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There are already signs that China is beginning its pivot. In September, Zhou Yongkang, then a member of China's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, went to Kabul -- the highest-ranking official to visit in almost 50 years. While there, he made the unprecedented pledge to assist in "training, funding, and equipping Afghan police." In previous years, China's western adventures were focused on fighting Uighurs (a restive minority who live mostly in the region of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan) and natural resource investment, like the $3 billion Mes Aynak copper mine, set to be operational in 2014 -- not on Afghanistan's internal security. But this January, China held its first consultation with Pakistan about the situation in Afghanistan, and in 2012 China organized two "trilateral consultations" among the three countries. The move signals a significant policy shift, from a hands-off approach to active engagement to stabilize its turbulent neighbor.|
In fact, China has been looking west since at least 2000, when it launched the "Grand Western Development" program, a national strategy designed to right the imbalance between the western and eastern halves of the country. China's west accounts for 71 percent of the country's territory, but only 27 percent of its population and 18.7 percent of its GDP, according to 2010 figures. There's clearly opportunity to be found there. In his essay, Wang says that from 2001 to 2011, China's trade with South Asia and Western Asia grew more than 30 times, while its trade with the rest of the world over the same period grew seven times. The wealthier and more stable that Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and the other countries to China's west are, Wang notes, the easier it is to promote economic development in the west. In pursuit of this end, Beijing must speed up the construction of its trade and communication links with Central Asia and beyond -- what it calls a "New Silk Road"-- to ensure the smooth flow of energy supplies and commodities into western China and to enhance economic cooperation with the region. Going back even further, China saw itself as a significant Central Asian power, with territory stretching to Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan, as recently as the 1860s, when Beijing lost 170,000 square miles of territory to Russia. And Wang isn't the first prominent Chinese strategic thinker to argue for a strategic shift west: People's Liberation Army Gen. Liu Yazhou proposed that China "seize for the center of the world [the Middle East]" as early as 2004.
The policy is not yet strategic doctrine -- it's unknown what incoming president Xi Jinping and the current Politburo Standing Committee think about it. Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, strengthened the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional body composed of China, Russia, and most Central Asian countries, but has not elaborated on his view for China in the region. Wang, at the end of his essay, stressed -- modestly -- that he isn't advocating that his strategy become "clear-cut foreign policy." Yet it seems influential enough that Wang's proposal has met with opposition from strategists such as Rear Adm. Yang Yi, who has argued that China's expansion into the Pacific and Indian oceans is a prerequisite for the country to call itself a global great power.
Washington would be wise, however, to start thinking hard about Marching West. The strategy could provide China with an alternate realm of influence, one free from U.S. dominance. By returning to its roots as a continental power, China might avoid further confrontation with the United States in East Asia, foster stability, and build a better relationship with Washington through cooperation in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of Chairman Mao Zedong's famous military strategy: "Where the enemy advances, we retreat. Where the enemy retreats, we pursue."