A few months ago, the author wrote an article for the RIAC website on possible variants of the new international architecture on the European continent that might take shape over the next few years. Arguing that European politics will turn towards Moscow–Brussels relations, the article attempted to construct several scenarios for Europe’s future depending on the possible development trajectories of Russia and the EU through 2024. The scenario matrix for Greater Europe was built along two axes: a weak (fragmented) EU versus a strong (coherent) EU and Russia without reforms (running by inertia) versus Russia with reforms. The outcome was four generalized scenarios (“Eurasian Melting Pot,” “Two-Fold Greater Europe,” “No Man’s Land,” and “New Cold War”).
The article was viewed many times and prompted multiple comments, including questions as to whether the proposed scenario scheme was applicable to other regions, particularly Asia. The text below is a brief sketch of a scenario matrix for Asia, or rather for its greater part. West Asia – from Iran to the Eastern Mediterranean – appears to be an independent sub-system of international relations developing according to its own laws and requires a separate matrix.
Choosing independent variables
Even if we exclude the Middle East, which is hugely important for the region, Asia remains a far greater, far more complex, and far more fragmented continent than Europe. There are no thousands of years of common history, no clearly dominant religion, no apparent analogue to “European values.” Multilateral institutions in Asia are not as well-developed as in Europe and security problems – from nuclear proliferation to border conflicts – are more numerous. Economic paradigms and political regimes in Asia are less homogeneous than in Europe; any choice will be subjective and overlook important bifurcation points in the development of Asian order/chaos.
Nonetheless, we might suppose that development of international relations in Asia in the coming years will be largely determined by two basic factors. First, the dynamic of correlation between the economic, academic, technological, military, strategic, and political potentials of China and the US. The general tendency here is obvious: over at least the last three decades, the balance of power has been steadily shifting toward China. There is no reason to believe that this tendency will change in the near future. Of course, the process is not linear: accelerations, decelerations, halts and even backward movements are possible, This is especially true of the military, strategic, and political components of a national power, as they are less prone to inertia and are more flexible than the economic, academic, and technological components.
Second, Asia’s future largely depends on the correlation between elements of collaboration and conflict, stability and instability, inter-dependence and protectionism, universalism and particularism, moderation and extremism, etc., in the continent’s development. Traditionally, most Asian countries have succeeded in finding an acceptable balance between the imperatives of the region’s economic development and those of the domestic political agenda. However, maintaining this balance in the near future is far from guaranteed. The general growth of nationalism, rise of religious fundamentalism in Asia, increasing military spending, resurrection of old hostile historic narratives, risks of WMD proliferation, and rise of international terrorism suggest considering a “confrontational” scenario for the international system’s evolution as at least possible, if not the most probable scenario.
Combining the horizontal axis (which records the changing balance of power between China and the US) with the vertical one (which measures the correlation between elements of collaboration and conflict in international relations in Asia), we get a matrix of four development scenarios for China-US relations and for the international system on the Asian continent as a whole. Naturally, this matrix is highly schematic and in no way exhausts all the development possibilities of international relations in Asia. Nonetheless, it can serve as a starting point for more comprehensive and more complete scenario forecasts concerning the future of the Asian continent.
Washington consensus 2.0
This scenario is based on the Trump Administration’s success in preserving – at least temporarily – the geopolitical status quo in Asia. In this scenario, the US is able to slow down or suspend entirely those changes to the balance of power between China and the US that are negative for the US. Economic development of the US accelerates while China’s economy decelerates significantly, accumulating fundamental structural problems. The economic pressure Washington consistently puts on Beijing bears fruit. The deficit in US-China trade decreases significantly. Trump succeeds in wringing concessions out of China on other fronts as well (currency exchange rates, non-tariff restrictions, intellectual property, etc.). There are no dramatic shifts in China’s favor in the military strategic balance between the two countries either: the consistent increase of China’s military spending is parried by large-scale efforts to modernize the US military, including its Navy.
At the same time, military political tensions on the Asian continent generally deescalate. Pyongyang freezes its nuclear and ballistic programs and the North Korean conflict gradually becomes less critical. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain unresolved, but they do not provoke bitter political crises in Southeast Asia. Economic interdependence between Asian states deepens and the expanding middle class in most Asian countries becomes the foundation of Asia’s political stability. The US returns to the idea of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, taking into account new bilateral economic and trade agreements already signed with partners in the Asia Pacific. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership promoted by China is stalled by numerous multilateral and bilateral disputes on specific issues. Political extremism and international terrorism in Asia are on a downward trend. The arms race between Asia’s leading countries slows down, and in its place is competition in the economy and competition between social development models.
This scenario means preserving and, in some areas, bolstering American influence in Asia. The Pacific and Indian Oceans remain free for navigation, including navigation by the US and its allies’ Navies and Air Forces. Traditional American allies remain loyal to Washington even though they actively develop economic collaboration with China. US–China cooperation continues and expands in the G1.5 format rather than the G2, with the US the senior partner setting the rules of the game. It is even possible that the US and China will reach some agreements on nuclear arms control, although the US has a decisive nuclear advantage (particularly in sea- and air-based nuclear strategic forces).
On the other hand, the US continues to put pressure on China on such issues as human rights, civil society development, and Internet freedom. This pressure resonates with certain groups within China, particularly among educated urban youth and the growing Chinese middle class. Preservation and bolstering of America’s positions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans compel Beijing to pay greater attention to resource and transit options afforded by continental Eurasia, thereby increasing the significance of Russia and Central Asia for China’s strategy.
In this scenario, the US does not succeed in slowing down further growth of China’s power in any of its manifestations: economic, research, technological, military, strategic, and political. Moreover, a new cyclical crisis in the American economy (2019–2020) speeds up the shift in the balance of power between the US and China in the latter’s favor. Washington’s positions in Asia are also undermined by the profound and ongoing domestic political crisis in the US that prevents Washington from conducting a consistent foreign policy. The US political establishment remains deeply split on the country’s optimal strategy regarding China: proponents of consistent “containment” of Beijing are opposed by adherents of “engagement.” At the same time, the US’s harsh unilateral policies toward their partners and allies in Asia accelerate the relative decline in American presence in Asia. Washington’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has long-term negative consequences due to the US’s inability to exert a decisive influence on shaping new rules in Asia Pacific. On the other hand, China achieves major successes in structural revamping of its economy without sacrificing either sociopolitical stability or its high growth rate. China’s economy opens up, especially toward neighboring Asian states. China takes the place of the US as the chief proponent of free trade in Asia and in the world in general. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership steadily progresses; the free trade zone in Asia extends beyond its original geographic boundaries and gradually turns into a continent-wide integration project.
Asia’s military and political situation develops along the lines of the first scenario: elements of international cooperation come to exert ever greater dominance over elements of confrontation. A major military political crisis in Beijing-Washington relations is avoided; territorial and border conflicts gradually become less of an issue; the logic of economic interdependence wins over that of the geopolitical balance of power. The “reset” in China-India relations gains particular significance, comparable in its consequences to the “reset” in Russia-China relations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. China, on the rise and confident in its power, agrees to significant concessions to India on border issues, recognizing India’s strategic leadership in South Asian trade and economic relations. India joins China’s “One Belt – One Road” project. The degree of India’s involvement in Asian trade increases rapidly.
Ultimately, Asia’s life is being determined by the emergent China–India axis, similar to the central role the Berlin-Paris axis played in West European integration in the second half of the 20th century. China–India cooperation is primarily economic but gradually spreads into the political. The US endeavors to balance the Beijing–New Delhi axis by boosting military political cooperation with India, but as India’s relations with China improve, New Delhi needs the US security umbrella less and less. Russia also nudges China’s leadership toward more active cooperation with India, since it is highly undesirable for Moscow to have to choose between Beijing and New Delhi. At the same time, additional risks emerge for Russia owing to Beijing possibly revising its economic and strategic priorities in favor of South Asia at the expense of Russia and Central Asia. Transforming the China-India axis into a fully-fledged China-India-Russia triangle remains Moscow’s strategic objective, primarily economically.
Since Washington loses positions in continental Asia, it has to rely mostly on its traditional allies on the periphery of the Asian continent, from Japan to Australia. With each passing year, these traditional allies find it increasingly hard to combine their pro-American military and political orientation with an economic reorientation toward China and the consolidation of Asia as a whole.
Multipolar balance of power
The scenario is based on preserving US hegemony on the continent (as in the first scenario), but under a significantly escalated military political situation in Asia. Increasing socioeconomic problems in most Asian countries, including China and India, lead to a rise in nationalism and political radicalism. Border conflicts and other territorial problems become the focus of national priorities, and populists bolster their positions in both democratic and authoritarian states on the continent. The arms race in Asia proceeds on an ever greater scale. Numerous attempts to agree on multilateral confidence-building military measures fail. From time to time, the continent is rocked by critical political crises and border clashes. Plans for economic unification of Asia fail under the onslaught of protectionism and bitter fights for resources.
Chronic political instability, separatist movements, religious conflicts, and numerous terrorist attacks prevent major infrastructural projects from being implemented on the continent. As a result, China’s “One Belt – One Road” project is realized in a reduced form with limited consequence for Asian countries. Instead of developing a single Asian economic space, most Asian states in their trade and economic strategies are oriented toward external markets (North America and Europe). Asian countries are locked in a fierce struggle over US and EU markets, allowing the West to secure profitable terms of trade with the East.
In such circumstances, the US can afford to play the role of an “offshore balancer”, maintaining a multilateral balance of power on the Asian continent and conducting a policy of “mediated” containment of China by providing incremental support to its real or potential opponents on the continent, including Japan, South Korea, ASEAN countries, Australia, New Zealand, and India. India is the principal, though not the only, counterbalance to China, and enters into a de-facto alliance with the US (or even becomes a de-jure American ally). Shipments of US arms to Asian countries increase. Bilateral and multilateral agreements with old US allies are renewed.
Containment of China, naturally, does not exclude Washington’s selective cooperation with Beijing, just as it does not exclude using the “Chinese menace” to further consolidate US positions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. China’s relative weakness and the numerous tensions among Asian countries allow Washington to minimize its immediate involvement in conflicts in Asia while maintaining a complex multilateral balance of power in Asia. In other words, Washington implements the strategy that the British Empire tried to implement with varying success in continental Europe in the 19th century (China’s closest analogue in this case being the Russian Empire).
The fourth scenario entails a simultaneous rise of China (as in the second scenario) and a general slump in socioeconomic, military, and political stability in Asia (as in the third scenario). Growing challenges to national security in Asian countries make it increasingly difficult to preserve the freedom of political maneuver, and the countries face a harsh choice between Beijing and Washington. As a result, Asia and the international system as a whole is divided into “Chinese” and ”American” blocs locked in a political, military and strategic, and possibly economic confrontation. Like the Soviet-American bipolar world of the 20th century, this new bipolarity gradually establishes new rules of the game acceptable to both parties, adopting the requisite agreements and generating new mechanisms for arms control. One could even imagine emergence of some new “non-aligned movement” and countries defecting from one camp to the other.
The crucial question in this scenario is the location of the “great Asian rift.” If the US succeeds in enshrining today’s tendency of India-US strategic rapprochement, the rift will divide “maritime democracies” from “continental autocracies.” If the US fails, the rift will run between the Asian continent and the island states of the Pacific. On the other hand, India may take a stance similar to that of De Gaulle’s France: while remaining within the general framework of the “maritime democracies” partnership, it will not immediately participate in anti-China military alliances (as in 1966, when Paris withdrew from NATO’s military structure).
The new bipolarity will increase Taiwan’s strategic significance for the US, and the American strategy will counteract attempts at economic integration and political unification of Taiwan and China. The Japan-China confrontation will not only be preserved, butwill gain additional impetus. With regards to Russia, the emergence of a new bipolarity will increase Russia’s dependence on China, since attempts to retain a “diversified portfolio” of political investment in Asia by expanding cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India will inevitably run into the harsh logic of bipolar confrontation.
It is hard to say how the new bipolarity will work in a globalized and interdependent world. Will the parties succeed in separating economic collaboration from political confrontation? Will they discipline their “junior partners” and non-state actors in global politics? Will they agree on joint approaches to global problems? Today, hardly anyone is ready to offer answers to these questions. One thing is clear: the new bipolarity of the 21st century would, in any case, be less stable and dangerous than the old bipolarity of the past century. It would apparently, sooner or later, evolve toward one of the three preceding scenarios.
Any forecast should contain references to “black swans.” These are critical events with hard-to-predict probability that can fully or greatly change the forecast. Several such events may be mentioned in creating a forecast for the Asian continent.
A large-scale military conflict in Asia. Although such a conflict does not appear particularly probable, the possibility cannot be entirely discounted. Setting aside the probability of violence escalating in certain Asian countries (Afghanistan, Myanmar, etc.) and of the situation destabilizing in one of the Central Asian states, we should keep in mind at least three variants of a large-scale war on the continent: (1) a war on the Korean peninsula involving the US and China; (2) naval clashes between China and the US or land clashes between China and India; (3) another border conflict between India and Pakistan escalating into a full-blown regional war. This conflict would have different impacts on China-US relations and on the situation in Asia as a whole but, in some way, would push the continent toward new strife and bipolarity and would limit the possibilities for economic unification of the continent.
The rise of Islamic radicalism. The Muslim population of Asia, even without the Middle East, will grow at rates outstripping the overall population growth of the continent. Islam is gaining particular influence in Southeast Asia, where some countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines) already have a network of international terrorist cells. A series of major terrorist attacks or attempts to seize power would have a great influence on both the political agenda in some Asian countries and on the priorities in their cooperation. For China, equally major challenges would be Islamic radicalism joining forces with separatist movements in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and growing discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia. The common threat could become an additional stimulus to multilateral cooperation in security, but ethno-nationalism and religious intolerance will impose strict limits on such cooperation.
An unexpected and severe financial and economic crisis that far exceeds the Asian crisis of 1997–1998 and the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 in both scale and depth. Shaken foundations of Asian economies would lead to major adjustments to the continental balance of power, changes to the macroeconomic strategy of leading Asian countries, and negative consequences for sociopolitical stability in some countries. Such a crisis could result in a relative weakening of the “Asian periphery” and strengthening of the “Asian nucleus”, primarily China. Another possible outcome of financial turmoil would be another “fine-tuning” of the global monetary financial system. It appears unlikely, however, that if the monetary and financial dominance of the West is preserved, Asia would gain anything substantial from such “fine-tuning.” Rather, Asian countries would have to shoulder major expenses to emerge from the crisis.
A major technological breakthrough of global significance. A technological revolution in one of the principal areas of today’s economy (energy, transport, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnologies, e-commerce, 3D-printing) is capable of changing significantly the established rules of the game in global economic relations. For instance, it could create opportunities for bringing much industrial production back into Europe and the US from Asia, cutting sharply the need for Asian labour force in individual manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors and radically changing the geography of global investment. Economic and social consequences of a major technological breakthrough would have a significant impact on the entire world, but the biggest players in new forward-looking technologies would reap the major benefits. China remains such a player, and, with qualifications, so do India and Japan. Foreign political influence would further shift from traditional instruments (military power, raw materials, and energy resources) to non-traditional (human capital, education, innovations). At the same time, Asia might become the main victim of the next generation of international cybercrime, more comprehensive and larger in scale than previously recorded.
“An economic miracle” in Russia or Japan. Russia and Japan are two large Asian countries that, for a long time, have been developing much more slowly than their dynamic neighbours on the continent. The “relative weight” of Russia and Japan in Asia’s economy is steadily falling and so are, accordingly, their long-term possibilities for influencing the future of Asia’s political space. Russia and Japan also have similarly severe demographic problems not typical of most other countries on the continent. A further drop in the “relative weight” of the two countries on the continent is considered by leading actors both in Asia and beyond. The presumption is that, should current trends remain, Japan will follow in the wake of US policies in the Asia Pacific and Russia will follow that of China’s Asian policies. Even so, if Japan’s “Abenomics” or Russia’s “economic spurt” strategy during Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term succeed, the situation might change drastically. The configuration of continental balances will become far more complex and the new continental order is likely to be more stable.
First published in our partner RIAC
Xinjiang: Pan-Turkism fuels China’s hearts-and-minds campaign
Chinese efforts to woo Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community highlight the People’s Republic’s effort to avert criticism from the Muslim world of its crackdown in the north-western province of Xinjiang and strengthen relations with the kingdom and Middle Eastern nations.
The efforts to woo a community, a significant part of which is of Turkic origin, identifies itself as Turkestani, and long supported greater rights, if not independence for Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, are part of a larger, long-standing global Chinese effort to ensure the support of a mushrooming Chinese diaspora not only for its policy in Xinjiang, but also for its anti-Taiwanese One China policy and growing economic and geopolitical influence.
“Tukestanis…do not identify as ‘Chinese in the ethnic, cultural or even geographic sense. Parts of this cluster perceive themselves…as being part of an oppressed group whose homeland is currently under Han occupation,“ said Muhammed Al-Sudairi, a Saudi China scholar and author of a recent report on the Chinese efforts in Saudi Arabia.
In wooing Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community, China is targeting a group that not only historically supported the Uyghurs but also maintained close ties to Taiwan. Mr. Al-Sudairi estimated the Saudi Chinese community to number at least 210,000, 150,000 of which have lived in the kingdom for decades.
It is a community that played a significant role in Saudi Arabia’s propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in China, part of a four-decade-long global campaign to counter post-1979 Iranian post-revolutionary zeal that more recently with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being curbed and given a more moderate makeover.
China this week sought to tighten relations with the Arab world with the allocation of US$106 million in aid to troubled nations, including Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon and the creation of a US$3 billion joint Chinese Arab fund that would invest in transportation infrastructure, oil and gas, finance, digital economy and artificial intelligence.
China announced the financial initiatives at a moment that it was putting the brakes on funds it pumps into its infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative that aims to connect Eurasia to the People’s Republic. The slowdown was designed to ensure that the initiative does not become a drag on the Chinese economy.
China’s Xinhua news agency meanwhile reported that President Xi Jingping would visit the United Arab Emirates this month on his way to a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Johannesburg. Mr. Xi visited Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt in 2016, the first visit to the Middle East by a Chinese head of state in seven years.
Chinese concern about Uyghur sentiment is compounded by the revival in post-Soviet Central Asian nations of pan-Turkism, a movement that emerged in the late 1900s that aims to unite Asia’s Turkic people. Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev sees pan-Turkism as a pillar of his country’s national identity.
Quoting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, Mr. Nazarbayev told a gathering in Ankara in 2012 that “the time will come when all the Turks will unite. Therefore I want to greet all the Turkic-speaking brothers. Between Altai and the Mediterranean Sea, over 200 million brothers live. If we all unite, then we will be a very effective force in the world.”
Pan-Turkism’s appeal in Central Asia, boosted by what Russia’s annexation of Crimea could mean for other post-Soviet states, does not stop at the borders of Xinjiang. The Altai mountains, Mr. Nazarbayev referred to is where Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia meet.
Mr. Nazarbayev last month took several steps to popularize pan-Turkic notions. The president sent a congratulatory message to a gathering celebrating the 125th anniversary of Magzhan Zhumabayev, a Soviet pan-Turkist poet whose works were banned by Joseph Stalin.
Days earlier, Mr. Nazarbayev signed a decree renaming the southern region of Shymkent as Turkestan, a reference to what pan-Turkists see as their spiritual homeland.
The rise of pan-Turkism puts China’s recent focus on Saudi Arabia’s Chinese Turkic community in a class of its own. China sought to boost its efforts by appointing in 2013 Anwar Habibullah, one of China’s few Uyghur diplomats as consul general in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.
The consulate, since Mr. Habibullah’s appointment conducts events not only in Mandarin and Arabic but also Uyghur, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi.
Mr. Al-Sudairi attributes the focus on the Saudi Uyghurs, one of the largest and wealthy Chinese Turkic diaspora communities, “to the role of this community as a stronghold for anti-Chinse and anti-CPC (Communist Party of China) sentiment in Saudi Arabia, and one that has had some influence in shaping Saudi elite and popular perceptions toward the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and CPC.”
The Chinese focus is also fed by the country’s determination to stem the influence of what it terms extremist thought, including Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, that was promoted by Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese through their contact with Uyghur pilgrims and the distribution of literature and, audio-visual materials in Xinjiang, often through governmental non-governmental organizations like the Muslim World League, a major vehicle in Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.
Mr. Al-Sudairi’s portrayal of Saudi Turkic sentiment and its impact on perceptions of China in Saudi Arabia is noticeable given the fact that the kingdom, like almost all Muslim states, has turned a blind eye to China’s crackdown in Xinjiang and systematic attempts at forced assimilation of the Uyghurs.
Muhammad Amin Islam Turkestani, a strident Uyghur advocate of Xinjiang independence helped shape Saudi perceptions and propagate nationalism in his homeland after settling in the kingdom in the mid-1950s. Mr. Turkestani served as a translator for Uyghurs performing the haj and hosted a one-hour Uyghur-language show on Saudi radio in the 1980s.
Funded by the Saudi Turkic community, Mr. Turkestani published a book, A Message to the Islamic World … Facts about Muslim Turkestan, that criticized Han supremacism and denounced communist rule. The book was published in the kingdom and distributed locally as well as internationally as part of Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.
Mr. Turkestani’s book, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi, influenced Saudi discussions and perceptions and complicated the kingdom’s relations with China before and after Saudi Arabia in 1990 became the last Arab state to officially establish diplomatic relations.
Saudi Arabia, however, while at times critical of Chinese policy in Xinjiang, ensured that they plight of the Uyghurs did not fundamentally affect official relations.
The country’s controlled media were at times allowed to raise the issues and senior religious scholars called for support of the Uyghurs, Mr. Turkestani’s campaign to get the Muslim World League to recognize East Turkestan went however unheeded.
Moreover, no senior Saudi scholar has issued a fatwa or religious opinion on the issue. “Uyghur persecution by China will not stop the Saudis’ engagement with China, nor even slow it down,” said prominent China scholar Yitzhak Shichor.
The Chinese effort to woo Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese is being spearheaded by the United Front Work Department, the main communist party unit tasked with reaching out to key non-part groups in China and across the globe, including Saudi Arabia.
“In January 2018…Politburo member and former Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, Yang Jiechi, told the National Overseas Chinese Conference that the government should expand and strengthen ‘Overseas Chinese Patriotic Friendly Forces’ in the service of the ‘Great Rejuvenation’ of the Chinese nation. In plain language, what this means is that overseas Chinese should be persuaded, induced, or in extremis, coerced, into accepting allegiance to China as at least part of their identity,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat and chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, in a recent speech.
Mr. Kausikan noted that the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was incorporated two months after Mr. Yang’s remarks into the United Front Work Department.
“This is leading China into very complex, indeed dangerous, territory. China’s navigation of the complexities has in many cases been clumsy,” Mr. Kausikan said, noting that the policy had led Chinese diplomats to openly interfere in the domestic politics in for example Malaysia.
“Since my retirement, I have travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Complaints about similar behaviour by Chinese diplomats and officials are all too common in all these regions; in fact, so common that it is becoming somewhat tiresome to listen to them,” Mr Kausikan said.
Xinjiang: China ignores lessons from the past
A Chinese campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uyghurs in its north-western province of Xinjiang in a bid to erase nationalist sentiment, counter militancy, and create an ‘Uyghur Islam with Chinese characteristics’ ignores lessons learnt not only from recent Chinese history but also the experience of others.
The campaign, reminiscent of failed attempts to undermine Uyghur culture during the Cultural Revolution, involves the creation of a surveillance state of the future and the forced re-education of large numbers of Turkic Muslims.
In what amounts to an attempt to square a circle, China is trying to reconcile the free flow of ideas inherent to open borders, trade and travel with an effort to fully control the hearts and minds of it population.
In doing so, it is ignoring lessons of recent history, including the fallout of selective support for militants and of religion to neutralize nationalism that risks letting a genie out of the bottle.
Recent history is littered with Chinese, US and Middle Eastern examples of the backfiring of government support of Islamists and/or militants.
No example is more glaring than US, Saudi, Pakistani and Chinese support in the 1980s for militant Islamists who fought and ultimately forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences of that support have reverberated across the globe ever since.
Some analysts suggest that China at the time was aware of the radicalization of Uyghurs involved in the Afghan jihad and may have even condoned it.
Journalist John Cooley reported that China, in fact, had in cooperation with Pakistan trained and armed Uyghurs in Xinjiang as well as Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The notion that Islam and/or Islamists could help governments counter their detractors was the flavour of the era of the 1970s and 1980s.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat saw the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-dote to the left that was critical of both his economic liberalization and outreach to Israel that resulted in the first peace treaty with an Arab state.
Saudi Arabia funded a four-decade long effort to promote ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam and backed the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces that helped create the breeding ground for jihadism and wreaked havoc in countries like Pakistan.
China’s experience with selective support of militancy and the use of religion to counter nationalist and/or other political forces is no different.
China’s shielding from designation by the United Nations as a global terrorist of Masood Azhar complicates Pakistani efforts to counter militancy at home and evade blacklisting by an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.
Mr. Azhar, a fighter in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for a 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station.
Back in the 1980s, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping saw his belief that what China expert Justin Jon Rudelson called a “controlled revival” of religion would foster economic development and counter anti-government sentiment boomerang.
The revival that enabled an ever larger number of Uyghurs to travel to Mecca via Pakistan for the haj made Saudi Arabia and the South Asian state influential players in Uyghur Islam. Uyghurs, wanting to perform the haj, frequently needed Pakistani contacts to act as their hosts to be able to obtain a Chinese exit visa.
The opening, moreover, allowed Muslim donors to provide financial assistance to Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia capitalized on the opportunity as part of its global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to put money into the building of mosques and establishment of madrassas.
Receptivity for more conservatives forms of Islam, particularly in southern parts of Xinjiang that were closest to Central and South Asia, suggested that the closure of Xinjiang’s borders during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s and 1960s and the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had done little to persuade Uyghurs to focus their identity more on China than on Central Asia.
In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia coupled with rising inequality rekindled Uyghur nationalism.
The rise of militant Islamist and jihadist Uyghurs constituted in many ways a fusion of Soviet and Western-inspired secular nationalist ideas that originated in Central Asia with religious trends more popular in South Asia and the Gulf in an environment in which religious and ethnic identity were already inextricably interlinked.
The juxtaposition, moreover, of exposure to more orthodox forms of Islam and enhanced communication also facilitated the introduction of Soviet concepts of national liberation, which China had similarly adhered to with its support for various liberation movements in the developing world.
The exposure put Xinjiang Uyghurs in touch with nationalist Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that fed on what political science PhD candidate Joshua Tschantret terms “ideology-feeding grievances.”
Nationalists, dubbed ‘identity entrepreneurs’ by Gulf scholar Toby Matthiesen, built on the presence of some 100,000 Uyghurs who had fled to Central Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960 during Mao Zedong’s social and economic Great Leap Forward campaign that brutally sought to introduce industrialization and collectivization and the descendants of earlier migrations.
With Pakistan’s political, economic and religious elite, ultimately seduced by Chinese economic opportunity and willing to turn a blind eye to developments in Xinjiang, Uyghurs in the South Asian country had little alternative but to drift towards the country’s militants.
Militant madrassas yielded, however, to Pakistani government pressure to stop enrolling Uyghurs. The militants were eager to preserve tacit Chinese support for anti-Indian militants operating in Kashmir.
Pakistan’s foremost Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, went as far as signing in 2009 a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese communist party that pledged support for Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang.
Despite eagerness to address Chinese concerns, Pakistan and China’s selective support of militants is likely to continue to offer radicalized Uyghurs opportunity.
“Jihadis and other religious extremists will continue to benefit from the unwillingness of the military and the judiciary to target them as well as the temptation of politicians to benefit from their support,” said former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, discussing overall Pakistani policy rather than official attitudes towards the Uyghurs.
Cultural anthropologist Sean R. Roberts noted that Central and South Asia became with the reopening of the borders in the second half of the 1980s “critical links between the inhabitants of Xinjiang and both the Islamic and Western worlds; and politically, they have become pivotal but contentious areas of support for the independence movement of Uyghurs.
The 1979 inauguration of the of the 1,300-kilometre-long Karakoram highway linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Abbottabad in Pakistan, one of the highest paved roads in the world, served as a conduit for Saudi-inspired religious ultra-conservatism, particularly in southern Xinjiang as large numbers of Pakistanis and Uyghurs traversed the border.
Pakistani traders doubled as laymen missionaries adding Islamic artefacts, including pictures of holy places, Qurans and other religious literature to their palette of goods at a time that Islamist fighters were riding high with their defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban.
Increased religiosity became apparent in Xinjiang.
Women donned veils in what was traditionally a more liberal land. Students of religion made their way to madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan where they came into contact with often Saudi-inspired Pakistani and Afghan militants – trends that China is trying to reverse with the construction of an Orwellian type surveillance state coupled with stepped-up repression and intimidation.
“The cross-border linkages established by the Uyghurs through access provided by the highway, Beijing’s tacit consent to expand Uyghur travel and economic links with Pakistan through Reform Era policies, and Beijing’s explicit consent in supporting anti-Soviet operations – all prompted the radicalization of a portion of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs,” concluded China scholar Ziad Haider more than a decade ago.
The process was fuelled by the recruitment in the 1990s of Uyghur students in Pakistani madrassas by the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, both of which were linked to Al Qaeda. Some 22 Uyghurs captured by US forces in Afghanistan ended up in Guantanamo Bay.
The eruption of protests in Xinjiang in the late 1990s and late 2000s against rising income differences and the influx of Han Chinese put an end to official endorsement of a religious revival that was increasingly seen by authorities as fuelling nationalism and facilitating Islamists.
Seemingly stubborn insistence on a Turkic and Muslim identity is likely one reason that China’s current assimilation drive comes as Xinjiang’s doors to its neighbours are being swung open even wider with the construction of new road and rail links as part of the People’s Republic’s infrastructure-centred Belt and Road initiative.
Forced assimilation is designed to bolster China’s expectation that increased economic ties to South and Central Asia will contribute to development of its north-western province, giving Uyghurs a stake that they will not want to put at risk by adhering to nationalist or militant religious sentiment.
The crackdown and forced assimilation is further intended to reduce the risk of a flow of ideas and influences through open borders needed for economic development and cementing Xinjiang into the framework of China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiatives that spans Eurasia
The assimilation effort is enabled by China’s Great Fire Wall designed to wall the country off of free access to the Internet. In doing so, China hoped in Xinjiang to halt cultural exchanges with Central Asia such as political satire that could reinforce Uyghurs’ Turkic and Central Asian identity.
The breadth of the more recent crackdown has complicated but not halted the underground flow of cultural products enabled by trade networks.
Mr. Roberts noted as early as 2004 that Chinese efforts aiming to regulate rather than reshape or suppress Islam were backfiring.
“Interest in the idea of establishing a Muslim state in Xinjiang has only increased with recent Chinese policies that serve to regulate the practice of Islam in the region,” Mr. Roberts said at the time.
The transformation of the North Korean military and political system
How is North Korea’s political system currently changing, pending the Great Transformation with the USA and South Korea, wanted and carefully directed by Kim Jong-un?
In the future the Great Leader wants to have a new ruling class suitable for the economic and strategic changes which will affect North Korea in the coming years.
Far-reaching military and economic changes, with the support of Iran, the Russian Federation, China and other countries.
According to Kim Jong-un, without prejudice to the regime’s structure, everything else must change.
In the framework of this change, the State and the Party must be turned into quick and agile tools in the hands of the Leader and of his partly-renewed inner circle.
Kim Jong-un’s primary goal is to control the initial phase of North Korea’s economic transformation, as well as to keep the grip on the Armed Forces and the Party, and to finally create a new ruling class for managing denuclearization and the economic transformation.
In the case of North Korean Armed Forces, the new appointments have mainly concerned the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the Chief of Staff Department of People’s Armed Forces – with new appointments also in the Directorate of Operations – and, finally, the Director of the General Political Bureau of the Armed Forces.
In the specific hierarchy of the North Korean military system, these are the three most important posts.
Furthermore, each of the three above mentioned roles implies the alternating or fixed presence of the Workers’ Party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the Political Bureau.
Therefore the new appointments are No Kwang Chol, former first vice-Minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, replacing Pak Yong Sik, while Ri Yong-gil replaces his former boss, Ri Myong-su.
Ri Yong-gil was Commander of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, but he was later removed from office in February 2016.
As early as 2013 he had been Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and, despite the recent events, he had a stable and secure military career.
From 2014 to 2018 Ri Yong-gil was also Head of the Pyongyang Committee of the Workers’ Party.
From 2012 to 2013 he accompanied Kim Jong-un on many visits to nuclear and bacteriological-chemical sites.
Considering the symbolic relevance of the North Korean power, he is probably one of the true leaders of the nuclear and bacteriological-chemical program of the North Korean Armed Forces.
Ri Yong-gil was at first Party’s official and later became officer of the North Korean Armed Forces, while always keeping political and party positions rather than technically military ones.
Moreover, Kim Jong-un is still playing many of his cards on the Defence Ministry.
It is a source of foreign currency and of excellent profit in relation to the friendly powers, as well as of social control and of real and effective foreign policy.
Under the current leader, Kim Jong-un, six new Defence Ministers have been appointed.
Pak Yong-sik is one of the Ministers removed from office.
Probably he had some business roles, but we cannot rule out that in the future he can start again his career, interrupted on the basis of unpleasant news about his role as businessman in the phase of the Sunshine Policy with South Korea.
He had been member of the Council of State, of the Central Committee and of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, as well as of the Central Military Commission and finally of the Political Committee of the Pyongyang Defence Command.
Clearly Kim Jong-un is measuring his potential enemy lobby.
And he is certainly planning the generational and political change of all the important positions of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.
As we will see later on, the new Minister No Kwang Chol was Head of the Second Economic Committee, which is in charge of the defence industry and hence connected with North Korea’s supervision and construction of conventional and nuclear weapons.
He is an excellent manager loyal to Kim Jong-un.
He held various posts in the North Korean political system.
These newly-appointed people have certainly been selected due to their absolute loyalty to Kim Jong-un and the Party,but we must better analyse the decision-making process of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as their specific role.
The naive analysts who think that Kim Jong-un is “prisoner” of his ruling class have understood nothing of North Korea’s political and economic mechanism.
For the Leader, both loyalty and professional skills are needed. He is willing to get over some affectation or groveling too much, but Kim Jong-un wants the best of his technocracy, subject to loyalty to the Party and to himself.
And, above all, subject to the absolute non-involvement in any financial and commercial activity having even the slightest hint of irregularity.
Corrupt people are always at the mercy of the enemy’s blackmail.
The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, however, is currently placed under the dual and symmetrical control of the State Affairs Commission of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Nevertheless the Ministry deals mainly with the logistics and training of the Special Forces and operates with approximately 36 external organizations.
The Ministry acquires the orders, requests and notes from the basic military units and later organizes and distributes them between the Central Military Commission, the General Staff and the Party’s Ammunition Department.
The Ministry also deals with military finance and operates with commercial companies and production units which can export goods and hence supply the country with hard currency.
In fact, as already noted, at least 36 commercial companies operate in the field of export and internal distribution.
But someone talks about 50 of these companies.
The naive Western analysts were wrong in believing that the People’s Armed Forces were a “terrible cost” for the people and a huge obstacle to economic development.
The opposite was, and is, true.
Therefore the military system operates, above all, with the 44thBureau of the People’s Armed Forces, in controlling most of North Korea’s hard currency flows.
The Technology Transfer Department has also relations with both the companies owned by the Party and by the Ministry’s Ammunition Department.
In particular, it deals with the acquisition of information technology and advanced weapon systems.
The General Department of Logistics deals above all with the network of factories and farms supplying food and clothing to the People’s Armed Forces.
Sometimes they operate for the civilian and foreign market of food and clothing.
The Ministry, however, is subject to the control of the State Affairs Commission, which originates both from the Government and the Party, as well as from the Central Military Commission, which anyway results from the Party-government link only.
It is worth recalling that as early as 2000, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces directly controlled the Political Department, the General Staff, the Military Security Command, the Reconnaissance Bureau and the Coast Guard Command.
Later, around 2007, all these structures became an integral part of the Ministry itself, which was placed under the control of the National Defence Commission.
In 2016 the latter saw its powers restricted and was placed under the State Affairs Commission’s control.
It should also be noted that, unlike Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un has revolutionised the People’s Armed Forces more than any other predecessor.
For example, there was the handover in February 2009 – just before Kim Jong-un’s role as heir to Kim Jong-il was officially declared.
As you may recall, this happened in September 2010.
At that stage, only seven of the most important positions in the North Korean military system were changed. It was the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s grip on power.
The North Korean Leader had carefully analysed all the military and economic positions well before his full rise to power.
From July to November of that year, the Political Committee (PC) of People’s Armed Forces was combed through by the North Korean leadership.
It was, in fact, the first scrutiny carried out by the Organization and Guidance Department after 1996.
There were some surprises: for example, the PC ships that secretly fished in Japanese waters; some military promotions in exchange for “bribes”; some accounting problems and some suspicions of corruption.
As is typical of his political role, Kim Jong-un has been very harsh in putting an end to these situations and punishing these behaviours.
In fact, in 2017 many executives of the Political Bureau of People’s Armed Forces were removed, with repercussions on the military forces that,as can be easily imagined, affected also the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Only after this long “purge” did Kim Jong-un focus on negotiations with South Korea and the USA.
In November 2017 Son Chol Ju, one of the officers promoted with the position of Colonel entrusted “with upper management and tasks”, was appointed as Head of the Organizational Affairs Department of People’s Armed Forces, but his appointment was made public only in May 2018.
As already noted, Son Chol Ju has replaced Jon Nam Jin and, most likely, also Kim Wong Hong.
Until that date Son Chol Ju had been the Director of the Political Bureau with the portfolio for organizational affairs, where he had spent his entire career.
Before taking this post, Son Chol Ju was political Director of the Air and Anti-Air Force, in addition to being Head of the respective political committee.
Probably Son Chol Ju was Head of the Political Bureau with the Propaganda portfolio, especially in the Pyongyang region.
In the meeting held on April 2018 Kim Jong Gak was elected to the Political Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
These changes of the North Korean ruling elite, however, show the extreme and non-negotiable power now reached by Kim Jong-un, unlike what claimed by the most naive, but very widespread, Western analyses.
This is one of the signs that, in a North Korean extremely important phase, the Party wants to control its “separate bodies”, with a view to avoiding “political advantages” and the systems of influence – even the foreign ones – as well as all the grey and black areas of finance which must currently be transformed and be directly controlled by the Party and its ruling class.
In this phase we need to study the careers of important personalities such as Jo Kyong Chol, the Director of the Military Security Command since 2009, as well as full member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and member of Kim Jong-il’s Funeral Committee.
Jo Kyong Chol was essential in strengthening Kim Jong-un’s power – a member of the “old guard” that wanted continuity, independence and military power for North Korea.
Hence he has accepted the new system of international relations in North Korea.
Currently Kim Jong-un certainly wants the regime’s continuity, but also and above all the emergence of a ruling class capable – by training, background and political culture – of organizing the North Korean stability in a phase of opening to the world market.
Ri Song Guk, another fer de lance of Kim Jong-un’s current political and military system, currently leads North Korea’s Fourth Army Corps – after leading the 39th Division – a very special military structure deployed near the Yellow Sea and the Northern Limit Line.
He is the current Director for Special Operations of the Central Command.
Yung Jong-rin is serving as the Commander of the Supreme Guard Command – therefore he is responsible for Kim Jong-un’s personal safety, but he had the same post with Kim Jong-il and is hence the Commander of the most technologically advanced security service in North Korea.
He has been member of the Central Military Commission since September 2010, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, and General since April 22, 2010.
Hence Kim Jong-un is preparing the ruling class that will defend North Korea’s interests in its new, gradual and slow globalization.
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