The prologue in Heaven of this topic took place in France, in the last flash of the profound and integral scientific philosophy of a Europe that, years later, Benedetto Croce called “civil”.
In fact, pending the First World War, Henri Bergson, the brilliant and powerful philosopher of the élan vital(vital impetus or force), besides being the first great theorist to seriously study Einstein’s theory of relativity, developed some new concepts on war and politics that it would be useful to currently revise.
As President of the Comité France-Amerique, which was very active during the First World War, Bergson believed that, at the time, power did no longer lie in the simple possession of the territory, but in the control of the “vital points of communication” in the various countries at war, not at war and in the whole globe.
Hence, he overcame the difference between belligerent and neutral countries, as well as between viable countries and non-viable areas, which is still a very topical issue.
The de-territorialization of war is now complete, given that China, like the USA and, to a lesser extent, the European countries, focus on Network-centric Warfare.
In any case, there is no direct link between territory and control.
From this viewpoint, and only in this sense, something completely new happened in France and in the USA, during the first global war clash, a new phenomenon that, as the historian Arno Mayer said, put an end to the long line of the Ancien Règime: at the dawn of the First World War, for the very first time, the world domination became materially possible.
Therefore, from that time on, it was possible to exploit the opposing populations without having to deport them. Another novelty that Bergson did not neglect at all.
Hence, according to the philosopher of the creative evolution, the United States that entered the war in 1917 brought the “supplement of force” which was necessary to close the allied strategic equation, i.e. support from the Sea and from the Sky.
In current terms, this means the coverage of all the control points that allows – when you control many of them – to end war operations and declare the Winner.
According to a sapiential mythology that manifested itself also at the end of the Second World War, the Atlantic sea was the symbolic and strategic factor that took away the “terrestrial miasmas” of central Europe – as Bergson put it. That recreated a “new collective imagination” of peoples, which is another very topical issue in contemporary strategic thinking.
It was no longer linked to the land to conquer, but to the series of intangible points to control.
Wars were also waged to reconstruct deep symbols or to “bring the new gods to others”, as Bergson said, by recalling Theseus’ bones or Sophia’s cult typical of Themistocles.
The Greeks who colonized Southern Italy brought their gods, before starting to economically exploit the coast, while the Italic peoples in the South fled to the mountains, bringing their idols and hiding them in forests.
Furthermore, in his war treatises of the time, the French philosopher outlined a substantial difference between the “force that is used” and the “force that is not used”. It is a particularly topical issue.
This is a very “Chinese” concept: the force that is used puts you on display and makes you be noticed. It makes you immediately be considered in the enemies’ calculations and it becomes a probable foothold for their direct reaction against your moves.
The “Force that is not used”, instead, is always invisible, hence incalculable and, above all, always moral, even when it regards the deployment of forces: what is not used immediately in the fight is what is really used in the end, because it is only what allows duration – just to use a philosophical concept typical of Bergson.
The winners are those who last one minute longer than their opponents – hence the winners are those who wisely dose and measure out their still unused forces, by hiding them.
This is another classic theme of the Chinese strategic thinking: “cross the sea without the emperor’s knowledge”, the First Stratagem of the classic Thirty-Six Stratagems of the Chinese art of war, means, in essence, that Yin, the art of deception, is already all inside Yang, the art of action.
There is no clear separation between the two moments, between the force we are obliged to use and the force which remains covert.
“Create something from nothing” is another Stratagem and this is about creating the illusion that something does not exist or that something exists – but it is the same thing.
War is waged and made mainly in the mind of our opponent, which is exactly what is moving against us “under the sky”.
Those who see only the Visible Force see nothing. They only see pieces of a chessboard without knowing the rules, which are always the Tao, the invisible that adapts to every moment, remaining always the same because it always changes.
Another Stratagem is “decorate the tree with false blossoms” i.e. make important what is worth little, thus reversing the order of apparent values, just as a magician could do.
Finally, the last Stratagem we need here is “inflict injury on yourself to win the enemy’s trust”, another traditional criterion that is aimed at fighting not only against some material forces, but also against the mental image that the enemy creates and possesses of us. This is exactly what we must really fight, besides the visible forces (that “are used”, as Bergson would say), but especially those that are not used, which always remain covert and hence move the visible.
The moral force cannot certainly be seen, but it is the one that really counts since, to some extents, it can make up for the other forces and it is the force that really makes us win.
After all, in Bergson’s mind, his creative evolution is properly a vis a tergo(a force behind).
All powers are a force according the French Jewish philosopher, who dared to put on David’s yellow star and go outside, just before dying, while the SS were combing Paris in search of Jews to be sent to extermination camps.
But the Force and the vital impulse itself are always finite and limited. It is a Force that does not last, precisely because it cannot help showing itself and being used.
Let us now analyse in depth the issue of the sapiential philosophy of war in China, which is also currently in place and operating in the planning of the post-modern war of IT Networks and Nodes.
The Chinese sapiential philosophy, which is timeless, maintains scientific and rational effects that still last. They can be observed in many fields ranging from management to finance, from cultural and influential operations to political negotiations and diplomacy.
In Chapter 11 of the fundamental text, “The Science of Military Strategy”, regarding the management of the Chinese war of the future, we can read about Tai-Kung, the proverbial lucky and skilful Chief of the Chinese tradition of “warring States”.
The example of the successful leader is an essential lesson to be learnt: it is the ability of the strategic commander, as well as his shrewdness and far-sightedness,which are at the core of the troops’ morale and cohesion. Not the other way around.
Mao Zedong, however, maintained the same in his Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla Warfare: in that type of warfare command should absolutely be centralized at top management and fully decentralized in campaigns and battles.
The Centre is the Force that is not used, the one that never fades away because it is essentially spiritual.
The Force that is not used lies in the centre, while the one that is used lives at the visible edges of the forces’ field.
Hence Sun Tzu’s traditional criterion: commanding many soldiers is exactly the same as giving orders to a very few. It is a problem of troop division and specialization.
The leader is worth as much as and even more than all troops – an unusual, but very clear doctrine in a Communist country like present China.
Hence,when the current Chinese doctrine speaks about “hi-tech local wars”, the post-Maoist theory of the 21st century echoes SunTzu’s.
In other words, it is maintained that – in China’s modern and old doctrine -the Chinese victory is s “precise application of violence”. It should also be recalled that, in Clausewitzian thought, Victory is a vague and voluntaristic concept, considering that, for the winner, it is a matter of “placing the enemy under his own will”, an evident Kantian echo of the Prussian military.
If it is a matter of Force that is used, everything must be visible and clear. Powerful, immediate and concentrated in one point. Like the Thunderbolt, the sapiential symbol of war.
Will, however, is not used and does not fade away in a single act of war.
Sun Tzu’s tradition is still evident in the current Chinese doctrine, where – again with reference to peripheral hi-tech wars – it is stated that “nodes must be attacked to destroy the entire network”. Not all nodes, but those that are needed to permanently block the Network. The “territory” is not necessary. What is needed is the victory over the minimum number of points, which are necessary to block the flows on the Network.
A minimax problem, as mathematicians would say.
However, this is something we have already seen in Bergson, albeit expressed in other words.
Hence total destruction, which is carried out through a sufficient and limited destruction of nodes to protect one’s own Force, while eliminating the Force that the enemy is using.
In this way -immediately afterwards -we obtain political, psychological and organizational effects, which lead to a complete and uncontrollable pressure on the enemy’s mind and spirit – which is the real goal of Chinese war, from Sun Tzu to current times.
Therefore, the enemy’s destruction and annihilation is the real aim of the clash, when this is objectively possible. This applies to both Mao Zedong and Sun Tzu, as well as China’s contemporary strategic doctrine.
Obviously, for Sun Tzu, victory was not so much the physical annihilation of the enemy, but rather the destruction of his plans and strategies. One must win by possibly not fighting any battle.
The logical principle, however, is the same: if we destroy the enemy’s plans and strategies, we really destroy him in the core of the Force he does not use and hence we deprive him of any political and military identity.
Still today, however, in the current Chinese military doctrine, priority is given to victory by stratagems rather than to victory connected with a direct and evident clash, with a Force that is used.
Nevertheless, in the reality of the network and hyper-technological clash of current wars, China’s strategic issue is the use of “limited force” to reach the goal traditionally stemming from the use of a fully deployed Force.
The Void for the Full, the Little that becomes Everything, the little Force that becomes absolute. Basically, an act of magic.
This is the reason why, nowadays, Chinese strategists do not much discuss “mass war” and “long-term war”, i.e. Maoist themes which are no longer conceivable in a scenario of hi-tech local wars.
According to China’s current strategic thinking, however, future wars will also be “people’s wars”.
The future “people’s war” will not be a Long March outside the enemy’s most natural and strongest lines of resistance, but a new mass war that will be fought in peripheral strategic lines, far from the State centre and from the Commander’s physical presence.
The “people’s war” is currently understood as the full mobilization not of all Chinese people, but of the civilian and military people who live and work directly at the junctions of the “network war”.
Furthermore, if the (present) and future technological wars always cost too much and cannot become long-lasting wars even for the great capitalist and Western countries, the future will be characterized by quick battles and even faster decisions, which will sometimes be supported by Artificial Intelligence and Big Data technologies.
Therefore we have here a synthesis of Mao Zedong’s military thought, which aimed at an extensive but targeted use of Force, and of Sun Tzu’s thought which, instead, aimed at a minimum, quick and specific use of Force.
The two criteria are only apparently opposed: in hi-tech warfare we must use the targeted and economically rational attack, but such attack must be “Maoist”, i.e. it must strike hard and always use – in one way or another – the “people’s war”.
It is always the crowds who are directly interested in Victory.
The people are, however, the most widespread, useful and effective military resource.
There is no populist myth, however, in Sun Tzu’s and Mao Zedong’s doctrines.
Still today, however, the current doctrines of the Chinese Chief of Staff underline some classic criteria of Sun Tzu: the minimal but powerful use of Force to acquire strategic objectives, as well as the need to precisely predict the effects of an action or a battle.
They also emphasize the importance of the tactical and strategic initiative, although with a typically Maoist approach on the concentration of forces which must be deployed in a cost-effective, careful and powerful way, but only in one point, or can also be staggered over time, but always with a predefined and clear objective.
Once again a pretence of Maoist “long-lasting war”.
With a view to correlating Sun Tzu and Mao, but in the new configuration of the Network-centric warfare, we can note that, in the Chinese texts, the “strategic initiative” is still defined as “freedom of action of a player” that, in Bergson’s thought, is the Force that is not used.
Nowadays, China’s military decision-making is also defined as the possibility of obtaining a strategic initiative by reaching superiority both in materials and, above all, in the psychology of one’s own and of the enemy’s troops.
It is not a matter of “own will imposing itself on the enemy” – as Von Clausewitz maintained – but of a model of action on minds and hearts that becomes the real aim of war, without the psychological inaccuracies of traditional Western philosophy.
We here return to Tradition, a word that is much deeper than Western “philosophy”, as taught to us by Giorgio Colli, who believed that the Greek Wisdom was mostly the dawn of thought, which later no longer reproduced itself with the same strength, even in the traditional Greek philosophy.
After Heraclitus’ lightning, the slow discussion, which began and ended often without leading to immediate and complete enlightenment.
In chapter 6 of Sun Tzu’s “Vacuity and Substance”, it is maintained that if we can concentrate our forces when the enemy is fragmented, we must do so when we ourselves are”shapeless”, i.e. we are the Tao that adapt – like water – to the immediate reality of the Full and the Void.
This is another idea that can be found in Mao Zedong’s thinking: “the strategic initiative is nothing imaginary, but it is completely concrete and material”.
It is always active and real. The leader only needs to take the initiative and regard it in the reality of military movements and the creation of a great Theater of Shadows, namely psywar, which is never a corollary of the action on the ground, but the essence of strategic planning.
In the Chinese tradition and contemporary theory of “unlimited” war, the strategic thinking is essentially political, economic, geo-economic and financial will and – only finally -strictly military will.
Sino-US rivalry and the myth of Thucydides Trap
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.).
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
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.
Xinjiang: The New Ideological Battleground between the US and China
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?
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!
The Xinjiang-Uyghur issue
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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