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Can Beijing Sell Silk Road as a Marshall Plan Against Terror?

China needs West’s buy-in on stabilizing effects of its Silk Road project

By ANDREW BROWNE

China has long tried to get the West to acknowledge that the Muslim extremist violence that rages from North Africa through the Middle East and onward to Central Asia ultimately ends up on China’s western doorstep.

But its claims about cross-border terrorism have met a skeptical response: Many Western security analysts believe that attacks by Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region have more to do with anger against the Chinese government’s religious and cultural repression than global jihad.

And there has indeed been little hard evidence of spillover into Xinjiang. In his book “The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics,” the Central Asia specialist Andrew Small describes how China has skillfully kept Islamic militants across the border at bay, in spite of its harsh treatment of its Muslim minority. China’s pitch to them, he writes: “Don’t bother us and we won’t bother you.”

But as Islamic State and other groups that China has little familiarity with send fresh waves of instability along the overland arc of terror, that bargain is threatened. So is what China sees as essentially a Marshall plan to extend Chinese-style economic development to its troubled inland neighbors.

ENLARGE

In the aftermath of the Paris massacre, a question worth asking is whether China can get the West to work with it on a network of highways, railways, power stations and industrial parks stretching all the way to Europe. The Silk Road Economic Belt represents the most significant economic proposal any country has put forward to help stabilize chaotic parts of the world. Moreover, it’s backed by hard cash: China is putting its $3.5 trillion of foreign-exchange reserves behind the effort to kick-start growth and create jobs in Muslim areas.

Pulling off the vast project on its own may be impossible for China. It has lavish funds, engineering expertise and even the necessary diplomatic relationships, especially with Pakistan. However, it lacks military reach and experience on the ground dealing with complex security problems. And its long-standing policy of “noninterference” in other country’s affairs limits its political options, although it’s starting to shed some of that reticence in order to protect its nationals and investments abroad. Just last week, China announcedits first overseas naval outpost in the East African nation of Djibouti.

Beijing’s initial response to the Paris attacks, however, highlights some of the obstacles to practical cooperation. Instead of quickly offering its support in beating back Islamic State, Foreign MinisterWang Yi complained that China is a victim of terrorism too. He warned the West against “double standards” in playing down the terrorist threat in Xinjiang.

At stake is an immensely ambitious Chinese initiative that is critical to Beijing’s effort to secure its vulnerable western flank. The project is twinned with an equally sweeping concept, the Maritime Silk Road, that’s meant to have a similarly transformative economic impact along sea routes from China to Europe via Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Some critics dismiss the “One Belt, One Road’ idea as self-serving—a way to offload China’s vast industrial surpluses of steel and heavy machinery. Others say it’s always been hostage to militant forces. In recent years, China has been forced to pull back from several gigantic investments in chronically unstable parts of the world after deadly attacks on its workers. The killing of three Chinese rail executives in the recent hotel siege in Mali highlights the dangers.

To protect further investments, China might have to show military force, or take sides in regional politics, making it a bigger target for the jihadists. Many doubt that China is ready to take those kinds of risks.

Huge sums are aimed at Pakistan, where small numbers of Uighur fighters hide out in lawless tribal areas, protected by other militants. And Pakistan is key to what unfolds in Afghanistan—another immediate Chinese neighbor—now that America has drawn down its forces there.

Almost everybody agrees that bombing Islamic State won’t deal with the underlying problems that breed murderous fanatics.

Here’s China, then, with a critical missing element, a plan that some compare with the U.S. effort after World War II to rebuild the shattered economies of Europe and Japan. William H. Overholt, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Asia Center, writes that like America’s visionary program, China’s Silk Road initiative “is impressive not just for its geographic scope but also for its integration of economic, political and national security considerations.”

Lifting the economic despair that sustains Muslim extremism is a vision that should naturally bring China and the U.S. together; terrorism challenges them both equally, like climate change or pandemics where they have a good track record of cooperation. And unlike East Asia, where American and Chinese strategic interests collide, in the Muslim world they largely coincide.

Xinjiang could become the place where China’s internal security unravels. Or it could be the launchpad for a global effort to counter the appeal of Muslim death cults. But for that, China needs to convince the West of the value of its Silk Road plans.

Write to Andrew Browne at andrew.browne@wsj.com

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal

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