China's Continental Strategy Over the Next Twenty Years
The US’ foreign policy dilemmas have much in common with India’s concerns regarding its extended neighbourhood. On the one hand, the structures of power in West Asia are being modified by protracted sectarian and strategic struggles, which are further aided by fundamental demographic changes. On the other, peace in the Asia Pacific region over the past thirty years, which has thus far been beneficial to both Chinese and US interests, is now threatened by unfounded territorial claims by Chinese factions. Treated in isolation, these two above issues are already complicated in themselves. But is now becoming increasingly difficult to separate them. The One Belt One Road initiative, which highlights China’s geopolitical ambitions to create a great cross-border heartland with dependencies on the Chinese mainland is the primary link between these two otherwise geographically disparate developments.
The standard assumption in the US has traditionally been that the Chinese political system is likely to see increasing democratic change as its economy develops, but this assumption is being questioned right now. There is an evolving maritime-continental dialectic in Chinese grand strategy - a movement away from the oceans-oriented grand strategy of pursuing China’s rise can be detected. More and more in China’s ruling regime (strategists within the party, army, think-tanks etc) argue that the rise should be pursued on land, and the reasons for this are primarily domestic and internal. However, to fully operationalise this vision, China needs peace in the Asia Pacific and many naval strategists are re-emphasising maritime strategy for this purpose. There are therefore competing visions for China’s rise within the country.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) since Deng Xiaoping developed China’s eastern seaboard very rapidly, leading to the interior and western regions lagging behind. This disparity created resentment within the party and its people, and these dissonances were perceived as an issue of regime survival. In considering the issue, the CPC was confronted with a unique set of problems: they wanted to replicate the development of the eastern seaboard on the western side and in the interiors, but this would have effectively placed the different regions of China in direct competition with one another. The CPC had to figure out how to develop China’s interior regions without having it threaten other parts of China, and the solution to this was to “march west”- to create land ports and configure institutional requirements to revitalise cities like Chengdu, Urumqi etc. This began in earnest in 2008-2009, when the rise of China was still viewed primarily as a maritime development and not envisaged in the heartland of Eurasia.
Developing the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Yunnan and Xinjiang as land ports through which a march west could be launched is very real for those who live in these areas. With decades of Chinese demographic colonisation, the situation is approaching cultural genocide - for example, during Ramzan, Muslim shopkeepers are being forced to sell food, alcohol and cigarettes, and there are attempts to wipe out the indigenous language of the area. In addition to this is the Chinese militarisation of the Himalayas over the last decade. Large infrastructure is under construction and surge capacity is being developed for the military and as an important element of China’s march west. It is unclear whether the US or India is entirely prepared for this, and the US must be more attuned to India’s continental concerns.
What happens when China begins to pursue its ambitions in the continent and comes into greater interactions with the political crises in West Asia? Does Chinese power seek stability and will it attempt to reign in some of the pathologies that can be seen in West Asia? Will it try to recreate the region in ways that are more conducive to Chinese interests, or not play a role at all in regional upheaval?
In terms of what the Chinese march west can offer towards the stabilisation of West Asia, there is in Beijing a faction of people with revisionist ambitions who seek to pursue their own strategic aggrandisement. Their assistance in building the strategic capacity of states in the region could create problems for states like the US. A successful implementation of their strategy would allow the CPC greater strategic latitude for its ambitions.
Here, US-Pakistan bilateral ties are important, based as it is on a transactional relationship with the military and a very narrow understanding of the Pakistani government. There is the lack of a deeper understanding of the political nature and role of the military; the assumption is that it is somewhat similar to the US military in the sense that it is concerned about territorial integrity etc. Influence in Pakistan is seen by some in China as a way to keep India in check and counter the Indo-Pacific security architecture that the US is trying to build in collaboration with a host of other states, including India.
It is against this backdrop that US interests in Pakistan are shrinking. There is a general political movement in the US towards India, but how this is achieved will be difficult to pull off. Simultaneously, Chinese power is growing in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and it might soon outstrip the US, particularly in Rawalpindi, which is significant because there is no evidence that China has the same concerns as the US, such as federal stabilisation. In this context, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promise of investing US$46 billion to develop linkages with Pakistan will be a useful tool to exert influence on the country’s Punjabi elite. The more China becomes involved in Pakistan, the harder it will be for a workable federal structure to emerge.
The US should look at how to promote political stability in Pakistan while reducing the political role of the military. Moreover, an agenda for India’s strategic and economic reemergence must also be created so that it can become the dominant Asian power in West Asia. It is in US interests to preserve the peace in the Indo Pacific and to build capacity to deal with the potential threats and fall-out in West Asia, the Gulf, and Pakistan.