China has major internal problems in Tibet and Xinjiang but little spoken about. It is a surprise to see the silence of Islamic world on the plight of millions of Muslims at Xinjiang. A recently published White Paper states that “the Uyghur people adopted Islam not of their own volition … but had it forced upon them by religious wars and the ruling class.” With the Islamic world, China has used energy and trade as weapons. The Chinese model works on the premise that if you can make a weak country dependent, at the same time it is possible to make a strong country an ally using the same weapons but with differing tactics. A special report by Dr Sakariya Kareem
China is today a racing towards becoming an economic powerhouse. While its economy does face challenges, China’s ability to use its global economic clout is no longer in doubt. That Beijing is able to employ its economic muscle to achieve its goals particularly with the Islamic world is an example to other countries, a case in point being India and Israel. While in theory the idea that Chinese model could be employed by India and Israel, its practicality needs further examination.
To begin with, it must be said that China’s growth in the last six decades has been amazing, with a decadal average of 6.5% or above. China also has healthy foreign exchange reserves and an industrial base with over capacity that is being exported through the BRI. This permits China to deal bilaterally with countries with targeted investments across the world. With the Islamic world, China has used energy and trade as weapons. The Chinese model works on the premise that if you can make a weak country dependent, at the same time it is possible to make a strong country an ally using the same weapons but with differing tactics.
The purpose of China’s strategy is to buy silence on Xinjiang, a province that is host to the Uyghurs, who share a close ethnic and religious affinity to Turkey. The latest in the Chinese offensive was fired on 23 July 2019 when the State Council Information Office released a White Paper on Xinjiang which claims that the Uyghurs became Muslims not by choice but by force, and Islam is not their only religion, in a bid to justify its controversial policies in Xinjiang.
The White Paper states, “The Uyghur people adopted Islam not of their own volition … but had it forced upon them by religious wars and the ruling class.”
China has major internal problems in Tibet and Xinjiang but little spoken about. Xinjiang is important today, because the Uyghur minority has Islamic origins and have close ethnic links to Turkey. The persecution of the Uyghurs had remained largely unknown to the rest of the world, till 2018 when media reports began to focus on it in a big way. This was followed by Ambassadors of the EU being taken to Xinjiang to see things for themselves. Despite this the Islamic world remained silent. This was because of two reasons. Firstly, China’s economic relations with the Islamic world gave it a measure of surety that they would not speak on the internal affairs of China. Second, more importantly, some of these nations share the same views with China on domestic freedom and expression.
A closer look at how China buys silence would be illustrative here. In the case of Iran, China is energy dependent. However, China has decided that it will continue to buy Iranian oil despite US sanctions. It has stated that it will negotiate this with the US, but has not reduced its POL import from Iran. In May 2019, the Chinese oil tanker Pacific Bravo departed from the Persian Gulf laden with about 2 million barrels of Iranian oil. Beijing can afford to do this despite sanctions because the Chinese have a major stake in the US economy in the form of treasury bonds. Also, with the US-China trade war reaching a peak, China sees Iran as an opportunity and it suits Iran to have partner who can buy their oil. This gives rise to a certain understanding that neither will interfere in the internal affairs of the other.
China is Saudi Arabia’s largest oil client. China has thus become a crucial partner. The US was at one time at that position, but with the US moving away from the Gulf for energy and an unpredictable US administration, Saudi Arabia finds it easier to deal with China. And where the US leaves a vacuum, China steps in; take the example of Huawei 5G which China has accepted. There is another factor at play here which goes beyond trade and energy. Both China and Saudi Arabia work on economic liberalisation with domestic oppression. Therefore, the trust factor is much higher between the two.
At a larger level, China’s major imprint in the Middle East is that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of countries in the region. It works to increase its influence domestically only to protect its interests. For example, there are some 550,000 Chinese nationals working in the Middle East and works towards protecting them. Since 2008, however, the presence of Chinese PLA troops and ships in the Middle East has shown a marked increase, demonstrating that China cannot be hands off for too long.
With smaller nations in the Islamic world, the model of investing (literally) in their political and economic set up and creating dependencies continues. China has of late been using the BRI as an excuse to do precisely that. So how does this system work of buying silence as and when it is needed in the Islamic world? It is quite simple, China works on the principle of doing favours and taking it when it becomes due. And for what purpose does China need to buy silence? A point made earlier was the similarity between the policies of Saudi Arabia and China.
To that extent, countries like India and Israel have much to learn. Israel, of course, is a past master in handling situations involving Islamic nations, because it is essential to their very survival. Their relationship with the US is also very good. India on other hand is new to this game. But it is a fast learner and understands the value of keeping a strategic balance in the Islamic world. But more needs to be done. This is because as a rising power, the ability to have relations with countries based on economic heft will be crucial. Thus, for instance, in the neighbourhood itself, India needs to have a far clearer perspective on how it can specifically retain its influence. Given the commonalities shared by India and Israel, the potential for cooperation and exchange of best practices is a good starting point.
It could well be argued that understanding the transformation of India’s relationship with Israel itself is a vantage point to see the transformation in global geo-politics. Both countries share a close strategic partnership. In India, while traditional foreign policy choices remain, in the case of Palestine, there is a fine balance that has been drawn in terms of national interest. That is the new paradigm. In the case of Israel too, traditional rivals like Saudi Arabia are ‘friends’ too when it comes to Syria. In this instance, the objective is not so much to buy silence on domestic issues, but to find the right moves on foreign policy.
The Chinese experience of dealing with the Islamic world informs us that it is possible to buy silence on domestic issues. But not for long, the refrained references in the OIC to Xinjiang make it clear that the Chinese model is not perfect. Recall that at the March 2019 meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the OIC in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, there was a mention of the work being done by China to look after the Muslim minorities in China. It is a starting point and one can visualise more to come, though it will continue to be mooted.
The systems of functioning in both India and Israel differ vastly from that of China as both nations are democratic. Thus far, for example, the standard references to J&K and Palestine in the OIC have been dealt with diplomatically and have not led to any dramatic change in the perceptions of the Islamic world on the issues. To begin with, diplomacy could well be used, and instances of this already abound, of how both countries have used platforms like the UN and OIC itself to share their point of view. This helps in reducing or moderating the current discourse on certain domestic matters.
A more activist approach would require economic muscle, which is currently lacking. However, Israel has considerable technological leverages which it could employ as and when required. Similarly, India could work towards providing alternatives in the field of energy and cyber to make its presence felt. For both India and Israel, the lesson from China is the ability to use all tools available to make the necessary impact on the Islamic world. There is a sense that this is already happening and without too much fanfare. The potential for further expansion of this political and diplomatic offensive, backed by financial muscle needs to be quickly worked out given the prevailing global environment.