Geopolitics

China and Xinjiang
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Issue Vol. 32.1 Jan-Mar 2017 | Date : 04 Jun , 2017

By launching repressive initiatives IN China, the regime has outlawed any kind of protest against the policies imposed on Xinjiang. It has also closed down the available space for expression of the culture and the religious convictions of the Uyghurs. The central position enjoyed by the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the One Belt, One Road Initiative and the CPEC further aggravates the situation. The future infrastructure development in the region will continue to remain hostage to the sabotage and subversive acts by the Uyghur nationalists. How the PRC re-structures its policy to mould the Uyghurs into stakeholders in the achievement of the above initiatives will be an imperative to their success. Interaction with neighbours, pressurising them to curtail support to the Uyghurs from their soil may keep the conflict low key but it is only through the adoption of a more inclusive policy that the CCP will be able to stem the rot.

Xinjiang or the New Frontier as the name suggests is the Western-most province of China. It has been in the news for the ongoing insurgency/terrorism (depending on different perspectives) being waged between the ethnic Uyghur population and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The region, traditionally a buffer to prevent invasion into the Chinese heartland, has today gained prominence as an energy hub and a gateway to the West.

The Uyghurs, who have been the inhabitants of the region since the eighth century, are moderate Sunni Muslims who practice a form of Islam heavily influenced by Sufism, Buddhism and East Asian ideologies. Whilst initially left to themselves, the economic potential of Xinjiang has resulted in a major influx of the Han Chinese and the consequent marginalisation of the Uyghurs within their own land. This in turn has manifested in the ongoing violent incidents resulting in more oppressive policy decisions by the Chinese Government.

In essence, the situation in Xinjiang has manifested in a contest between two nationalistic forces, the local Uyghur community and the Han Chinese. Nationalism arouses solidarity and generates identity politics that threaten ethnic and religious minorities. Defining the “we” also defines the “they” — and the latter is inexorably marginalised1.

The situation in Xinjiang has manifested in a contest between two nationalistic forces, the local Uyghur community and the Han Chinese…

Abuse of authority by the State and impunity for abusers, often transform grievances into a shared collective identity among victimised minorities. Identity politics, therefore, carry with them a high risk of sectarian or communal violence. The Uyghurs in Xinjiang, when faced with this systematic persecution by the authorities, are resisting assimilation despite sustained efforts by ethnic Han Chinese. They harbour strong resentment against Hanification that has frequently erupted into violence.

While the region has assumed strategic importance in the power play in the regions of Central Asia, there is also an apprehension in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that, if not nipped in the bud, any sectarian/secessionist tendencies in the province may be manifest in similar aspirations in the other existing faultlines in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Taiwan, each of which has its own secessionist rationale against the mainland Han Chinese rule.

Xinjiang – The Geopolitical Context

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is a largely Muslim populated area in the Northwest of China. In area it is the largest province covering one-sixth of China’s territory. It shares a common border with eight countries i.e. Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The region has historically been a pivot on the traditional silk route, facilitating trade, cultural exchange and an important link between diverse civilisations. Xinjiang is inhabited by all of China’s 56 ethnic groups, with the Uyghur population of 9.832 million and the Han population of 8.363 million comprising the two largest ethnic groups.2

The political value of Xinjiang was underrated during the Cold War era3. However, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the geopolitical gravity of the region has increased manifold. Traditionally viewed as a buffer, providing security from invasion by the nomadic hordes into the Chinese heartland, the region is today, once again resuming its role of a pivot. China’s reincorporation of Xinjiang in 1949 placed it in control of a geopolitical nexus between five great cultural and geographical regions of Eurasia – China, the sub-continent, Iran, Russia and Europe. However, while China could not take advantage of this strategic region in the early era due to internal and external factors and poor relations with the Soviet Union, its collapse has provided China with an unprecedented opportunity to simultaneously integrate Xinjiang and expand its influence in Central Asia.

Xinjiang is key to the three guiding themes of Chinese foreign policy – preservation, prosperity and power…

China has been investing heavily in the Central Asian Republics (CAR), development in Pakistan and facilitating dialogue in Afghanistan. Through these means, China aims at deterring the CAR countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan from promoting religious radicalism in their territories. In turn, China hopes this will help stem the flow of fundamentalist doctrines and influence to China’s restive Xinjiang region. Influencing regional peace would not only help stabilise and neutralise the critical region of Xinjiang but also accord the PRC with further legitimacy, influence and soft power4. This integration grants China significant security, economic and strategic benefits serving two purposes – the consolidation of Xinjiang and expansion of Chinese power in Central Asia. The importance of the region to China can be summed up as follows:

  • CCP’s regime legitimacy and the foundation of China’s great power aspirations rely heavily on Beijing’s ability to secure high-level economic growth as this is key to social stability at home and national prestige abroad. In order to achieve these goals, securing energy for China’s rapid economic growth is indispensible. Xinjiang impacts this goal in two ways5:
  • It houses a rich repository of energy resources critical to China’s overall economic growth. The total reserves of natural gas, coal and other fossil resources in Xinjiang account for more than 20 per cent of China’s energy reserves, placing it in the first place, its wind power and solar energy potential are ranked second, and in hydropower reserves it is ranked fourth within China.
  • A fulcrum along the Silk Road and for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Xinjiang provides a transit route for China’s energy import and access to markets for its goods.
  • As a land bridge to the energy-rich Middle East and the CAR, it provides an alternative to China for energy import, bypassing the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea where the US continues to hold sway.
  • The cultural linkages enjoyed by the population with the neighbouring CAR affords additional leverage to China in its endeavours to dominate the region and deny/marginalise outside influence.
  • China has always been sensitive to territorial integrity. It maintains that when a country is territorially united it is strong and if secessionist tendencies exist, it is weak. Therefore, stability in Xinjiang is of utmost importance to China, as any attempt at secession or demand thereof may trigger similar attempts by the other ethnic minorities. A desire to offset this has shaped China’s foreign policy vis-a-vis the CAR, wherein it has insisted through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that these countries categorically condemn secessionist trends and desist from any assistance to the Uyghur community. It has also taken steps towards economic upliftment and Han migration within Xinjiang along with stringent security measures to root out the menace.
  • In essence, Xinjiang is key to the three guiding themes of Chinese foreign policy – preservation, prosperity and power.
  • Traditionally, the region has also been used extensively for nuclear tests and large-scale exercises.

The recent initiatives by China to rejuvenate the old Silk Road and maritime routes under the One Belt, One Road Scheme, as also the development of the CPEC has added a fillip to the importance of Xinjiang in the Chinese consciousness. Success of these endeavours depends to a great extent in China’s ability to counter the adverse trends being witnessed in Xinjiang and integrating the Uyghurs as stakeholders in the success of the scheme.

Since its assimilation by the PRC, the Xinjiang region has been marked with sporadic incidents of violent unrest…

Historical Context

Despite China’s assertions to the contrary, the control over Xinjiang prior to the conquest by the Qing Dynasty in the mid-eighteenth century has remained ambivalent. After the collapse of the Qings in 1912, the region once again enjoyed varying degree of autonomy and little administrative control by China. In 1933 and again in 1944, rebellion by the Turkic rebels resulted in the establishment of the First and Second East Turkistan Republics. It was in 1949, that the PLA entered Xinjiang and the region became a province of the PRC. These two short periods of comparative autonomy serve as the historical basis of the claims for sovereignty by the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The Uyghurs have little more in common with the CCP today than their ancestors had with the Manchu Qing dynasty when Xinjiang first became part of China. Their dress, customs, language, history and religion were all unfamiliar to the Chinese. However, Xinjiang has always been recognised for its strategic value. The Qing saw the region as a buffer zone between China and the interests of its neighbours. Today, the same is still true, but Xinjiang has even greater value in terms of natural resources to fuel the growing Chinese economy. Moreover, the independence of primarily Muslim CAR countries and the onset of Islamic fundamentalism have resulted in the co-option strategy being marginalised in favour of a policy of assimilation. The Chinese, recognising that Islam is incompatible with Communism, started a Han Chinese forced migration to the region which continues to this day. The idea was to dilute Uyghur culture with Han influence to the point where only Chinese culture prevailed in Xinjiang. In both cases, force was used and continues to be used, to ensure compliance with Chinese policy.

In addition, while traditionally, the goal of integration of the region was understood to require the isolation of Xinjiang from external influences through the neutralisation of the region’s historical ethnic, cultural, religious and economic linkages to Central Asia resulting in an extension of the Chinese state’s mechanisms and instruments of political, economic and social control and initiation of modern infrastructure links to China proper, today, China aims at utilising Xinjiang’s geopolitical position in order to simultaneously achieve the security and integration of Xinjiang in concert with a concomitant rise of China as a Central Asian power6.

There has always been a strong linkage between the foreign policy and domestic policy in China and nowhere is this more true than in Xinjiang. For centuries, the central governments in China have walked a fine line between integrating Xinjiang into China for national security and economic purposes by providing the Uyghurs with a measure of autonomy and suppressing any movement towards Uyghur independence with policy and force. As the value of Xinjiang has changed in the consciousness of the CCP, so has its policy towards assimilation/ suppression also oscillated. While in the 1980s, a degree of freedom and assimilation was attempted, since 1996, the PRC has resorted to stringent measures to curb perceived trends towards secessionism/autonomy. These in turn have resulted in further polarisation of the Uyghurs along ethnic lines.

Current Status

Since its assimilation by the PRC, the Xinjiang region has been marked with sporadic incidents of violent unrest. The root cause of the problem is a complex mix of history, ethnicity and religion fuelled by poverty, unemployment, social disparity and political grievances. Terrorist incidents have been occurring in Xinjiang since the 1980s. Whilst, initially, the dissidents received encouragement and support from the erstwhile Soviet Union, since the emergence of the newly independent countries of Central Asia wherein a large segment of Uyghurs reside, the movement has found increased support from the growing pan-Islamic culture emerging in the region. The Uyghurs have received training in Afghanistan where they have fought. They have links with the Al Qaeda and the ISIS. Their presence in Pakistan and linkages with the Afghan insurgents and Pak Taliban, are already a bone of contention between the countries. The Chinese government has blamed the violent acts on the so-called “three evil forces” (separatism, terrorism and religious extremism). However, the definition of the three and differences therein have not been spelt out and therefore, actions taken can very easily be justified. Moreover, the Han Nationalism affords an unlimited opportunity to the PRC for harsh subjugation of the minorities without an outcry against human rights abuse.

By launching repressive initiatives, the regime has outlawed any kind of protest against the policies imposed on Xinjiang…

The terrorist strike on 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terrorism has been used by the Chinese to garner support of the world in its ongoing fight in Xinjiang. The Chinese have been successful in getting the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) labelled a terrorist organisation and continue to attribute most violent activities to the ETIM. The ETIM has since changed its name and calls itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (though not recognised by China) and has been active in Afghanistan and the tribal belt of Pakistan. The reality is that the Uyghur nationalism and separatism are evolving in a very dangerous and volatile part of the world. Deep relationships with Al Qaeda and the Taliban place ETIM and, by extension, the other violent factions of the Uyghur separatist movement close to the web of international terrorist organisations with a resultant increase in capability.

The nature of terrorist strikes have so far been low-tech, mostly employing knives and rudimentary homemade explosives as evidenced in Lukqun, Xinjiang in June 2013, Tiananmen Square in October 2013, Kunming station massacre in March 2014, Sogan colliery attack, Aksu, Xinjiang in September 2015. However, with international relationships comes the potential for technological and tactical diffusion that could substantially increase the reach and lethality of attacks in the future.

China has through the medium of the SCO succeeded in obtaining an assurance from the CAR towards a commitment to assist each other in their common fight against the scourge of terrorism. Pakistan has already exhibited the use of force to specifically target the Uyghur dissidents residing in their country. However, despite the pressure by China on neighbouring countries, a strong international alliance with other capable organisations has resulted in an increased impetus to the movement through training, infusion of resources and inflow of foreign fighters.

The Chinese response to the violence has been swift and harsh. A series of strike hard campaigns have resulted in keeping the insurgency in manageable limits. These campaigns began shortly after a special meeting in March 1996 on maintaining stability in Xinjiang and were targeted at separatism and illegal religious activities. The CCP issued an exhaustive list of strict directives aimed at tightening control over Xinjiang and eradicating potentially subversive activities7. Under this campaign, a series of brutal police operations were launched, resulting in the arrest of thousands, human rights violations and the improper use of the death penalty. Thus, the strike hard campaigns manifested as acts of suppression of religious and individual rights in the Xinjiang province. The period also witnessed a gradual removal of Uyghur minority incumbents from higher posts of local governance structures by Han migrants, which is one of the major reasons for discontent even today. More stringent measures were introduced to eradicate ‘illegal’ mosques and religious schools, to increase political training amongst the clergy as well as to combat religious practices. This has in turn resulted in relations between Uyghur society and the Chinese regime coming under considerable strain. These actions have intensified the impression that the real target of the campaign was not so much separatism or even Islamism; but Uyghur identity itself8.

In addition, the Western development plan launched in the early 2000s, aimed at infrastructure development and economic upliftment of the region, was perceived as an important tool for the assimilation of the Uyghur community. However, the economic policies followed by the Chinese state have resulted in a lopsided development of the region. While the Northern region with a larger Han Chinese presence has flourished economically, the Southern Tarim Basin remained overwhelmingly rural. This region has become the hotbed for most of ethnic minority protests in the current times. The influx of Han Chinese and the unequal distribution of economic and political prosperity has further strengthened the belief that the State is out to marginalise the ethnic people, who continue to be discriminated against.

Thus, in effect, the policies being pursued by China have further aggravated the already volatile situation in the region. Nationalistic aspirations may be suppressed in the short term, but are likely to fester in the future. While economic prosperity may enable partial assimilation, it will also foster an increased desire for a say in the state of affairs in the region.

Increased economic development in the region may not accrue the desired results of greater integration (Kashgar is to be developed as a Special Economic Zone) as the region appears to be facing an intra region security dilemma9. Greater the impetus towards economic development, the greater is the fear of the Uyghur community of marginalisation and loss of indigenous identity. Thus whilst the Chinese may be able to suppress insurgency through harsh security measures, the desire for a separate identity will not die down. Transnational linkages and pan-Islamic orientation is liable to aggravate the problem.

Conclusion

China’s economic rise has resulted in it shedding the yoke of isolationism as further development is predicated on access to resources and markets. The search for energy in particular has already led China to engage increasingly with the Middle East, North Africa and the CAR, an area of interest to the pan-Islamic movement. Moreover, China’s penchant for controlling resources at source exacerbates the problem since Chinese nationals, business holdings and military assets abroad are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. This trend is already noticeable in the attacks on the Chinese labour and engineers in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greater economic linkages and dependencies with the local governments may have resulted in their voicing support for the Chinese cause and even forced the Uyghurs to desist from inimical actions. However, the sympathy of the largely Muslim populace in the neighbourhood cannot be ignored. The influx of Chinese nationals into the region i.e. CAR, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Xinjiang, will provide soft targets for the inimical forces aligned with the Uyghur Nationalists. This may in turn result in the problem acquiring a serious multinational character. Hence the movement will continue to be a source of concern to the Chinese State and the infrastructure being developed will provide lucrative targets for sabotage and subversion.

The consequences of the policies pursued by China reveal the political impasse it has run into by attacking the expressions of Uyghur malaise without addressing its real causes10. By launching repressive initiatives, the regime has outlawed any kind of protest against the policies imposed on Xinjiang. It has also closed down the available space for expression of the culture and the religious convictions of the Uyghurs.

The central position enjoyed by the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the One Belt, One Road Initiative and the CPEC further aggravates the situation. The future infrastructure development in the region will continue to remain hostage to the sabotage and subversive acts by the Uyghur nationalists. How the PRC re-structures its policy to mould the Uyghurs into stakeholders in the achievement of the above initiatives, will be an imperative to their success. Interaction with neighbours, pressurising them to curtail support to the Uyghurs from their soil, may keep the conflict low key; but it is only through the adoption of a more inclusive policy that the CCP will be able to stem the rot.

Notes

1. www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/…/nationalism-tibetans-and-uighurs-in-todays-china/Nov 16, 2013 – by Jeff Kingston.

2. Security dilemma and securitization in China’s Uyghur … (n.d.). Retrieved from http://securityobserver.org/security-dilemma-and-securitization-in-chinas-uyghur.

3. Rethinking_Beijings_Geostrategic_Sensibilities_to_Tibet_and_Xinjiang www.academia.edu/…/Rethinking_Beijings_Geostrategic_Sensibilities_to_Tibet.

4. Journey to the West: The Strategic Importance of China’s Western Frontiers.

5. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264611904 _ Rethinking_Beijing’s_Geostrategic_Sensibilities_to_Tibet_and_Xinjiang_Images_and_Interests.

6. China’s Integration of Xinjiang with Central Asia: Securing a “Silk Road” to Great Power Status? Michael Clarke China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 6, No. 2 (2008).

7. https://chinaperspectives.revues.org/648 by R Castets – 2003.

8. Ibid.

9. securityobserver.org,security-dilemma-and-securitization-in-chinas-uyghur-issue-in-xinjiang-province.

10. https://chinaperspectives.revues.org/648by R Castets – 2003.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Vivek Sehgal

has extensive experience in Counter Insurgency operations both in J&K and the North East.

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