Forty years ago, China introduced major economic reforms, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, leading it to become the second largest economy in the world. In the last 70 years, China has adjusted its regional development strategy three times. The first stage (1949-1978) is known as Balanced Development. Its major component was to seek a balanced development. The second stage (1979-1991) was Unbalanced Development with a focus to develop regions with special advantages (eastern & coastal cities). The third stage was Coordinated Development, which concentrates to stimulate the development of underdeveloped regions to reduce regional socio-economic disparity.
In continuation of coordinated development strategy, the government invested in developing transportation, energy and communication infrastructure, irrigation systems and urban infrastructure in the interior regions to develop public services which helped to narrow the gap between west, countryside and the other regions of China. Under this strategy, a considerable amount of investment was also dedicated for the development of highly populated ethnic autonomous regions, economically poor border states and other underdeveloped regions to reduce the gap that was created during the first two stages of China’s development. Although, policy environment was same for eastern and western regions but this strategy could not reap the real benefit for western part of China. The economic imbalance between them continued despite equal efforts.
To define a more focused policy that could work according to the economic situation of western regions, China in the year 2000 announced the “Western Development Strategy”. This strategy aimed to address the socio-economic, ecological and security issues in order to set an environment in western China at par with eastern and central China to accelerate the development. Agenda of this strategy is to focus on six provinces (Gansu, Guizhou, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Sichuan and Yunnan), 5 autonomous regions (Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang) and includes one municipality (Chongqing). China has a border with 14 countries out of which eight are sharing a 5,600 km long border with Xinjiang including Pakistan, Mongolia, India, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Russia.
The strategic location of Xingjian making it economically viable for the investment. Xinjiang is the home of 24.4 million people with 47 ethnic groups, the larger ones include Uighur, Han, Kazak, Hui, Mongolian, Kirgiz, Xibe, Tajik, Ozbek, Manchu, Daur, Tatar and Russian. The most populous ethnic group is the Uighur, and mostly are Sunni Muslims. Tianshan mountain divide the Xinjiang into “South Xinjiang” and “North Xinjiang”. This province is also the home of large mineral reserves including iron, copper, gold, chrome, nickel and salt minerals.
Currently, 19 Chinese provinces and municipalities pledged their financial and technical support for the development of Xinjiang. These initiatives help to minimize the intraregional disparity and to address other bottlenecks including education, poverty, health and most importantly security. Xinjiang witnessed remarkable progress in other areas including improved housing conditions, tourism, agriculture, sanitation and poverty alleviation. The most important aspect is security situation in Xinjiang which is being combated in a unique way through rehabilitation centres/vocational and technical institutes that is exemplary for other conflict-prone areas. The outcome of this strategy is significant that from last four years Xinjiang has not faced a single incident of terrorism. On the other hand, western propaganda simply ignores all the major achievements made so far by Beijing in uplifting the socio-economic conditions of Xinjiang. In the recent past, 37 countries, including Pakistan, applaud the China’s human right achievements in Xinjiang.
Previously, Xinjiang foreign trade and economic cooperation lagged behind as compared to other regions because of delayed opening up, poor infrastructure and connectivity and other negative conditions including terrorism. With much improved economic pre-requisites, presently within the framework of western development strategy, efforts are being exerted to make this region an economic hub and an engine to uplift the other connected areas. Realizing the economic potential of Xinjiang, the central government has announced to establish two special economic zones (SEZs) in Kashgar and Khorgos after 15 years of having successful SEZs development experience in other parts of China. These economic zones were announced not only to address the socio-economic discrepancies of western China rather it will also benefit the regional countries. Last year Xinjiang’s GDP reached 1.22 trillion Yuan, more than 200 times of that in the initial years of China.
Logistics, electronics, textiles, construction material and renewable energy would be key industries in a 50 square kilometre development zone in Kashgar, whereas SEZ in Khorgos, would focus on chemicals, farm products and pharmaceuticals. The 73 square kilometre zone will also become an important point for Central Asian Republics (CARs).
To extend the trade from these economic zones to the Middle East, African and European countries, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would be a hook between these potential markets and Xinjiang and defining CPEC as a complementary tool to achieve the vision of western development strategy. Xinjiang being bordered with Gilgit-Baltistan would get benefit of approaching these markets through deep sea port of Gwadar in Balochistan and bring stability to the region. Gwadar will provide the shortest route to these giant markets.
Xinjiang is not only sharing border with Gilgit-Baltistan but also shares a long history from the era of old Silk Road. Furthermore, the two territories are crucial in rejuvenating the dream of new ‘Silk Road’. The former Ambassador of Pakistan to China, Mr. Masood Khalid, once stated that the long-term plans include the option of instituting a trans-regional economic zone in Kashgar comprising China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. China is planning, and in some cases, already, modernizing trans-continental highways, railroads and telecommunication lines. The enhancement will boost the infrastructure and industrial and financial cooperation with the emerging markets that reside along the Silk Road. For instance, cross border optical fibre project to connect Islamabad and Khunjerab has been completed under CPEC. The fibre optical cable covers an area of 820 km that would help improve the telecom, ICT industry, tourism, trading opportunities in northern areas whereas it also enhances the communication security. The cultural and religious harmony between them would open another door of opportunity that would make these economic ties deepen at heart.
China and Pakistan relations are termed as ‘all weather friends’ & ‘iron brothers’. The vision of Chinese President Xi Jinping about CPEC is neither infrastructure nor energy projects whether he always emphasized to foster a closer community with a shared future for both countries. The successful implementation of western development strategy and CPEC will ultimately be beneficial for both countries in terms of poverty eradication and economic development. (The writer works at Centre of Excellence for CPEC, Islamabad).