The Defense of Xinjiang: Politics, Economics, and Security in Central Asia. (China)

By Chung, Chien-Peng | Harvard International Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Defense of Xinjiang: Politics, Economics, and Security in Central Asia. (China)


Chung, Chien-Peng, Harvard International Review


As a state long noted for its potentially destabilizing ethnic heterogeneity, China has been extremely mindful of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, which is often viewed as one beset by what the Chinese have termed the "three evils" of separatism, fundamentalism, and terrorism. However, this mindfulness extends far beyond domestic policy alone. Indeed, China role in Central Asia is inextricably tied to its desire to strengthen its political control over, economic links with, and security posture in the adjacent Xinjiang region.

The principal mechanism for achieving these intertwining aims is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Founded on June 15, 2001 by Russia, China, and the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, the SCO calls for closer political and economic cooperation and coordinated action among the member states to fight the "three evils," whether in Xinjiang or in the neighboring states themselves. In fact, at its inaugural meeting the SCO decided that China may be allowed to intervene militarily in Central Asia to combat terrorist threats at the request of regional governments. The organization's purpose was strengthened at the SCO's latest annual meeting on June 7,2002, in St. Petersburg as the presidents of the organization's member states legally created an SCO Anti-Terrorism Center.

At the same time, the grouping is of great interest to China, not only to reinforce its hold over Xinjiang, but also to curb the rising influence of the United States in the region, in tandem with Russia if possible. The 2,060-mile border between China and the three Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan is in many places mountainous and difficult to patrol.

Since China's major concern for the region is to ensure its peace and stability as a means of guaranteeing the security of its own restive western frontier, the Chinese leadership considers the presence of US military bases in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan an attempt by Washington to bolster its own influence in Central Asia at the expense of China, Russia, and Iran. The US presence in Central Asia after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on Afghanistan threaten China's defense of Xinjiang and challenge Beijing's nascent but conspicuous political, economic, and strategic roles in neighboring Central Asia.

The SCO and Domestic Stability

China spearheaded the establishment of the SCO largely as part of a security strategy to prevent Uighur separatists from using Central Asian states as a base for separatist activities in Xinjiang. The joint fight by SCO states against terrorism and threats to national sovereignty has won China assurances from Muslim Central Asian states that they will not provide assistance to their religious and ethnic brethren engaged in militant separatist activities in Xinjiang. Indeed, Islam is a salient characteristic of Xinjiang's eight-million strong Turkic-speaking Uighur ethnic group, which constitutes around 45 percent of the region's population. Thus, Beijing's commitment to regional security through the SCO to fight separatism and terrorism is based not only on its fear of violent Islamic rebellion in Central Asia affecting the Uighurs, but also its concern for being branded an anti-Muslim country by Central Asian republics or Middle Eastern states if it suppresses major uprisings in Xinjiang.

This concern is valid, for Central Asia is host to a Uighur diaspora of about 500,000 individuals, with 200,000 of them in Kazakhstan alone. According to a statement released by the People's Republic of China (PRC) State Council Information Office on January 21, 2002, Uighur separatists were responsible for 200 terrorist incidents in Xinjiang from 1990 to 2001, killing 162 people and injuring more than 440 in their agitation for an independent state of "Eastern Turkestan" or "Uighuristan," their preferred names for Xinjiang. …

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