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'Pivot of Asia' sees China-Pakistan maneuvers
By Colin Mackerras

What is the context and meaning of the three-day joint Pakistan-China military exercises that began on August 4 in Xinjiang in China's far west?

I see the implications and context as particularly significant in three areas. First, the exercises might say something about the situation in Xinjiang itself. Then there are the emerging international relations in the Central and South Asian regions, where a struggle against terrorism had been creating profound effects even well before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. And finally, what about the West, and especially the United States: do they have any significance for Xinjiang and its region?

The joint exercises are also part of an unnecessary show of force against Uighur separatism. In my opinion, there is indeed terrorism in Xinjiang, but it is not nearly as serious as the Chinese authorities appear to think. Chinese repression is far more severe than any legitimate fear of terrorism and separatism would warrant.

The drill included live firing and took place in Taxkorgan, a very high-elevation region very near China's border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. The people of the area are mostly Tajiks, a Muslim ethnic minority who speak an Iranian language and numbered 41,028 souls according to China's national census of November 2000. The stated purpose of the exercises, which were code named simply "Friendship 2004", was to strengthen military cooperation between Pakistan and China against terrorism and maintain regional stability.

I argue that the military exercises are a symbol of Chinese power, showing willingness and ability to suppress all signs of terrorism and separatism in Xinjiang. They are also a symbol of China's growing diplomatic influence and skills in the Central and South Asian regions and its ability to use that influence against separatism and terrorism in the region, and especially within its own borders. They occur in a context that sees China's relations with the United States as somewhat unstable, but currently basically positive. Both countries want success in the war against terrorism but have different policies and interests in some areas, such as the war in Iraq and China's call for Taiwan reunification. Whether the military exercises will succeed in maintaining regional stability remains to be seen, but there is a good chance they will.

The situation in Xinjiang
Xinjiang lies in China's far northwest, bordering seven countries. In a book first published in 1950, the great specialist on China and Central Asia, Owen Lattimore, called it the "pivot of Asia" for its position in Asia's ethnic, economic and strategic affairs. In area, it is China's largest province-level unit and has a population of nearly 20 million.

Xinjiang is multiethnic. With 45.2%, according to the 2000 census, the most populous ethnic group is the Uighurs, a Turkic and Muslim people, but immigration by the Han Chinese has meant that they are now not that far behind the Uighurs themselves (40.6%, 2000 census). Other than the Mongols, descended from the people who once controlled Xinjiang, the great majority of the ethnic minorities there are Muslims.

Separatist movements and feelings have long been widespread, most notably among the Uighurs. Most recently, a small-scale uprising in 1990 sparked renewed anti-Chinese hostility that persists to this day. The 1990s saw a series of riots and disturbances, most notably in February 1997. All of them were suppressed by the Chinese authorities, who are determined to keep Xinjiang within China and quell any separatism. Some of these separatist incidents can be described as terrorist in the sense of targeting civilians.

Chinese reports suggest that the number of separatist and terrorist incidents has declined in the first few years of the 21st century by comparison with the 1990s. In January 2002 the Chinese authorities issued a document detailing incidents that had occurred between 1990 and 2001, claiming that Uighur separatists had been responsible for more than 200 terrorist incidents, but only one of the 162 deaths caused was in 2001. Yet China has taken advantage of the September 11 attacks to step up its crackdown on Uighur separatism. In December 2003, Chinese authorities issued a list of organizations they regarded as terrorist and 11 specific people they regarded as terrorist leaders, not only in China but also overseas.

The reality is that there are indeed terrorists among those Uighurs who wish to split from China and set up an independent East Turkestan Republic. There are also separatists who oppose violence of all kinds and could not be regarded as terrorists. There are Islamic separatists, and secular nationalists, as well as people with a range of other positions. Most Uighurs would like to keep out of such arguments and get on with a peaceful life.

One of the factors that is exacerbating the situation even further is narcotics and the spread of HIV/AIDS. The fact is that, of all China's provinces, Xinjiang is now among the most severely affected with HIV/AIDS, and one of the reasons for this is the increase in drug addiction and shared needles. The government is blaming Uighurs disproportionately for this phenomenon, and linking drug addiction and HIV/AIDS with cross-border narcotics smuggling. This gives authorities the excuse they want to brand Islam and the Uighurs as drug smugglers, addicts and spreaders of HIV/AIDS - and this exacerbates and worsens the situation for the Uighurs.

Given the reduction in the incidence of terrorism, HIV/AIDS is probably a bigger threat to Xinjiang's future than either separatism or terrorism. To be fair, the Chinese government seems at last to be waking up to the destructive potential of AIDS in Xinjiang and elsewhere. But what the joint military exercises do is keep the focus on terrorism and separatism based on Islamic extremism. This priority may be both unnecessary and contrary to the best interests of the Central Asian region.

International relations in Central Asia
In April 1996, the presidents of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met in Shanghai - the so-called "Shanghai Five" - to begin a series of annual meetings. In June 2001, they were joined by the president of Uzbekistan and formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). These six presidents have continued to meet annually, most recently in June 2004 in the Uzbekistan capital Tashkent. One of the aims of the Shanghai Five and then the SCO was to counter terrorism, Islamic extremism and separatism, which all six countries are determined to stamp out.

The SCO also aims to expand economic and other relations among its member countries. One of China's top current projects is an oil pipeline of nearly 1,000 kilometers, expected to be completed next year. It will transfer oil from the Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan and into China.

Just before the June 2004 SCO meeting, Chinese President Hu Jintao held formal meetings with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov. Hu and Karimov signed an agreement to cooperate in combating terrorism, separatism and extremism, including against the Uighur separatists and terrorists in Xinjiang.

Uzbekistan is significant in the present context. There are several factors here. First, Karimov is a leader who has come under heavy criticism in the West for his willingness to commit human-rights abuses and to cast his net excessively wide in his zeal to stamp out terrorism. Second, the Uzbeks are very close culturally to the Uighurs, and there is a significant Uighur diaspora in Uzbekistan. Finally, Uzbekistan has lately been the site of several suicide bombing attacks, including those at the end of July, when suicide bombers in Tashkent struck the American and Israeli embassies, killing at least two Uzbeks.

China has also expanded its influence substantially in Kyrgyzstan. Late in 2002, China and Kyrgyzstan carried out joint military exercises along the Chinese-Kyrgyz border. The next year a political crisis erupted in Kyrgyzstan over an unpopular decision to cede some border territory formerly in Kyrgyzstan to China.

All SCO member countries also contributed to a joint anti-terrorist exercise in August 2003. SCO Secretary-General Zhang Deguang claimed at the end of July 2004 that this exercise had been "the SCO's most important collaboration to date, showing how a multinational cross-border force could be mobilized against attacks".

The friendship China has developed diplomatically with the countries of Central Asia has one other implication. In order to conciliate China and to further their own interests, the governments of Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have sent back to China those Uighurs trying to flee Xinjiang as refugees. In a report from Ankara on July 7, 2004, Kahriman Gojamberdi, representative of the German-based World Uighur Congress, claimed that Uighurs who were fleeing the crackdown in Xinjiang itself were still being sent back secretly from Kazakhstan.

China and Pakistan have been on good terms for a long time. By contrast, India and Pakistan are traditional enemies, while China has had very unstable relations with India. Currently, there is a thawing of relations between India on the one hand and Pakistan and China on the other, while China's relations with Pakistan continue to improve.

Pakistan has played a crucial role in the war against terrorism. It is a strongly Islamic country, and President General Pervez Musharraf is a strong Muslim. Moreover, it has a border with Afghanistan, and many even believe that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is actually in Pakistan. Islamic radicalism has a good deal of support in the border region.

Musharraf declared himself a supporter of the United States-led war against terrorism from the start. However, his stand has earned him a good deal of hostility at home, including assassination attempts, because many Pakistanis believe he should be giving support to his Muslim brothers, not to the American infidels, let alone Chinese communists.

Musharraf has become an increasingly strong opponent of terrorism. His army has carried out major operations designed to eliminate terrorism from the border regions. One in March 2004, which took place in South Wazaristan near the border with Afghanistan, succeeded in capturing or killing quite a few al-Qaeda militants. On the other hand, the army had hoped to capture bin Laden, which it failed to do.

As for China, Pakistan has shown itself to be very helpful against separatism and terrorism in Xinjiang. The body the Chinese have described as the most important separatist organization in Xinjiang is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). In October 2003 the Pakistan military killed ETIM leader Hasan Mahsum in an army operation. Despite his death, China still included him in its list of terrorists published in December 2003.

This month's joint military Pakistan-China military exercise is another demonstration of a genuine and strengthening friendship between China and Pakistan, and especially a genuine wish for both to cooperate against terrorism. Clearly, the Pakistan government accepts China's desire to stamp out separatism in Xinjiang, even though the Uighurs are fellow Muslims, and it agrees with China's protestations that these separatists are terrorists. If the Pakistanis are in doubt about this, they are not letting it get in the way of military cooperation with China.

Sino-Western relations
Among the Western countries, the situation in Xinjiang involves mainly the United States. The United States wants good relations with Pakistan and is pleased at the recent attempts the Pakistan authorities have been making to step up their fight against terrorism.

The United States has been closely involved in the emerging strategic balance of power in Central Asia. Since September 11, it has established military bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for the first time. Traditionally, the region has been in the Russian sphere of influence. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, Chinese influence began to expand, both economically and strategically. But with the war against terrorism that followed September 11, the United States also became involved in the region militarily. This expansion of American influence is deeply worrying both to Russia and China, which see their own clout under threat.

The United States has viewed the developing situation in Xinjiang with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it has been deeply worried by the human-rights implications of what has developed and has made its feelings known on many occasions. On the other hand, since September 11 it has been very keen for China's support in its own war against terrorism.

In August 2002, the United States recognized ETIM as a terrorist organization, followed soon by the United Nations. China has been keen for the United States to recognize other bodies as terrorist, but Washington has not been prepared to go further. On the contrary, since August 2002 the United States seems to have been moving in the opposite direction. For example, in December 2002, Lorne Craner, US assistant secretary of state for human rights, gave a speech at the University of Xinjiang in Urumqi, arguing that the struggle against terrorism should never be allowed to compromise human rights, implying that this was precisely what China was doing.

Actually, human-rights activists believe that the war against terrorism is compromising human rights in most countries, including the United States. But human-rights activists also think that China's behavior in Xinjiang is a particularly obvious and serious case of human-rights abuses made worse by the war against terrorism. Bodies such as Amnesty International have been very critical of China's human-rights abuses in general, but singled out Beijing's activities in Xinjiang for special condemnation.

Two events in mid-2004 showed the administration of US President George W Bush was moving against the Chinese government in policy on Xinjiang and the Uighurs. In April, the National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the American government, gave US$75,000 to the Uyghur American Association, a body that is total anathema to the Chinese government because it advocates an independent Uighur state. This was the first time the National Endowment has given a grant to a Uighur exile group.

In May the US Department of State announced that it was discussing with Chinese counterparts a request that some Uighur prisoners in Guantanamo Bay should be repatriated to Xinjiang. However, the Americans later rejected the request on the grounds that the Uighurs would likely suffer persecution at home from Chinese authorities, even being tortured or killed. In the delicate balance between promoting human rights and conciliating China in the interests of the overall war against terrorism, both actions seemed to favor human rights. Not surprisingly, the Chinese authorities were furious, considering the grant an act of interference in their domestic affairs.

Other than the United States, the Western country most involved in the Xinjiang issue is Germany. This is because there is a very significant Uighur diaspora there and because it is home to several Uighur diaspora bodies the Chinese consider terrorist. The best known of them is the World Uyghur Youth Congress, based in Munich. This was one of the bodies China had tagged as terrorist in December 2003.

In April, Munich hosted another Uighur congress to organize Uighurs from around the world to promote Uighur unity and the Uighur cause in general. While most participants wanted a fully independent Uighur nation-state, others were prepared to settle for a high degree of autonomy within China that would be less than full independence.

The Chinese did everything they could to get the meeting cancelled, arguing that its aim was separatist and terrorist. The German authorities did comply with the Chinese to some extent; for example, they were quite careful about the people to whom they issued visas and they kept an eye on what was happening. But they did not force the cancellation of the meeting, which went ahead as planned.

The congress saw the formation of a united World Uyghur Congress. This was in itself an achievement, given that Uighur bodies have been notoriously fractured, with some advocating violence, others rejecting it as counterproductive and wrong, even terrorist. The man the congress elected as its head is Erkin Alptekin, who has been involved in Uighur diaspora affairs for many years. The policy he advocates is dialogue with Beijing and autonomy rather than full independence and non-violence. Certainly he rejects totally any suggestion that he is a terrorist.

The Pakistan-China joint military exercises in Xinjiang show that China is continuing to expand its relations with its neighbors, in large part for the purpose of suppressing any hint of Uighur separatism or terrorism. These states may share Islam with the terrorists, but they certainly do not share any wish to destabilize the situation in Central Asia, including Xinjiang. They will be quite prepared to tolerate human rights abuses against fellow Muslims if that's what their interests appear to require. China is taking advantage of this dilemma for its own purposes.

The military maneuvers are also part of an unnecessary demonstration of military muscle against Uighur separatism.

This newly founded united World Uyghur Congress may be more effective than earlier such bodies, but most likely will not make more than a small dent in Beijing's approach. As it acknowledges, it depends more or less totally on the United States, which is unlikely to offer much support of the kind that really matters. Certainly, the World Uyghur Congress will get no military support from the United States, which is much more interested in maintaining China's support for its war against terrorism. It seems to me most unlikely that Uighur separatism, or even genuine autonomy, has any real chance of success in the foreseeable future.

Colin Mackerras is foundation professor in the Department of International Business and Asian Studies at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. He has visited Xinjiang four times, most recently in October-November 2003. He has written extensively on ethnic issues in China, including Xinjiang. His most recent authored book is China's Ethnic Minorities and Globalization, and most recent edited book is Ethnicity in Asia. He can be reached at

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Aug 13, 2004

China-Uzbek pact bad for Uighurs
(Jul 30, '04)

Why terrorism bypasses China's far west
(Apr 23, '04)

Xinjiang and China's Central Asia strategy
(Apr 3, '04)

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


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