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Xinjiang – Where China’s Worry Intersects the World
Xinjiang – Where China’s Worry Intersects the World
WASHINGTON: The February 15 killing of militant Uighur leader Abdul Haq al-Turkistani by an American drone in the border regions of Pakistan highlights China’s continued sensitivity about its remote and vulnerable western region, Xinjiang. It also brings into focus the role of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as an international sanctuary for Islamic militants and the reasons for China’s worries about social stability and potential terrorist threats in Xinjiang. China’s neuralgia about security in Xinjiang will continue – and perhaps even increase – as big power competition for influence and resources in Central Asia and its ties to the rest of the world continue to expand.
China’s troubles with the minority Uighurs are not new. But with the break up of the Soviet Union and the rising Islamist Taliban in once Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, the regional dynamic has changed. Since the early 1990s, China has faced recurrent waves of unrest in Xinjiang and widespread acts of violence, some of which seem to have been terrorist acts by disgruntled Uighurs. The 2008 attempted hijacking of an airplane in China by three people armed with flammable liquid was one of the latest – and scariest – examples. There also have been several attacks against perceived Uighur collaborators in China and against Chinese interests outside the country. The capture of Uighurs fighting against coalition forces in Afghanistan, some two dozen of whom were imprisoned in Guantanamo, also indicate that China faces a real threat of terrorist acts against its interests at home and abroad.
The Chinese, however, have aroused skepticism by dubiously attributing dozens of explosions and incidents of civil unrest to instigation by “East Turkistan terrorist forces.” Officials, for example, blamed an August 2008 attack on a military police unit out for its morning jog, in which 16 officers were killed, on a Uighur terrorist group, despite the fact that the officers apparently were run down by a truck and attacked by a taxi driver and a vegetable vendor, hardly the modus operandi of a sophisticated terrorist organization. Even last July’s massive race riot in Urumqi – set off by rumors that a Uighur woman had been raped and several Uighur men killed by Han Chinese in far-away Guangdong – was labeled as an “organized, violent action against the public” and an act of terrorism.
So, while China does face periodic upsurges in politically motivated violence by Uighurs, one has to ask, why? The answer: Beijing has engaged in a systematic, multi-decade program of marginalizing Uighurs in their own homeland, fostering economic growth that favors the Han majority of eastern China and that encourages the exploitation of Xinjiang’s wealth of natural resources for Han areas. Beijing has organized and encouraged an influx of Han into Xinjiang, changing the ethnic ratio since 1949 from about 5 percent Han to more than 40 percent today. Moreover, Uighur culture and the Muslim religion are contained under tight restrictions. Beijing proudly points out that Xinjiang in recent years has been among the fastest growing economies in the country, with per capita income higher than all regions except China’s southeast coast. Most of that growth, however, has accrued to State-owned enterprises, Han entrepreneurs, or the government; not to Uighurs. And income inequalities there have actually expanded significantly in recent years. The region also suffers from some of the worst environmental degradation in China. It is hardly surprising that frustration occasionally boils over into civil unrest – or that such conditions breed terrorist groups intent on taking action against the regime.
That many of China’s problems with terrorism and unrest are largely of its own making has reduced international trust and sympathy for the situation. China’s concerns also have both shaped its approach to the broader region and reduced China’s willingness to cooperate with the US in counter-terrorism, negatively affecting the overall US -China relationship.
Xinjiang, more than any other area of China, is strategically vulnerable, partially as a result of its location in one of the most fractious neighborhoods outside the Middle East. Representing one-sixth of China’s territory, Xinjiang is rich in oil, gas, and mineral deposits and contains numerous sensitive military installations, including some of the country’s premier nuclear research and testing facilities. It borders the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, all of which are less than politically stable.*
Complicating China’s relations with the Central Asian states is the fact that as many as 500,000 Uighurs – and sizable populations of other Chinese “minorities” – live across relatively porous borders and engage in extensive trade and contacts. Several of these countries contain anti-China Uighur separatist organizations, both peaceful and terrorist. And China is very afraid of the potential contagion of “color revolutions” from Central Asia – like the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan – destabilizing China’s control in Xinjiang. Uighur activities – including violent attacks – have complicated China’s relations with Turkey, a country with which China seeks closer relations but where public and official sentiment is highly critical of China’s treatment of the ethnically-related Uighurs.
To control this potentially chaotic situation and to manage Sino-Russian competition for influence, China launched the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia, China, the Central Asian republics, and a growing number of observers from around the region. China has pushed hard to keep the focus of the SCO on cooperative activities against the “three evils” of “separatism, fundamentalism, and terrorism,” a fear all the member states have in common.
Along some of Xinjiang’s most remote and sensitive borders are Tibet, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the disputed state of Kashmir – any one of which could quickly embroil China in an international crisis. China also tested its “all-weather” friendship with Pakistan pressuring Islamabad to crackdown on Uighur militants seeking refuge in Pakistan. Pakistan reportedly has responded by sending a number of Uighur militants to China for prosecution. Its recent stepped up attacks on terrorist groups – and especially the killing of Abdul Haq and more than a dozen other Uighur militants – has among other things assuaged relations with China.
The US intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001 introduced another variable of vulnerability for China with regard to Xinjiang. In the conflict that followed, global support for Al Qaeda drew in more militants to the region, including some Uighurs (as Abdul Haq’s death proved) but it also changed the strategic landscape for China. The introduction of massive US forces into the region, and especially the use of bases such as Manas in Kyrgyzstan, raised visceral and long-standing fears of encirclement by a hostile US intent on “dividing and Westernizing” China. Beijing has put pressure on Central Asian neighbors to expel or severely limit any US military presence and has refused to allow US forces to use Chinese territory for staging or overflights in the war in Afghanistan. China is also working hard to enhance cooperation with its neighbors on energy exploration, exploitation, and transportation as a way of keeping the US and Russia from monopolizing Central Asia’s voluminous oil and natural gas resources.
These competing interests, and the residual worry that the US and Russia seek to supplant or minimize Chinese influence in Central Asia will continue to contribute to Beijing’s neuralgia about assuring stability in its far Western extremity, even if the real terrorist threat to China has diminished.
* Beijing is some 1,500 miles from Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi; Urumqi is nearly another 700 miles from Kashgar on the far Western border. By contrast, Kashgar is only 250 miles from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and 500 miles from Kabul.
Dr. Clarke is an independent China consultant. He retired in 2009 after 25 years as a China analyst and head of the China Division of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.