarily an indispensable part of the lunar new year gala, the viewpoint is that the rise of China would not be completed at the cost of the ecological environment like many other countries did in history.

Practically speaking, the lunar new year celebrations are being conducted in a rich variety of ways such as concerts, cuisines, folk entertainments and even forums and receptions around the world. Major global commercial centers have also served to create a Chinese holiday atmosphere, adapt to the needs of Chinese tourists, attract active participation from local residents, and provide such diversities of cultural and social events. What is worth mentioning is that some Chinese-North American non-profit, non-partisan organizations are beginning to celebrate Chinese lunar gala in partnership with other local counterparts. For instance, the Chinese Inter-cultural Association based in California, recently hosted a Chinese New Year party in a Persian restaurant in partnership with a local non-profit, non-partisan organization called the Orange County Toastmaster Club, part of Toastmaster International. Also, in another Chinese New Year celebration that was open to people of all races in Pasadena, two Americans played the guitar and sang songs in fluent Chinese! Both galas were attended by people of all racial backgrounds around the world. Given this, it is fair to say that China’s soft power supported by its annual lunar new year festival is on the rise globally with a view to promoting mutual respect and friendship among the peoples of various cultural, ethnical and racial origins.

Yet, though the impressive feats are achieved, it has noted that China still has a long way to go in terms of its twin-centennial dreams. First, as a developing country with its unique culture, it is necessary for China to promote its great ancient culture abroad, but it is also imperative to avoid “introducing” China rashly into the globe. Essentially, soft power is more the ability to attract and co-opt than to use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Thereby, it is the very ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. As cross-cultural communication is a long process, Nye admitted a few years ago, in public affairs, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”

This is the key to all the countries. In 2014,President Xi formally stated, “China should increase its soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate its messages to the world.” In light of this, Chinese lunar new year gala surely acts as soft power to project the image of China internationally.

* Humprey A. Russell (Indonesia), PhD candidate in international affairs, SIPA, Jilin University.

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China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Middle East has a knack for sucking external powers into its conflicts. China’s ventures into the region have shown how difficult it is to maintain its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

China’s abandonment of non-interference is manifested by its (largely ineffective) efforts to mediate conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is even more evident in China’s trashing of its vow not to establish foreign military bases, which became apparent when it established a naval base in Djibouti and when reports surfaced that it intends to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar as a military facility.

This contradiction between China’s policy on the ground and its long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy principles means that Beijing often struggles to meet the expectations of Middle Eastern states. It also means that China risks tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Middle Eastern autocrats have tried to embrace the Chinese model of economic liberalism coupled with tight political control. They see China’s declared principle of non-interference in the affairs of others for what it is: support for authoritarian rule. The principle of this policy is in effect the same as the decades-old US policy of opting for stability over democracy in the Middle East.

It is now a risky policy for the United States and China to engage in given the region’s post-Arab Spring history with brutal and often violent transitions. If anything, instead of having been ‘stabilised’ by US and Chinese policies, the region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to resolve. There is no guarantee that autocrats will emerge as the winners.

China currently appears to have the upper hand against the United States for influence across the greater Middle East, but Chinese policies threaten to make that advantage short-term at best.

Belt and Road Initiative-related projects funded by China have proven to be a double-edged sword. Concerns are mounting in countries like Pakistan that massive Chinese investment could prove to be a debt trap similar to Sri Lanka’s experience.

Chinese back-peddling on several Pakistani infrastructure projects suggests that China is tweaking its approach to the US$50 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese rethink was sparked by political volatility caused by Pakistan’s self-serving politics and continued political violence — particularly in the Balochistan province, which is at the heart of CPEC.

China decided to redevelop its criteria for the funding of CPEC’s infrastructure projects in November 2017. This move seemingly amounted to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time when they were flexing their muscles in response to political volatility. The decision suggests that China is not averse to shaping the political environment of key countries in its own authoritarian mould.

Similarly, China has been willing to manipulate Pakistan against its adversaries for its own gain. China continues to shield Masoud Azhar (who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and military forces) from UN designation as a global terrorist. China does so while Pakistan cracks down on militants in response to a US suspension of aid and a UN Security Council monitoring visit.

Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves China’s interest in keeping India off balance — a goal which Beijing sees as worthy despite the fact that Chinese personnel and assets have been the targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan. Saudi Arabia is also considering the use of Balochistan as a launching pad to destabilise Iran. By stirring ethnic unrest in Iran, Saudi Arabia will inevitably suck China into the Saudi–Iranian rivalry and sharpen its competition with the United States. Washington backs the Indian-supported port of Chabahar in Iran — a mere 70 kilometres from Gwadar.

China is discovering that it will prove impossible to avoid the pitfalls of the greater Middle East. This is despite the fact that US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seem singularly focussed on countering Iran and Islamic militants.

As it navigates the region’s numerous landmines, China is likely to find itself at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will at least have a common interest in pursuing political stability at the expense of political change — however much this may violate its stated commitment to non-interference.

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Chinese extradition request puts crackdown on Uyghurs in the spotlight

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.

The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.

The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.

The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.

Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.

China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.

The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.

Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan

China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets

China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.

To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.

The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends,” according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.

Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies,” in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people,” the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.

The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.

Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.

The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”

A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”

The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.

Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.

The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.

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