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Xinjiang and China's strategy in Central Asia
By Stephen Blank

Xinjiang, like Taiwan and neighboring Tibet, is a neuralgic issue for China, which desperately needs internal stability in that predominantly Muslim, resource-rich and strategically important region. Beijing's strategic and energy objectives are based on stability in Xinjiang and its Central Asian policies grow out of its preoccupation with stability there.

The recent bombings in Uzbekistan, a Central Asia neighbor which does not border Xinjiang, though, has concerned Beijing, which was quick to label them as the work of "terrorists", though the exact motive for the violence is not known. Beijing also has been quick to blame dissent among the Muslim Uighurs on "terrorists", and in December it issued a list of what it called terrorist organizations and individuals.

According to China's own official sources, it has imperfect control - some say no control - of the borders of Xinjiang with Central Asia, specifically Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and it cannot prevent border infiltration into Xinjiang, where many Uighurs are dissatisfied with China's governance and seek genuine autonomy. Whatever policies China adopts, however, it is likely to face continuing and long-term unrest, including possible violence in Xinjiang and related violence elsewhere, according to Western military and strategic analysts .

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, China's severe crackdown on unrest in Xinjiang has, if anything, become even more Draconian. It remains to be seen whether China uses the Uzbekistan violence to further strengthen its hand against dissatisfied elements in Xinjiang.

Since September 11, Beijing has been quick to label all forms of unrest there as expressions of Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism, even though this unrest goes back at least 20 years and is as much nationalistic as anything else. Thus the various forms of unrest displayed by the local Uighurs, a Muslim people, against Beijing's government represent a classic pattern of resistance to the colonial expropriation of land and to the officially sponsored migration of Han Chinese farmers, soldiers - often the same people - and officials into Xinjiang.

This policy of moving Hans into Xinjiang has also realized a classic colonialist system of economic and social stratification that is visible in many other cases of internal colonialism. In those cases, too, the representatives of the dominant nationality enjoy disproportionate economic and political advantages in education, job placement, and access to public goods.

China applies 'terrorist' labels to dissent
Chinese foreign policy has also been enlisted in the task of labeling virtually any and all manifestations of opposition as being terrorist conspiracies. Beijing successfully prevailed upon the administration of US President George W Bush to label the East Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist group, thereby rewarding the China for supporting the US-led "war against terrorism".

Similarly, China has used its superior power vis-a-vis neighboring Central Asian regimes, particularly Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, to get them to suppress Uighur nationalists in those countries and to maintain official silence about the sometimes troubling situation in Xinjiang if they wish to have friendly relations - and significant economic ties - with China.

While China's interests in Central Asia transcend the suppression of any form of neighborly support for the Uighurs, its extensive and significant strategic and energy interests in the region are clearly tied to Xinjiang's internal developments. Indeed, one can say that China's policies in Central Asia represent an outward projection of its own fears for its internal security.

The linkages between Central Asia and Xinjiang are evident to the Chinese establishment. As a Chinese analyst told journalist Willem Van Kemenade, if Central Asia disintegrates, the chaos will reach Xinjiang. On the other hand, the analyst said, if those countries stabilize and succeed, that will invariably stimulate deeper drives for self-rule in Xinjiang - a no-win situation for China.

In other words no matter what Beijing does or what happens in Central Asia, unrest in Xinjiang will continue. At the same time Chinese scholars explicitly articulate the connection between Xinjiang and Central Asia, arguing that, China's policy to expand economic cooperation with Central Asia is undertaken, among other reasons, because to a large extent the stability and prosperity of northwest China is closely tied to Central Asia's stability and prosperity.

Next local war could be in Central Asia
Likewise, several Chinese military and political analysts have asserted, even before September 11, that the next likely theater of a major local war that will threaten, if not involve, China will take place in Central Asia. Certainly China feels itself threatened by terrorists operating out of Central Asia and by elements in Xinjiang. Even if many of these statements are self-serving, this perception is quite real and should not be taken lightly. Similarly, another Chinese observer, Gao Shixian, states that "China deems the area to be of the utmost strategic interest and a source to fill China's energy needs".

Thus economic growth, energy and strategic interests are inextricably tied together. But the precondition for realizing China's strategic and energy objectives is founded on the premise of internal stability in Xinjiang. Thus China's Central Asian policies as a whole are fundamentally strategically conceived and grow out of a preoccupation with internal stability in Xinjiang.

These assertions offer significant clues to understanding Chinese policies in Central Asia, including Xinjiang, because they make clear that Chinese policies are intrinsically strategic in concept and goal, if not in implementation. Analysts like Wu Xinbo confirm the linkage between domestic and foreign policy when they argue that "China is still a country whose real interests lie mainly within its boundaries, and to a lesser extent, the Asia-Pacific region, where developments may have a direct impact on the country's national interests".

Foreign analysts, too, discern key strategic significance in China's domestic policies in Xinjiang and its western borderlands more generally vis-a-vis major Asian actors, especially India and the US. Since September 11, China sees Washington's military presence in Central Asia - the US air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan is only 200 miles from China - as presaging a potentially permanent threat to Xinjiang and China.

Because Xinjiang, like Taiwan, is a border region that has historically been the scene of numerous struggles and wars over territory, the question of Xinjiang's future goes to the most basic issues of what constitutes the Chinese state both territorially and politically, ie what will be its territorial boundaries and how will political power in that state be constituted.

Massive 'go west' program to develop Xinjiang
To eliminate this perceived threat, China has undertaken a massive "go west" program for the better part of a decade, believing that the main spur to ethnic-nationalist and religious unrest is a lack of economic development and opportunity. Thus it has launched massive development projects in energy and transportation infrastructure to more fully tie Xinjiang to China's coastal development and to Central Asian economies.

But behind the objective of overcoming poverty - which, to be fair, is being realized - lies Beijing's unremitting drive to control Xinjiang. This development is also tied to the parallel and ongoing policy of officially sponsored large-scale migration into Xinjiang by Han Chinese that fosters immense local resentment and tension. All these policies aim to prevent anyone from demanding more democracy or genuine autonomy.

Given what some observers consider the intrinsic fragility of the Chinese state, any sign of movement towards real democracy or federalism in Xinjiang, as in the case of Taiwan or Tibet, are excluded a priori. In fact, any call for democracy or even for a devolution of powers is considered by Beijing to be a threat to China's integrity, sovereignty and security. This rejection of democratic reforms is tied to China's deeply held historical view of sovereignty because any derogation of the latter in the name of the former is considered to be an invitation to disorder, chaos, and weakness.

Clearly, this is a classically imperial view of the state but also one that reflects a sense of being perpetually assailed by potential or actual threats. In other words, Xinjiang, like Tibet and Taiwan, is a neuralgic issue that when raised, brings out what some scholars see as Beijing's siege mentality.

Thus the textbook for party and government officials entitled Zhongguo Taiwan Wenti (China's Taiwan issue) rules out either of these alternatives (democracy or federalism) for Taiwan because confederations occur between independent and sovereign states - an admission China will not make. Furthermore, the textbook attacks federalism as unsuitable because "it does not fit the national tradition and is not suitable for the basic national conditions ... The current state structure form [the unitary system] is advantageous for national unification, consolidation among ethnic groups, political stability, and balanced regional development."

Federalism is unacceptable, then, on domestic grounds ie, its threat to the unity of state power, not for any other reason. Were the regime forced to move in a federal direction for Taiwan or any other province, it could not then deny that structure to all the other provinces. Thus it would have to generalize a more decentralized and democratic form of rule across China.

Minority peoples live on insecure borders
And since the minority peoples live on China's insecure and troubled borders, in the context of Chinese history and prudent considerations of current political leaders, such devolution of power means both the end of their power and in their view the integrity of the Chinese state. This would particularly be true if ethnic discontent combined with the widespread internal labor unrest, permitting a dual-sided domestic opposition, for then internal and external oppositions would link up, representing precisely what Beijing regards as the gravest possible threat to the regime's security.

But as the Xinjiang issue has moved onto the international agenda because of the US-led "war on terrorism", China also has been forced to respond to charges of its repression in the region, by publishing a White Paper on Xinjiang in 2003. This white paper is a comprehensive effort to justify Beijing's governance there and answer its critics. But in fact it only confirms the validity or legitimacy of an internationalization of the problem and - with unconscious irony - overtly spells out the continuing imperial tradition in Chinese statecraft towards Xinjiang. Thus it states:

"China has a centuries-old tradition of developing and protecting its border areas by stationing troops to cultivate and guard the frontier areas. According to historical records, all the dynasties in Chinese history adopted the practice of stationing troops to cultivate and guard the frontier areas as an important state policy for developing border areas and consolidating frontier defense. The beginning of this practice by the central authorities on a massive scale in Xinjiang can be traced back to the Western Han Dynasty, to be subsequently carried on from generation to generation. This policy had played an important part in uniting the nation, consolidating frontier defense, and promoting social and economic development in Xinjiang. "
However, the agency responsible for such consolidation, the Bingtuan, or the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), is a major factor, if not the major factor, in what is considered the regional gulag in Xinjiang. Thus the white paper states:

"As an important force for stability in Xinjiang and for consolidating frontier defense, the XPCC and the ordinary people attach equal importance to production and militia duties. It has set up in frontier areas a 'four-in-one' system of joint defense that links the PLA, the Armed Police, the XPCC, and the ordinary people, playing an irreplaceable special role in the past five decades in smashing and resisting internal and external separatists' attempts at sabotage and infiltration and in maintaining the stability and safety of the borders of the motherland."
Special corps is quasi-military-business grouping
Another assessment of the XPCC describes it as a quasi-military/business conglomerate. It consists of 2.4 million people, including workers and their families, virtually all of them Han Chinese. It has its own schools, media, hospitals, courts, and prisons. It owns about one-third of the land, and its industrial production equals approximately 25 percent of Xinjiang's total output, yet its primary function is to ensure social stability and conduct extensive political work.

Thus despite all the undoubted achievements of economic development, Xinjiang province remains troubled. Indeed, the Australian Sinologist Greg Austin has even written that China, according to its own official sources in Beijing, has lost control of the borders of Xinjiang with Central Asia, specifically Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and cannot prevent infiltration across those borders. American observers like S Frederick Starr and Graham Fuller, writing for the Central Asia Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University, also maintain that China cannot evade the classic dilemma of minority people's uprisings against colonialist powers within the latter's home territory, the so-called metropole.

In other words, no matter whatever policies China adopts, it is likely to face continuing and long-term unrest, including violent, even possible "terrorist" operations, in Xinjiang and even in Beijing itself. While this problem has not reached the level in other conflicts, such as Kashmir or Palestine, it is real enough and growing. Worse, Chinese experts appear to concede that there is no way out.

Thus besides the challenge of sustaining economic development, meeting the calls for domestic reform, and dealing with Taiwan, Tibet and North Korea, one can add Xinjiang to the list of major challenges confronting the Chinese government.

Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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Apr 3, 2004

Uzbekistan: Implications for China, Xinjiang
(Apr 3, '04)

Uzbekistan: Sifting for clues (Apr 2, '04)

With friends like Uzbekistan (Apr 1, '04)

Terrorism's eastward expansion: Uzbekistan (Mar 31, '04)

Growth of radical Islam in Central Asia (Mar 31, '04)


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