The control of Central Asia has been a core part of international relations since the “Great Game” between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire. At the turn of the 20th century, John Halford Mackinder developed the “Heartland Theory,” which revolves around the concept of a pivot area/Heartland, that covers Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Western China and most of Eastern Russia. The theory determines that whichever regional power controls Eurasia will determine that country’s supremacy over world politics.
Mackinder’s theory had widespread traction. It was influential to Nazi military planners, and the “Heartland” concept has been apparent in United States foreign policy since President Jimmy Carter’s term in the White House, when the US backed the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Mackinder’s theory was pushed by then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski, a voice still listened to in Washington D.C. circles, and took on renewed relevance following the end of the Cold War.
As a leaked 1992 Pentagon document states: “Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a rival that poses a threat on the territory of the former Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration… and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power…Our strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor.”
A decade after this policy objective, US forces were in Afghanistan, and in 2010, the Obama administration launched its “pivot to Asia” foreign policy initiative, its very name drawn from Mackinder’s Heartland theory.
A clear aim is that the US and its allies – embodied in NATO – are trying to contain China’s ascendancy to retain political and financial power. There is the realization that power is shifting from the West to the East. The US strategy has been proactive, trying to shore up its allies in China’s immediate geographical vicinity, and been aggressive in its military build up, particularly in Asia Pacific. But in Central Asia, the US is on the back-step, unable to undermine Russia and China’s strong positioning, evident in the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCC). Outside of the SCC, in the immediate area, the US is reducing troops in Afghanistan – albeit to retain a presence until 2024 – and is not as strategic a partner with Pakistan as in the past. The US is struggling to have “full spectrum dominance” in Central Asia, and economically has been losing out to China, in goods and services, to accessing hydrocarbons. Furthermore, China is cementing its position in the area through its Silk Road Economic Belt, which is to run from China to Eastern Europe, and ramping up ties and investment with neighboring Pakistan, evidenced in President Xi’s visit to Islamabad with pledges of some US$46 billion. Additionally, China is challenging the financial status quo regionally and further afield through the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AAIB).
Back to the Future
American policymakers were aware that exerting US influence in Central Asia was going to be an uphill struggle, if not mission impossible. Washington would not be able to have a military presence with the same capabilities as in the Asia-Pacific, in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Moscow would not stand for it, and neither would Beijing. Afghanistan and Pakistan – known as AfPak – therefore become focuses during and after the Cold War.
The NATO presence in Afghanistan has been devastating for the country, and the US’ acquiescence in its relationship with Pakistan and its infamous intelligence service the ISI – which has co-opted and used Islamic terrorist organizations for its own ends to fight India in Kashmir, and retain influence in Afghanistan – has created fertile ground for extremists in the region.
As leaked documents have shown, this has been both intentional and unintentional, with the US on one hand waging its “Global War on Terrorism” and on the other creating the conditions for the rise of Islamic terrorism – for instance ISIS spawned from the battlefields of Iraq – and directly working with and through its allies with Islamic terrorist groups.
In the wake of the Cold War, Britain and the US – along with Arab Gulf allies – utilized Islamist groups, including fighters affiliated with Al-Qaeda, for its own foreign policy objectives in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya, documented in Mark Curtis’ book, which draws on declassified documents, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam.
As cited in written evidence by Nafeez Ahmed to a UK Parliamentary inquiry in 2010: “According to Graham Fuller, former Deputy Director of the CIA’s National Council on Intelligence, the selective sponsorship of al-Qaeda terrorist groups after the Cold War continued in the Balkans and Central Asia to intensify the rollback of Russian and Chinese power (2000): ‘The policy of guiding the evolution of Islam and of helping them against our adversaries worked marvelously well in Afghanistan against the Red Army. The same doctrines can still be used to destabilize what remains of Russian power, and especially to counter the Chinese influence in Central Asia.’”
Covert operations programs have also been carried out by British and American intelligence that supports certain Islamist opposition groups in the Middle East to curtail Iranian and Syrian influence in the region. This came to a head during the uprisings in the Arab world from 2011 onwards, with Western intelligence agencies working with funders Saudi Arabia and Qatar to develop the militant opposition against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, as has been documented here, here and here. Turkey, a NATO member, has also been instrumental in supplying Islamic rebels in Syria, including ISIS (the Islamic State).
The move on Xinjiang
At the other end of the “Heartland”, Eastern Europe, the US and Europe have been involved in regime change in Ukraine, utilizing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to undermine the Kiev government away from the Russian orbit, and through backing pro-Western politicians, despite in cases their openly neo-Nazi and fascist sympathies. A propaganda war has been waged in the West that has ignored the West’s subversive policies in Ukraine to primarily demonize Russia, framing the conflict as one of “freedom” and “democracy” and leading to renewed discourse of a “New Cold War”. Such a policy has had mixed success, still being played out, but is a clear geo-political attempt to undermine Moscow in the public eye as well as economically through sanctions. What is notable in the Ukraine arena is that the US has not been directly involved militarily, relying on proxies and covert operations, to not risk an all-out war with Russia.
Given the West’s track record with co-opting and using Islamist groups for its own ends, as well as undermining democratically elected governments that do not see eye-to-eye with the US since World War II through coups and assassinations, it is far from conspiratorial to suggest that such tactics will be employed in the future against Chinese interests.
As such, Xinjiang is China’s Achilles heel, bordering on Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as having abundant hydrocarbons and being a key transit hub for the Silk Road Economic Belt. As mentioned, the US is attempting to contain China in the Asia-Pacific, and while it is strengthening its relationship with India, does not have the same capabilities in Central Asia, which will force the US to act clandestinely through NGOs, pro-democracy organizations, and Islamist groups. For instance, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is funded by the US government and has been linked to subversive measures in numerous countries, including most recently in Hong Kong, is a sponsor of the World Uygher Conference and the Uygher American Association.
This is given further credence by the Uyghers not having the same ‘appeal’ as the Tibetans when it comes to “information politics” and winning “hearts and minds” in the West. The Uygher diaspora has attempted to portray their political grievances as self-determination causes, ‘minority rights’ and ‘human rights’ to capitalize on media coverage in the West. It is a classic method to highlight a cause in the eyes of the Western public, concerned about human rights, women’s rights and so on, the “softer” foreign policy issues. This was evidenced in the media’s use of humanitarian intervention to justify the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, such as by focusing on women’s rights and bringing “freedom,” thereby simplifying the complex reasons for US military engagement.
But while the Uygher cause will not gain the same traction in the West as Tibet arguably has – for one it is an under-covered area in the media, and secondly the Uyghers’ Islamic identity can be considered a “turn off” for liberal mainstream media – it is becoming a more important issue in Islamic extremist circles.
A Jihadi Front Against China?
Beijing is aware of the international dimension of Islamic terrorism, pressurizing Central Asian states to ban Jihadist groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) in Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jihad Union, and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
The TIP is linked to the IMU, which is pushing for the jihad to go beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan into China. Its mufti, Abu Zar al-Burmi, has become a prominent Jihadi leader in Pakistan with an anti-China message that is reportedly gaining in popularity. In 2013, in a speech called “A Lost Nation”, al-Burmi said the “mujahideen should know that the coming enemy of the Ummah (the Islamic community) is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.” In the speech, al-Burmi stated Muslims should kidnap and kill Chinese citizens and target Chinese companies, while blasting the Pakistani-Chinese relationship.
In May, 2014, Reuters briefly interviewed TIP’s leader Abdullah Mansour, who echoed al-Burmi’s statements. “The fight against China is our Islamic responsibility and we have to fulfill it. China is not only our enemy, but it is the enemy of all Muslims … We have plans for many attacks in China,” he told Reuters. “We have a message to China that East Turkestan people and other Muslims have woken up. They cannot suppress us and Islam any more. Muslims will take revenge.”
It is highly probable, lacking other options and not able to go head to head with Beijing, that the US will capitalize on such sentiments, urging directly and indirectly attacks against Chinese interests in Central Asia and China itself, as well as further afield, utilizing networks in Pakistan and the Middle East.
A scenario, going by past example, would be to force Beijing’s hand into harsh crackdowns against the Uyghers in Xinjiang, thereby providing ample propaganda opportunities for Jihadi groups to label China as an enemy of Islam, for Western media to highlight the Uygher’s aspirations for self-determination, and draw China into a costly war that will destabilize the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative.
The US appears to have already utilized such a strategy. “Between 1996 and 2002, we, the United States, planned, financed and helped execute every single uprising and terrorism related scheme in Xinjiang (aka East Turkistan and Uyghurstan)”, said Sibel Deniz Edmonds, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) translator and founder of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC), under oath in the US.
Militant Uyghers in the AfPak arena pose the closest geopolitical threat in this regard. Elements of Pakistan’s ISI in conjunction with financiers in the Arabian Gulf, as well as through establish networks with Western intelligence agencies, would pose the greatest concern. Indeed, as in the past when Islamabad played off British and American interests to maximum advantage, so could it play off its main financial backers, China, Saudi Arabia and the US.
Turkey is also a player to be watched in this regard, trying on the one hand to not sour growing ties with China, and on the other keep its affinities and further strengthen relations with Turkic groups. Istanbul has played a major role in the rebel movement against Assad, while the country is home to a large Uygher diaspora. Furthermore, with Turkey a transit hub for rebel groups to enter Syria and Iraq, it has played a role in enabling Chinese Muslims and Uyghers to join ISIS and become radicalized.
Another “Great Game” is unfolding, and the Heartland of Eurasia will be a key arena in the battle for the US to retain a unipolar world, or make room for a multilateral one, which Washington will fight on all fronts to ensure does not happen.
As Brzezinski wrote in The Grand Chessboard, echoing Mackinder: “The US, a non-Eurasian power, now enjoys international primacy, with its power directly deployed on three peripheries of the Eurasian continent [...]. But it is on the globe’s most important playing field – Eurasia – that a potential rival to America might at some point arise”.