OPINION | Xinjiang – China's Achilles Heel?
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OPINION | Xinjiang – China's Achilles Heel?

By Ambrish Dhaka
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

 OPINION | Xinjiang – China's Achilles Heel?

China's 55 officially recognized non-Han minorities constitute 8.49 percent (113.79 million) of the total population (Kwon, 2011). China's 90 percent border is inhabited by these minorities, which has strategic implications for cross-border influence. Xinjiang Autonomous Province (XUAR) is the largest and endowed significantly with oil and mineral resources. Xinjiang is the cusp of China's strategic inroads into Central Asia. China has been using larger regional construct the SCO to hone its position on Uyghur discontent.The SCO prior to 9/11 has been specifically dealing with terrorism and both Russia and China see the connection between ethno-religious minorities and terrorism, separatism. The war on terror has allowed China to hard-push its policies in XUAR. 

China believed that most of the minority discontent is sourced into underdevelopment and lack of access to fruits of collective development. Therefore, the economic development of Xinjiang has been a major priority in order to pacify the sectarian forces. The development became acceptable as an initial argument but then the demographic transition that occurred along with became an important reason for discord. Xinjiang before 1990 had only 37 percent Han population, which rose to 41 percent a decade later. This has affected the cultural and regional characteristics of the Uyghurs (Clarke, 2012).

The Uyghurs have also faced the backlash of growing China in the form of internal repression especially when the image of China mattered most. The Olympic games of 2008 saw preemptive measure taken against the Uyghurs that brought international attention. The 2009 violence in Urumchi and Shaoguan reveal the simmering unrest against the state policies (Milward, 2009). The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and World Uyghur Congress (WUC) have been the major mobilising front for the Uyghurs. The repression has wider impact beyond XUAR into Central Asia as well because the minority question is somewhere connected to the religious identity. 

Even the ethnic question goes beyond the pale of China as Uyghurs claim the Turkic ancestry just as the five Central Asian Republics. The reform and religious revivalism across Central Asia has found its appeal among the Uyghurs as well who wish to see as a legitimate source for ethnic and religious nationalism. The latter represents a major concern because the Central Asian Republics too are getting swayed with larger appeal of religion in formulation of national identity and the growth of these factors present difficulty for China to conduct its Central Asia policy. China wishes to use its influence in Central Asia to cut down support for Uyghur separatists there, but the same is hard to achieve in the Af-Pak region. There is an estimated population of 3, 50,000 Uyghurs in Kazakhstan and nearly 50,000 in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. China has been successful in hunting down the Uyghur rebels in Central Asia and forced closure of Uyghur schools, newspaper, radio and TV programmes (Shichor, 2008). 

China's views Uyghur separatism now more a function of religious extremism rather than an ethnic discord. The support it has gathered from Al-Qaeda and other Central Asian radical Islamic outfits forced it singly paint the picture as so. The fact is more significant because for China Uyghur represent a minority religion but for Central Asian Republics it is a majority religion. So, there always is a case for Islam whenever the questions of minorities get addressed in case of Uyghurs. This invites some degree of involvement from China's western neighbours which include Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan (Shichor, 2009).

China's manifest goals in Xinjiang apart from creating a policy framework for negating separatism, terrorism and religious extremism is negating the US hegemony. The terror links create a different scenario where China stops shorts of calling state action against the radical Islamists. It tries then to reinvent the identity of Uyghur separatists even when it targets the religious extremists. This dual approach has its long-term consequences for the Central Asian States would like to work with China on the question of religious extremism. 

The Uyghur question brings some doubts about this cooperation. On the other hand, the countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan would be willing to hand-over Uyghur separatists, but question of extremism in the name of Islam becomes a subjective question that creates flutter with religious leaders often jumping in the debate. The February 2012 violence marked the high point of concern for Pakistan as the Xinxiang Regional Government Chairman almost accused Pakistan of harboring the rogue elements of ETIM. The ETIM is part of larger framework managed and funded by Al-Qaeda that works in Pakistan. Another group Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) emerged in 2007 and has been most active in sustaining the Uyghur unrest. There have been proofs of Uyghur militants getting trained in Pakistan and launching attacks in cities of Kashgar and Khotan (Zenn, 2012). The leaders of TIP have also close links with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Jund-al-Khilafa. China faces the extremism from Turkic jihadists who are often lodged into the tribal agencies in Pakistan. The rising levels of violence can significantly affects China's development plans for XUAR and also create the inter-ethnic tension in this part.

Publication Details:

This article is an exceprt from a technical paper, titled – “Factoring Central Asia into China's Afghanistan policy”, published at Journal of Eurasian Studies, Volume 5, Issue 1, January 2014, Pages 97–106 / doi:10.1016/j.euras.2013.10.002 Open Access funded by Hanyang University Under a Creative Commons license