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18-10-08, 23:31
XINJIANG, CHINA’S PRESSURE COOKER

By Stephen Blank (09/17/2008 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Despite the immense publicity generated by the Georgian crisis and the Olympics, those events are by no means the only important developments affecting Central Asia and the Caucasus. During August alone, China experienced a rash of major violence in Xinjiang. Three separate incidents from August 4 to 29 left almost thirty security personnel dead and more wounded. To the Chinese government, these attacks validated their claims even if many outside observers suspected that the claim of a terrorist threat was a pretext for readying another round of a crackdown in Xinjiang. The Chinese government says that the proscribed East Turkestan Islamic Movement or ETIM, an organization recognized as well by Washington as a terrorist group, is carrying out these attacks.

BACKGROUND: Xinjiang has been experiencing unrest for at least a generation due to China’s policies of relentless Han colonization, cultural and religious Sinification, and oppression of Muslim religious practices and groups. This unrest and the demands by increasingly radicalized Muslim groups for autonomy or less centralization are among the most important factors shaping China’s overall Central Asian policy. That policy aims to deny these opposition elements a foothold in neighboring Central Asian countries while China, acting on hallowed Leninist principles, has simultaneously argued that the root cause of unrest is economic backwardness, leading it to invest billions in its ”Go West” program to develop Xinjiang. That program entails both large-scale economic development in Xinjiang and its opening up to Central Asia, on the one hand, and a large influx of Chinese settlers on the other hand. Hence it contributes to both the Sinification of the region, and as students of ethno-national identification know all too well, to increased ethnic and religious tensions. Since Xinjiang is also China’s largest oil-producing province, and the site of its Lop Nor nuclear testing grounds, its strategic importance has grown considerably over time.

While Chinese policies have led to the creation of terrorist groups as well as to so-called Jundullah groups (Soldiers of Allah) comprised of angry young Muslims not belonging to any organization, the attacks in August seem to be conducted not by externally based groups, but rather by internally constituted groups in retaliation for the public execution of two Uyghurs in Kashgar on July 9. In retaliation, Chinese police have been raiding Mosques and have heightened their surveillance of religious sermons, literature, and organizations. But this is likely to be ineffective in quashing the Xinjiang-based unrest once and for all as these tactics have been repeatedly tried in the course of the last generation and have failed to achieve their goals.

These attacks and the Tibetan uprising earlier this year suggest that China’s hold on these provinces is rather more precarious then the authorities in Beijing would like to believe. Neither has economic development stanched the flow of national and religious opposition to China’s authoritarian rule, nor is it likely to do so in the future. Instead we can expect continuing, if not growing unrest in these provinces as development continues. But if China should run into an economic crisis that sharply reduces economic growth, then it is likely that unrest in both provinces could spike upwards sharply and create a much bigger crisis.

Even more of an ominous sign is the fact that terrorist groups are not only staging larger attacks but also are claiming to have staged attacks in the interior, including in Shanghai and Kunming. There is a very great danger for China’s rulers that such ethnic violence and unrest could link up with the widespread and well-recorded instances of social and economic unrest among Han Chinese communities and the large number of floating unemployed people whose number is dozens of millions. The confluence of multiple streams of unrest presents a major challenge to Beijing; and as suggested by its post-March 2008 crackdown in Tibet, it is ready to take draconian action to prevent it.

IMPLICATIONS: The external reaction to the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang as well as the continuing unresolved Taiwan issue have heightened China’s sensitivity to the issues of its territorial integrity and secessionism. It should not be forgotten that one of the three evils for which members of the Shanghai cooperation Organization are obliged to cooperate is secessionism; and another terrorism. The third, religious extremism, can also plausibly be invoked by China as a response to the unrest in Xinjiang. Since it responds to this pressure by strongly asserting that its integrity is not open to question by anyone and that all three provinces’ issues are exclusively China’s internal affair, any forcible attempt to redraw a state’s boundaries on the grounds of coming to the assistance of oppressed ethnic or religious minorities triggers a very reserved, if not negative Chinese response. Clearly, Beijing worries that such activities, specifically Russia’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence, will constitute precedents that can then be used to pressure it or even attack it in order to force it to yield sovereignty in Xinjiang, Tibet, or Taiwan. This is a major reason why it adopted so reserved an attitude towards Russia’s war in Georgia even before the SCO summit on August 28. The summit in turn failed to recognize Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence and failed to support Russia’s actions

The cycle of ongoing violence and heightened repression that is currently taking place in Xinjiang is also occurring in Tibet. In both provinces, it is likely to continue simply because China apparently has no other answer to the problems posed by this unrest to its current policies and will not contemplate any reforms that it regards as a diminution and erosion of its sovereignty and thus also of China’s territorial integrity. Therefore we can expect that over time, this cycle will continue, and the episodes of terrorist violence may become larger and more spectacular as the purveyors of unrest in Xinjiang may also attempt to spread their violence further into the interior of China. It is a very important issue to watch if they can succeed in linking their message with the frustrations of other marginalized social and economic groups and thus rattle the foundations of the party’s rule among the Han Chinese population.

Moreover, these episodes of domestic unrest will intensify the main lines of China’s foreign policy as applied to Central Asia – to bind those neighboring states ever more closely to it in order to forestall any possibility of their support for their Uyghur kinsmen, and to sustain Xinjiang’s growing economy. But behind the reality of economic growth and integration lies also the abiding Chinese threat of retaliation against these states for any support of this unrest. Moreover, it is likely that the simultaneous occurrence of this upsurge in violence with the Georgian crisis will intensify both Chinese and Central Asian resistance to Russian claims that it has the right to intervene, even with force, on behalf of its supposed citizens who are being oppressed in Central Asian states.

CONCLUSIONS: Moscow’s now overt claim to a sphere of influence in Central Asia and of the concurrent and concomitant right to undertake such intervention unilaterally under Article 51 of the UN Charter (the clause pertaining to self-defense of states and their legitimate right to defend themselves against attack) can only unsettle states who resist the doctrine of such intervention which they see as a landmine placed underneath their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence. Though China has long maintained that how it treats its Muslim minorities is strictly an internal affair that admits of no foreign interest, in fact this is no longer the case. Xinjiang and its implications have for some time been a driver of foreign policy and influenced by the latter’s requirements. The intersection of this new violence with the Georgian crisis can only sharpen the contradictions in China’s policy and in its relations with Russia in Central Asia.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed here do not represent those of the US. Army, Defense Department or Government.


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