May 11, 2006 17 17 GMT


The United States sent five Uighur detainees to Albania on May 5 to process their asylum cases. The Chinese have decried this measure and have demanded that the "terrorists" (explicitly highlighting that they are not refugees) be returned to China. There are 17 more Uighur detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and the United States will wait to see how the current asylum cases play out with the Chinese before deciding on where to send them and how to address Sino-U.S. relations.


Five Guantanamo Bay detainees from China were sent by the United States to Albania on May 5 for their asylum cases to be processed. The detainees are from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region of northwestern China and are part of a Muslim minority called Uighurs.

Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, China declared the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) -- a Uighur movement -- a terrorist organization and started to wage its own war against militants in Xinjiang. It is not clear if these Uighurs were part of ETIM, but U.S. forces apprehended them in Afghanistan and Pakistan, calling them "enemy combatants" and saying they were on their way to military training camps. Reports vary on why the Uighurs were in the Afghan/Pakistani region; some say they were on their way to work in Turkey, and others say they were fleeing to Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban.

A U.S. military panel openly declared about a year ago that these Uighurs present no terrorist threat, but Washington did not want to send them back to China for fear of their persecution. Neither did Washington want to give them asylum for fear of tarnishing Sino-U.S. relations. Albania offered to give the five detainees refuge while their asylum claim is considered. Unsurprisingly, this has drawn the ire of the Chinese government, which is demanding that they be returned to China.

That Washington sent the Uighurs to Albania and declared them "noncombatants" implies that the United States, after siding with China in its internal fight against militants, has acknowledged that the Uighur threat was manufactured by the Chinese to legitimize a crackdown on separatists in Xinjiang. Washington had recognized this all along but, as it used China's support for the U.S.-jihadist war as a tool to manage Sino-U.S. relations, Washington supported China's internal fight against what Beijing deemed terrorist groups.

Prior to Sept. 11, the Chinese government put forth the view that activities in Xinjiang were generally planned by only small groups of individuals, and in general did not pose a major threat to the government. Moreover, Beijing promoted Xinjiang's economic development and continued to push Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang and "modernize" the region.

Immediately after Sept. 11, this rhetoric changed abruptly. It was only then that Beijing claimed that ETIM had links to Osama bin Laden as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan. As part of its new campaign, the Chinese government released information saying that in the past decade there had been more than 200 ETIM separatist incidents, resulting in 162 deaths and 440 injuries. That this information had not been released before Sept. 11 made its validity somewhat dubious. The Chinese have not definitively linked the Guantanamo detainees to any specific ETIM attacks, but claim they are ETIM members.

The Uighur and ETIM threat is largely manufactured by the Chinese government. ETIM remains loosely organized and weak; its membership is not consolidated and it does not have the support of the majority of Uighurs and other Muslims in the region. Though ETIM has carried out violent attacks, in China they were isolated to Xinjiang and were few. For example, in 1995 railroad tracks and oil fields were sabotaged, but the damage was contained to Xinjiang and no activity was directed at civilians. In 1996, approximately 5,000 Uighurs were arrested for attacks against Chinese interests in Xinjiang, though such incidents have been few and far between. The biggest Uighur threat is not as a domestic terrorist organization; the threat is one of pressure, both internal and external.

The Uighurs' role as a separatist movement poses the internal threat. China is firm about maintaining its borders and does not condone any separatist overtures, particularly when it already faces such pressure in other areas, including Taiwan and Tibet. A weakness on any front would destabilize not only the legitimacy of the Communist Party, which claims to hold the country together, but would also weaken Beijing's resolve on the other fronts.

The external threat comes from Central Asia. Central Asian militants' potential reach jeopardizes Beijing's development plans in Xinjiang, which has desirable resources and is a gateway for products coming from Central Asia into China. China uses Xinjiang as a buffer from Central Asia. Uighurs from throughout Central Asia will remain targets of China's political and economic program aimed at stabilizing its western frontier against militant threats from outside its borders. However, even that threat is not pressing; many Central Asian militant organizations either are defunct or lack the resources to continue significant operations. Nevertheless, China will point to the cooperation between Uighurs and militant organizations in other countries for leverage in its domestic policies targeting Uighurs.

The U.S. decision to ship the Uighur detainees to Albania threatens China's control of both the internal and external Uighur threats. The implication that Washington believes Beijing manufactured the Uighur threat and that the Uighurs, not Beijing, are the victims in the Xinjiang situation tacitly alters the post-Sept. 11 rhetoric on the Uighurs. This upsets China's internal war on militants and therefore its control of Xinjiang. Externally, this decision implicitly downplays the Uighur threat, which will give Uighurs more room to maneuver in Central Asia and could break down the boundaries between Xinjiang and the Central Asian states it borders.

Beijing claims that Washington's shipping the detainees to a country other than China violates international law, and the Chinese have formally asked to extradite the Uighurs, who they do not believe should be considered refugees. However, the Albanian government has simply responded that it will investigate the case.

The United States has been quietly looking for a country that would accept these "refugees" for some time, but no European country was willing to offend China. Finally, Albania accepted the responsibility in hopes of coming into Washington's good graces and forging better military ties with both the United States and NATO -- benefits that would, in Albania's calculation, outweigh the backlash from China.

There are still at least 17 Uighurs in Guantanamo whose fates will depend on the outcome of the five Uighurs now in Albania. The United States does not want to push Beijing too far, but the reports on abuses at Guantanamo have hurt Washington's international reputation, and sending the Uighurs to a country where their persecution is less likely could repair some of that damage. This is why the United States is doing a test-run with the first five refugees sent to Albania.

It is doubtful that Beijing will just let this issue rest, since it could endanger China's own territorial integrity. The United States will have a hard time navigating these turbulent diplomatic waters, and its response will depend in large part on the current situation in the Middle East, especially with Iran. On April 20, the United States openly, but tacitly, criticized Chinese President Hu Jintao during his visit to the White House. But, not wishing to add insult to injury, Washington denied Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian a stopover on his way to Latin America -- Washington needs Beijing's support in the Iran controversy to facilitate negotiations and the United States is trying to get China's support in the U.N. Security Council for any action against Tehran.

If negotiations over Iran go smoothly and tensions are defused, as is likely, then the United States will revert to a more contentious stance with China. At the expense of maintaining good relations with Beijing, Washington will look to repair internal rifts over the U.S.-jihadist war and the allegations of human rights abuses at Guantanamo.

The United States still needs a scapegoat for its rising trade deficit before the upcoming congressional elections in November, and although the harsh rhetoric on China has died down in the midst of the Iran controversy, the Uighur issue will certainly be revisited after the Iran controversy is mitigated.