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Diplomatic Duplicity: China and Nuclear Non-proliferation

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China’s application of non-proliferation controls has been the subject of intense and ongoing criticism from the West, yet it has continued to be allowed growing non-proliferation commitments.

China remains a member of multiple non-proliferation groups while continuing to either deny its involvement in the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology or pushing the envelope with transactions involving other countries that are not members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, like Pakistan. China has had continuous involvement in the proliferation of technologies and weapons to Pakistan, with the relationship spanning over 4 decades, beginning in the mid-1970s. China recently confirmed that it is involved in at least six nuclear power projects in Pakistan, which underscore the long-standing concerns over the manner in which China goes about making relations with such nations and the lack of transparency that infuses the entire engagement. This relationship is not only a threat to surrounding counties like India, but the very security of the world. China’s continued clandestine cooperation with such nations, all while being a proponent and member of non-proliferation nuclear weapons treaties, undermines the very nature of the international institution and brings into question why the United States does not place more of a critical focus on such behavior.

The affiliation between China and Pakistan goes against numerous guidelines, most notably the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 48-nation body that regulates the export of civilian nuclear technology and prohibits the export of such technologies to countries like Pakistan who have not adopted full-scope international atomic energy agency (IAEA) safeguards. Regardless, China has accelerated nuclear commerce with Pakistan while insisting that its actions are in compliance with NSG guidelines. As such, China not only stands in violation of nuclear non-proliferation, but also puts forth the most convincing evidence of the ineffectiveness of the non-proliferation treaty rules and regulations. If one of the founding signatories is so willing to go against the stipulations with little to no consequence, then how relevant is this institution?

China’s involvement with Pakistan’s nuclear program is aimed to operate effectively outside of mainstream scrutiny, as opposed to the United States and Indian Nuclear Agreement of 2005, which was designed to bring India into mainstream nuclear commerce and global nonproliferation regulations. The United States has spent considerable energy for years consulting with its NSG partners to secure a special waiver for India, which exempted it from constraining conditions of full-scope safeguards, whereas the Sino-Pakistani nuclear engagement is very much a mystery to the international community. Ultimately, China’s involvement was pivotal in Pakistan’s pursuit of the nuclear bomb, with China providing Pakistan 50 kilograms of weapons grade uranium in 1982 and then providing the following year the complete design for a 25 kiloton nuclear bomb. Previous to this, the first official signs of a Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation were in 1977, when the U.S. government noted China’s commitment to Pakistan in providing fuel services and Chinese technicians to the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant. The following year small quantities of enriched reactor grade uranium was produced there.

The question remains: why does the United States choose to not act more against these violations? The U.S. Atomic Energy Act requires the termination of U.S. nuclear exports if the countries involved are determined to be assisting non-nuclear weapons states in the acquiring of nuclear weapon capability. Despite the fact that multiple United States administrations have been aware of Pakistan and China’s clandestine nuclear cooperation, they did not significantly press either China or Pakistan about this cooperation, nor did they threaten to terminate nuclear commerce with China.

Despite the adoption in 2002 of what many considered comprehensive export controls, Chinese entities continue their Pakistani engagement. The U.S. at this point is frustrated by the lack of action by the Chinese administration to clamp down on this proliferation by state and private entities and has begun to attempt to constrain China’s companies by cutting them off from the U.S. economy and international financial markets. In the past few years, the role of state-owned enterprises involved in proliferation has appeared to decline, likely due to the desire to be removed from U.S. sanction lists, yet there remain three important categories of proliferation that continue prominently: nuclear transfers to Pakistan; a list of serial proliferations involving infamous individuals like Karl Lee; and the final category relates to individual transactions or group transactions that are exported to prohibited end uses. China seems unwilling or unable to take any definitive action against these three categories of proliferation, despite releasing a joint statement with France, Russia, The UK, and the US this year when it stated that …”we rededicate ourselves to the NPT and its three mutually reinforcing pillars – disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy – we also pledge our support for efforts to ensure the Review Conference builds on the success of the 2010 Action Plan and encourages further cooperation on steps to strengthen all three pillars of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

Even when the United States has attempted to place diplomatic pressure, like in 1990 when the U.S. government refused to certify that Pakistan had not assembled a nuclear device, thus resulting in the suspension of military and economic aid from the United States (in accord with the Pressler Amendment requiring the President to certify every year that Pakistan does not have nuclear weapons), this has done little to impact constant Chinese assistance to Pakistan. Incredulously, at the same time China began its move toward becoming a signatory to the NPT in January 1992, it also announced that it was constructing a nuclear power plant in Pakistan. This kind of diplomatic duplicity has always gone unpunished.

China’s involvement has had serious implications to other nations like India. The waters for India became muddled with the creation of the NPT. The NPT required that only internationally-traded nuclear material and technology be safeguarded. This was something that India was willing to accept, although they declined to disarm and join the NPT as a non-weapon state. However, in 1992, as a means to induce expanded participation in the NPT, the Nuclear Suppliers Group decided as a matter of policy to prohibit all nuclear commerce with nations that had not agreed upon full-scope safeguards. What this meant to India was that it became exiled in the world of nuclear commerce. As a result, India has always sought to intensify its self-reliance and continue to maintain a nuclear deterrence presence, while simultaneously expanding its pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy.

China’s clear and steadfast involvement with the proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons to nations like Pakistan has been in stark defiance of the non-proliferation treaties that it is willingly a part of. These actions are not only dangerous to Pakistan’s neighbors, but are a threat to global security overall. Furthermore, China’s unwillingness or inability to stop private and state entities from continued commercial proliferation is even more worrying: though the United States has placed pressure on China to cease these activities, the problem continues, begging for a new strategy to force China’s hand. Otherwise, the idea of nuclear non-proliferation as a serious international institution may end up being simple folly. Duplicity wins out.

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Sino-US rivalry and the myth of Thucydides Trap

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The writer of the view that are an outcome of complex phenomena. One can’t understand them through the lens of Thucydides trap which he considers nothing short of a China-bashing myth. He points out that nuclear capability itself is a great deterrence to war adventurism.  He stresses that wars are outlandish in terms of postulates of Modern theory of Conflict Management; that states conflict is not spread by a black sheep but it is natural to human relations. It can’t be eliminated by eliminating the blacksheep. The key to success lies in keeping the conflict to its minimal point while remaining peacefully engaged with one’s adversary.

Wars end in ceasefires, “grand concerts’, and realisation that they were avoidable. That they were cumulative upshot of reciprocal stupidities of belligerents.  Post-World War II period has not witnessed any war between major powers as they realise that how destructive a nuclear war would be. The potential belligerents nowadays enjoy armchair warfare blaming one another of hostile intentions.

Fallacy of thinking templates

The best way to analyse why a war broke out in the first place is to interview the key warriors or belligerents. But, most of them stand perished in wars unable to tell their part of the story. As such, major powers rely on thinking templates like Thucydides Trap to create imaginary rivals to fit in the crucible of their templates.

Thucydides’s Trap comes about “when a rising power threatens to displace an established power. Graham Allison, in his Destined for War (page vii) says, ‘As a rapidly ascending China challenges America’s accustomed predominance, these two nations risk falling into a deadly trap  first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides…He explained: It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled  in Sparta that made war inevitable’. Though key players may abhor wars “unexpected events by third parties or accidents that would otherwise be inconsequential or manageable, but even ordinary flashpoints in foreign affairs, can act as sparks that trigger large-scale conflict”.  Thucydides trap could perhaps be rephrased as stupidities trap.

Arnold Toynbee once said” history is something unpleasant that happens to other people”. Through their myopic decisions rulers sleep walk into the vortex of war. They are sure that their enemies would perish both they would survive. Yet the outcomes are quite pungent. Look at the outcomes of the World War I (1914-18) and II (1939-45). When the World War I ended  in 1918, the Austro Hungarian Empire had vanished, German Kaiser ousted, Russian Tsar shown the door, France, Britain and so many other countries were left to mourn loss of depletion of their treasuries and extinction of youth  capital (scientists/engineers/doctors/teachers/intellectuals-to be). At the end of the World War II, Germany could not replace the United Kingdom. Two unexpected hegemons the erstwhile Soviet Union and the USA were born out of the womb of the war. The UK lost the fifty colonies that Hitler much talked about in his fiery speeches.

Before committing suicide, Hitler must have reminisced ‘ I was mistaken not to have thought about eliminating England as they were sons of a German tribe l’anglais who migrated to britain due to vagaries of nature’. ‘I was a fool to have ventured into the freezing Russia’. John Fitzgerald Kennedy rejected the dictum “better dead than Red”. Yet many of his decisions pushed closer and c loser to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. During post-WWII, McCarthyism had blurred American vision so much that they saw red in everywhere.

Classical versus Modern theory of conflict management

Relations and conflicts between states  

Thucydides trap takes a simplistic view of relations and conflicts between states.Thousands of years back Chanakya posited his mandal (interrelationships) doctrine.

One of his most misunderstood postulate is ‘all neighbouring countries are actual or potential enemies’. So they have to be subdued. Little attention is paid to another of his counter-balancing postulate, mandal (interrelationships) doctrine. In mandal, Chanakya thinks in terms of intersecting and just touching circles. He focuses on intersecting section of two intersecting circles like in mathematical solution set theory.

Even Kissinger, Kafka, et al, believed in establishing effective ‘spheres of influence’. Rich, powerful and progressing countries could but would not shun their poor pals in the comity of nations.

History shows that weakness invites aggression. Often militarily strong countries have attacked weaker nations with ‘litany of problems’ on one pretext or another. Economic motive could be unearthed in both modern and ancient wars. For instance, the Trojan War (1250 BC) was caused by an economic rivalry between Mycenae and Troy. Grants by Persia of good western Anatolian land to politically amenable Greeks, or to Iranians, created a casus belli for wars with rivals.

Yet all wars are justified by the now discarded  Classical Theory of Conflict management, and rejected by the Modern Theory of Conflict management.

According to modern theory of conflict management, terrorism or any conflict for that matter is not really caused by a few black sheep, as assumed under the Classical Theory of Conflict Management.

The Classical Theory says that “conflict is created by a blacksheep. If he is eliminated the conflict is eliminated there and then”. The modern theory, on the contrary postulates “No matter what you do conflict cannot be eliminated. It is natural to relations. However, through effort, it could be kept at its minimal point. And the minimal point is the optimal point”.

Fallacy of rising Dragon

It appears that Joe Biden is not a prisoner to Thucydies trap. He views rivalry with China as intense competition not as confrontation. He calls the shots but then quickly defuses the situation. For instance, to pacify furious China about `freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea, he dispatched USS Pal Jones into the Lakshadweep waters. The aim was to send the message, that China need not fume and fret much about the Quad. The USA still thinks in terms of some principles.

Neither Sparta nor Athens was a nuclear power. If so, they would have perhaps preferred to remain engaged in a long period of cold war. In the ancient Greek world, it was Athens that threatened Sparta. In the late 19th Century, Germany challenged Britain. Today a rising China is believed to be challenging the United States. But, neither China nor the USA is structurally similar to Sparta or Athens. For ease of thinking we liken the two states to either China or the USA.

Today’s China is more inspired by Song dynasty which pushed economic progress through peace rather than wars like some other dynasties. China remarkably grew in terms of Gross Domestic product, imports, exports and reserves. But it still lags behind the USA.

China’s GDP of 7%  as a percentage of the United States’  in 1980 rose to 61 % in 2015, imports from 8%to 73%, exports from 8% to 151%, and reserves from 16% to 3140%.  Chinese economy doubled every seventh year. Still, it is no match for the USA. Chinese workers have become more productive. Yet they are quarter as productive as the American.  China still lags behind the USA in major economic indicators. Look at Chinese economic size in terms of GDP:  year 2000 ($ trillion 1.211), 2010 (($ trillion 6.101), 2016 (($ trillion 11.199). Corresponding figures for the USA are: U.S. 2010 ($ trillion 10.285), 2011 ($ trillion 14.964), 2016 ($ trillion 18.624). GDP per capita ($) for the aforementioned years from 2010 to 2016: China 940.  4,340, 8,250. U.S. 36,070, 48,950, 56,810. Researchers in R&D (per million people) China: 547.3, 903, and 1176.6. Corresponding figures for the US:  3475.7, 3868.6, and 4232. R&D expenditure (% of GDP) China:  0.896, 1.71, and 2.066. U.S.: 2.617, 2.734, and 2.794.

True, China has been the fastest-growing economy since 1979. Yet, it is nowhere near surpassing the USA even on one account that is gross Domestic Product. Heretofore are China and US figures of economic growth for the years 1977, 1987, 1997, 2003, 2008, and 2019. China: China 843,097, 1,883,027, 3,706,647,   6,187,983, 8,908,894, US$ trillion) 14.4.  USA: USA: 3,868,829, 5,290,129, 7,109,175, 8,431,121, 9,485,136, and 21.44.

Engagement not containment

Wars precede isolation. A benign corollary of Sino-US rivalry is that they are not isolating from one another but engaging in multi-dimensional economic relations.

Mr. Trump was viscerally predisposed to viewing China as a looming military threat to peripheral countries, in general, and the USA, in particular. True, Mr. Biden is also viewed as an America Firster.

Biden realises that China is much behind the USA in economic and military prowess. China trails behind the USA in terms of expenditure on its defence forces and possession of actual military equipment. Despite ongoing modernization, China spends approximately $ 5 billion in arms export far below US exports of about $ 46.5 billion. China’s sales are about three per cent of global sales while the USA’s are about 79 per cent.

The US has over 8,000 operational and inactive warheads as against China’s 240 mostly non-deployed.  The US has 2,000 nuclear weapons with strategic/intercontinental-range compared with China’s twenty. The US have sixteen ballistic missile submarines compared with China’s one, and more than 1000 US nuclear cruise missiles, compared with none for China.

The US has ten aircraft carriers plus one under construction attached to the Fifth and Seventh Fleet. China currently has two aircraft carriers, with a third in early construction, and a fourth planned for sometime in the mid-2020 or 2030s. Their first carrier, the Liaoning was commissioned by the PLAN in 2012, though it was first laid down in the early 1990s.

Shades of China’s critics

China critics in the USA are not monolithic. They have many shades including `Engagers’, `Realists’, `Duopolists’, ` China Lead’, `Declinists’ and so on.

The `Critics’ have an un-reconcilable antipathy toward China because of its repression of a wide spectrum of human rights (religious, labour, media and ethnic minority).

The `engagers’ lookup for common ground with China as a matter of national interest. The `engagers’ are optimistic that globalization, economic interdependence and rules of multilateral trade will lead to democratisation in China.

`Realist engagers’ are convinced that China has learnt lessons from the collapse of the former Soviet Union about the dangers of imperial overstretch. As such, China understands the realities of the current international system and limited capacity to change it.

`China Duopolists’ believe the USA and China could cooperate to bring into being a Chimerica (G-2), being the two most important countries.

The `China lead’ school believes China is already on the verge of replacing the USA as the world’s number-one power.

The `Declinists’ believe that the demise of the US global leadership already occurred as `Washington consensus’ has been replaced by `. It is now Beijing, not Washington that is dictating new rules to govern the international economy.

Joseph Biden belongs to the `America Firster’ School that China can’t replace the USA as number-one, even if it tries to. After visiting China, Biden wrote `the United States has nothing to fear from China since it is far ahead of China in size of the economy, per capita income, scientific innovation, and educational excellence among other indicators’ (Biden, China’s Rise Isn’t Our Demise, New York Times, September 7, 2011, online ed.).

Global Leadership

At present, China lacks the soft and hard power to supplant the USA.  To do so, China needs to:

(a) Command loyalty of the majority of the countries. (b) Initiate, innovate and articulate policies, programmes and activities, including dispensing rewards and punishments. (c) Being a `model’, worth emulating, of values, culture, language, laws, and social and political practices. (d) Excel in soft-power resources such as educational and public-health systems

Concluding remarks

Thucydides traps is a china-bashing myth. Biden is a whiff of fresh air, though he has no magic wand to change the climate and trade atmosphere.  He has promised to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, spend more on health and education, and ease immigration.  He has pledged to raise tax on firms and the wealthy.

He is no revolutionary though his policies are tilted to the left of what Trump did. His job is to re-unite fractious American democracy. He is inclined to shun the personalized style of his predecessor’s rule, scorning decency and truth.

Joe understands China better than his predecessor. But, it remains to be seen how the USA would set right the topsy-turvy alliances that Trump had interwoven. Confrontation with China will make it difficult for Biden to deliver his promises to the American electorate.

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Xinjiang: The New Ideological Battleground between the US and China

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Months before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Uighur separatists allegedly attempted to blow up a Chinese passenger airplane unleashing a decade-long orgy of violence which lasted until 2017.  Chen Quanguo, the CPC’s new party tsar in Xinjiang even proudly boasted of “zero terrorist violence” within one year after he arrived in Urumqi in 2016. This coincided with the release of President Trump’s National Security Strategy in December. Some US commentators see a close link between the NSS 2017 and the sudden shifting of the US focus on the oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Is this why the genocide controversy or new “great game” in Xinjiang was born? 

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Following the passage of a bill in the US Congress in September last year that would ban imports produced by Uighur forced laborers in Xinjiang, John Pomfret, the former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing and author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, told the New Yorker in an interview: “I think that, fundamentally, we’re at a point where we have an ideological problem with China. The ideological competition has many parts, and one of the parts has to do with American revulsion at Chinese human-rights abuses, not only in Xinjiang and Hong Kong but in Han dominated China as well.” (Emphasis added)   

Xinjiang – China: Twentieth Century and at present

The present day political strife in Xīnjiāng – the Chinese term meaning “new frontier” – is the manifestation of the People’s Republic of China founded in 1949. Like Tibet, Mao’s People’s Liberation Army incorporated Xinjiang into the New China by force and through political maneuvers. It is the largest province in size – containing more than 18% of China’s land area – and largest administrative unit within PRC. It is approximately three times the size of France and is centrally located on the Eurasian continent. Xinjiang shares international border with seven countries in South Asia and Central Asia. Yet, and ironically, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) became the “backyard” of New China – ideally suited site for nuclear tests and nuclear weapon facilities.

Historians of the PRC formative years have argued, the CPC inadvertently took advantage of the exceptionally favorable international environment created by the Cold War in unifying China in the 1950s. “Mao’s turn to the US in 1971 and China’s support for US operations inside Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, created a basis for Islamism in Xinjiang itself and unleashed powerful forces that now threaten to once again break up China,” observed an international affairs commentator recently. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) further turned Xinjiang into a training as well as recruitment safe haven for Mujahidin militants from among the Uighur separatists. More often than not, besides being aided and funded by the Turkish government, the CIA too proactively carried out its penetration in the region.

Apparently, alarmed by the “anti-China” foreign forces’ penetration into the region, the CPC began adapting countermeasures and decided to implement its policy of large-scale Han migration into the region in the 1990s. Probing the massive riots in July 2009 in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) capital city Urumqi, a recent research paper by Amy H. Liu and Kevin Peters claims the ethnic violence was the result of Beijing’s ambitious Great Leap West plan launched in 1999. According to the two authors, while available data does show the economic benefits have been enjoyed by all people in Xinjiang, regardless of ethnicity, relations between the Han dominated Beijing and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang have remained unchanged, if not worsened.

Unity among China’s ethnicities: Like “seeds of a pomegranate”

Undeterred by unprecedented violence erupting during the visit to the region by the top CPC leader, President Xi Jinping appeared more determined to crush Uighur separatist violence after his maiden “inspection tour” in 2014. It is pertinent to recall, a bomb tore through Urumqi railway station, killing three and injuring several on the day Xi arrived in the province’s capital. In the preceding weeks, “dozens of civilians were hacked to death at a busy train station in China’s south. A Uighur drove a car into crowds at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Forty-three died when men threw bombs from two sports utility vehicles plowing through a busy market street in Urumqi,” as reported by the Associated Press on the tenth anniversary of the July 2009 violence. But apparently, Xi had visited Xinjiang to ensure smooth implementation of what subsequently became known to the world as China’s, or rather Xi’s, most ambitious national strategy, i.e. One Belt, One Road (OBOR) or BRI – the Belt and Road Initiative.

In fact, a few months after the tenth anniversary of July 2009 Urumqi violence, an exclusive NYT report claimed newly appointed Chinese president Xi, also the party chief, had laid the groundwork for the crackdown in Xinjiang in a series of speeches delivered in private to officials in April 2014, just after Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31. “Mr. Xi called for an all-out struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism, using the organs of dictatorship and showing absolutely no mercy,” (emphasis added) the NYT reported.  “Shortly after arriving in Urumqi, at a Xinjiang Work Conference, Xi ordered the local authorities to remold the region to ward off ethnic extremism. China’s ethnicities could and should be united like “the seeds of a pomegranate,” the AP news, cited above, quoted state media as saying.

Interestingly, to both left and right cynics who critique China for having abandoned communism and for the party-states’ woke policies towards ethnic minorities respectively, it is crystal clear that to dismiss or deny existence of re-education or internment camps, sterilization of women, mass surveillance reliant on big tech, forced labor, market expansion and police brutality etc – in China and elsewhere – is tantamount to “embracing simplistic prescriptions.”  Not surprisingly, even Noam Chomsky, among others, signed a statement released recently stating: “China’s present signature foreign policy initiative is the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) that seeks to connect the PRC economically to the rest of the Eurasian continent through large infrastructure projects that will stimulate international trade. As a result, the XUAR has become a very important strategic region for China, and the state views its indigenous populations as an obstacle to developing its vision for this future critical center of international commercial networks.”

Genocide controversy in Xinjiang: What will China do?

However, without going into the merits of who is indulging in “false propaganda” and who is stating the truth with regards to the so-called “genocide” inside Xinjiang, the questions for us all to ponder are: when did we first hear about the million Uighurs being tortured in internment camps and of the genocide in Xinjiang; now that the United Nations has directly engaged with authorities in Beijing to send a UN delegation on an “unrestricted visit” to Xinjiang, what will Beijing do; if at all the UN demand is acceded to by the PRC, will the UN fact finding team’s report stand the test of scrutiny by the international community or by the Chinese government; and last but not the least, will Beijing dictate the composition of the UN delegation or not?

Finally, in the face of Beijing’s rigid refusal first to the European Union and most recently to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to conduct “unrestricted visit” to Xinjiang, it is increasingly becoming apparent China’s diplomacy is facing “crisis of confidence.” Besides, a recent article in ftchinese.com claims, China’s initiative to conduct a visit to the troubled region by “friendly” Islamic nations has run into trouble too. With more and more developed countries, including most recently Japan, either threatening or resorting to sanctions over accusations of genocide in Xinjiang, indicates China’s failure to convince the outside world of Beijing’s narrative on Uighur terrorism. Sadly, however, it is quite clear Chen Quanguo, who took the helm of Xinjiang by replacing Zhang Chunxian in 2016, and who is among the top party officials sanctioned by the Biden administration recently, is not amenable to any such visits by a foreign delegation. For, it is precisely the tough measures being carried out by Chen which are being condemned by the Western governments as genocide. Chen even proudly reported recently of “zero terrorist attacks since 2017.” Consider this, even the party’s fourth senior most official in charge of the violence stricken region, Yu Zhengsheng, had said in 2014 after the knife stabbing at the train station in Urumqi: “It was necessary to tell the Chinese public not to apply any label – such as terrorism – to Xinjiang.” (Emphasis added)

To conclude, the authorities in Beijing it seems had been preparing for long for the ideological battle moment with the US to arrive, as John Pomfret, cited above, observed. But at the same time, as in the words of globally respected veteran Chinese-American affairs scholar at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, professor Yan Xuetong, leadership in Beijing has been for decades extremely cautious to prevent such ideological rivalry from intensifying. “Engaging in ideological rivalry will have negative impact on China’s rejuvenation. Therefore, avoiding ideological rivalry has become a strategic principle of the Chinese government since the early 1980s when reform and opening up were gaining momentum,” professor Xuetong pointed out in an exclusive opinion piece on the day of the US presidential election last November. Perhaps, Beijing would be wise to listen to the advice offered by the ftchinese.com columnist – a mainland Chinese scholar – that Chinese foreign ministry “must display more prudence and diplomacy” in fielding critical and even embarrassing questions, including ideology!         

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The Xinjiang-Uyghur issue

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In late March the United States, Canada, the UK and the EU took a concerted action to announce sanctions over human rights violations against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang-Uyghur by the Chinese government.

This is the first time since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 that the EU and the UK have imposed sanctions on China over human rights issues.

Furthermore, Australia and New Zealand also issued statements expressing support for joint U.S. and EU sanctions against China. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken stated: “The joint transatlantic operation sends a strong signal to those who violate or trample on international human rights”.

This joint operation is clearly part of a concerted U.S. effort to work with its Western allies against China through diplomatic actions.

After gruelling wars in Korea and Vietnam and later in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria,we wonder:

1) why do we want to open another front to export democracy with bombs?

2) Why has the Xinjiang-Uyghur issue become a deadly matter that brings the United States and its allies together to impose sanctions on China, while ignoring the barbaric behaviours codified by the backward-looking, but allied Gulf monarchies?

3) Why is the Xinjiang-Uyghur issue attracting increasing attention from the international community?

4) Why does the United States use the Xinjiang-Uyghur human rights issues to shape a diplomatic action with Western allies against China and forget about the black people being murdered on the streets at home?

Let us try to better understand the situation.

The strategic importance of Xinjiang-Uyhgur for China is similar to Tibet’s (Xizang). The Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region is the largest provincial unit in China. It covers one-sixth of China’s territory and borders on Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It can be used as a base by China to influence its neighbours. However, Xinjiang-Uygur can be used as a bridgehead by external powers to threaten China’s territorial integrity.

Like Tibet (Xizang), Xinjiang-Uyghur also has immense economic value in terms of oil and gas resources, and it can also be used as a channel to import energy from Kazakhstan. It is also a site for Chinese nuclear weapons and missile tests.

This area has traditionally been under the influence of various forces that have been claiming these territories. For thousands of years, the deserts and mountains of Xinjiang-Uygur were crossed by merchants. Peoples and armies passed through it continuously, sometimes forming alliances with the Middle Empire, sometimes to free themselves from the Emperor’s influence, only to fall into worse hands.

The Chinese who started to travel there before the 19th century met Persians and Muslims, most of whom were Turkish-speaking. It is not for nothing that the other name of the territory is East Turkestan.

The region was not fully incorporated into the Chinese administrative system until 1884, when it was divided into province and called Xinjiang, meaning “new frontier”. China’s control, however, was fragile and, when China’s presence was still at a minimum in 1944, the local population announced the establishment of a short-lived republic called East Turkestan, backed by the Soviet Union led by Stalin, who – like the United States today – wanted it to fall within his sphere of influence.

However, as Stalin was a great statesman and not just a parvenu, with the birth of the People’s Republic of China, the Georgian leader agreed that the territory be reintegrated into the Middle Empire as the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region.

With a view to strengthening administrative and political control in the autonomous region, the People’s Republic of China used the same methods in other surrounding areas: immigration development, trade, cultural assimilation, administrative integration and international isolation.

As early as the mid-18th century, the Qing government had created a national industry near the capital Ürümqi. In the 19th century, Chinese merchants arrived in large numbers. After 1949, the People’s Republic of China placed the autonomous region under a national plan designed to orient and direct local trade towards China’s internal economy, banning border trade and people movements that were widespread in the past between borders that at the time were undefined and misgoverned.

In 1954 China established the Xinjiang-Uyghur Semi-Military Production and Construction Corps to transfer demobilised officers and soldiers, as well as other Chinese immigrants, to industries, mines and enterprises. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, thousands of middle school graduates were delegated to perform tasks in Xinjiang-Uyghur from various cities in China, especially Shanghai, and most of them lived in farms. I remember the great enthusiasm of some major European parties at this news: the same parties that, having changed their names, are today shedding “the bitter tears of Petra von Kant” along with Biden.

In the 2010 census – according to official statistics – out of 21,815,815 inhabitants, 45.4% were Uyghurs and 40.48% Chinese, although the real number could be even higher. The many officially recognised ethnic minorities included Kazakhs and Muslims of Chinese ethnicity.

In the decades prior to 1980, Xinjiang-Uygur developed slowly because of its bordering on the then hostile post-1960 Soviet Union, and because of its rugged and considerable distance from other parts of China. However, when Deng Xiaoping implemented reforms in the 1980s, China’s development policy created demand for Xinjiang-Uyghur’s coal, oil and gas resources, thus making the local area one of China’s largest producers of fossil fuels.

In the 1990s, China began building oil pipelines to transport oil from the far West to the mainland market. In 2001, China announced a “Western development” policy to fully exploit Xinjiang-Uyghur’s resources. The central government invested billions of dollars to build infrastructure and create political incentives to attract national and foreign companies.

This has meant that the country has increased its per capita GDP, as well as raised the education level. China has also modernised its society and this has made it unpopular with those fundamentalist Muslims who, boiling with terrorist rage, are now calling for help from those who initially funded ISIS to bring the secular Syrian government down, under the slogan “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

For most of the Maoist era, the Uyghurs, as well as the less numerous Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic minorities, were forced to give up Islam, learn Chinese and relinquish their traditional customs and habits. All this much to the delight of the then epicurean and atheist West, which has always despised faith: a further element of contrast that later materialized on the part of fundamentalists.

As in Tibet (Xizang), the most traditionalist Uyghurs believe that their land has been invaded by Chinese immigrants and their lives are overwhelmed by a “Western” style imposed authoritatively from outside: a pretext that President Erdoğan has been the first to exploit, not failing to include it in his Panturanist conception.

In fact, after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Turkic and immigrant Uyghur communities in the three new neighbouring States of Central Asia, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, experienced a cultural and religious revival, thus creating a new sense of hope and power among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang-Uyghur.

From the 1980s to 2001, demonstrations, riots, occasional murders and terrorist attacks occurred with increasing frequency. The Chinese government claims that the criminals’ goal is 1) to separate Xinjiang-Uyghur from China, and 2) that the Uyghur separatists are terrorists connected to al-Qaeda.

All these accusations are controversial, because most Uyghurs – either secular or moderate Sunni Muslims – have not created a resistance movement at all, as the Uyghur society is not integrated around specific Islamist parameters.

Many incidents seem to have various and sometimes personal causes, and often result in casualties. But, in any case, the authorities have launched a series of strict public order campaigns, fearing that even the slightest sign of dissent, such as a demonstration, a parade, a march, a gunfight with the police, will be amplified by the usual media to pave the way for a bloody local civil conflict, which – unlike the Syrian one – could turn into the Third and Last World War.

All this would certainly not be triggered to protect some fundamentalist Muslims in defence of human rights. The causes are always the same.

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