Last week’s APEC summit in Beijing served as a major coming-out party for President Xi Jinping’s “one belt, one road” plan: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. Kerry Brown ably explored the historical and diplomatic meaning of the initiative in a piece for China Power. However, it’s also worth looking in more detail at the domestic ramifications of the Silk Road plan, and particularly its meaning for China’s troubled western regions.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) emerged as a major trouble spot domestically for China following violent riots and terrorist attacks within Xinjiang and as far away as Kunming and Beijing. Faced with this unrest, Beijing implemented a two-pronged strategy. First, the central government unleashed a severe crackdown on terrorist activities, resulting in mass arrests and trials. Second, Beijing doubled down on its previous strategy of promoting economic development in the region as a way of addressing ethnic tensions. The central government recognizes that unemployment and poverty among Uyghurs is a major driver of discontent.
In this context, the Silk Road initiative dovetails perfectly with China’s bid to develop its relatively poorer, underdeveloped central and western regions – including Xinjiang. The Silk Road Economic Belt provides a rationale for the central government to lavish spending on these inland regions. A report from Bloomberg says the government plans to set aside $16.3 billion for domestic infrastructure spending in support of the Silk Road. All of this money will be spent within China’s borders.
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