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The Xinjiang Problem

Jan 22, 2015

Terrorist attacks in Beijing, riots, and a growing international movement show that relations between the Uyghur community in Xinjiang Province and the Chinese government are increasingly strained. China has gone to great lengths to ensure that it maintains its “territorial integrity,” particularly in troubled regions like Xinjiang and Tibet. To achieve this aim, the Chinese government continues to pursue quasi­colonial policies toward the Uyghurs that unnecessarily aggravate tensions. There is a significant problem with these policies, however: Xinjiang Province is a key link in China’s emerging New Silk Road strategy.

Xinjiang Province lies in northwestern China, and makes up 17% of China’s total land area. Uyghurs form a plurality of its population, around 43% of the total, including a large majority in many critical border regions. The Uyghurs have a long history of antagonistic relations with Chinese governments – according to one count, there have been more than one hundred major revolts against central government authority since 1876. Uyghurs appear ethnically different from Han Chinese, and the majority are Sunni Muslims. Consequently, Uyghur resistance to Chinese authority has often sought autonomy or independence on ethnic nationalist lines.

The Chinese government, for its part, argues that maintaining the territorial integrity of China in disputed areas – Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, for instance – is the only way to reverse a century of humiliation at the hands of imperial powers. In Xinjiang this desire produces heavy-handed tactics that often provoke violence instead of subduing unrest. Security forces have banned the wearing of qitabs and long beards, banned religious observances during Ramadan, instituted curfews, and shut off communications infrastructure during periods of unrest. Uyghur activists allege that security forces have conducted extensive extrajudicial killings and mass arrests of protesters. Furthermore, the Chinese government continues to implement a long­standing policy of using forced resettlement and Han immigration to shift the demographic makeup of Xinjiang.

While these measures may make sense from the standpoint of cementing Chinese authority in Xinjiang, they provoke unwanted backlash at a time when peace in Xinjiang is critical to achieving China’s geopolitical objectives. These objectives are embodied in China’s New Silk Road strategy.

The Geopolitics of the New Silk Road

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the New Silk Road initiative, aimed at expanding China’s economic and diplomatic influence westward through Central Asia and the Middle East. As an infrastructure and trade network, the New Silk Road would consist of roads, railways, and pipelines to connect China to Central Asian trade hubs. A map of the proposed route shows an array of projects running through Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Iran, and even Turkey. If successful, the strategy would significantly boost China’s influence in Central Asia and lower the cost of trade and energy imports. China’s proposed route to the world, however, runs directly through an increasingly volatile Xinjiang province. While it is certainly not the first reason that China is pursuing the New Silk Road strategy, potential conflict with the United States and its allies looms large in the minds of Chinese planners.

China’s development of anti­access area denial capabilities will make it increasingly difficult for the U.S. Navy to operate within hundreds of miles of the Chinese coastline. To counter this, some strategists argue that the U.S. should pursue an “offshore control” approach in a confrontation with China. Over 50% of China’s oil is transported over sea-lanes through choke­points the U.S. could easily close. A blockade of energy and strategic trade goods would severely damage the Chinese economy, and prove a difficult obstacle to overcome given China’s nascent power projection capabilities.

The New Silk Road offers a way to soften this potential blow. Land routes and pipelines link China to Central Asian and Iranian oil through Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. These routes run directly through Xinjiang province. In a conflict scenario, China’s energy lifelines would prove a tempting target for saboteurs and agitators inspired by competing powers. Even absent a conflict, attacks on infrastructure projects and insecurity in Xinjiang will make it difficult for China to pursue its equally critical economic and diplomatic strategy. Expanded pipelines and railways throughout Central Asia cannot help China if their operations are halted by violence and sabotage.

A Troubled Future

China, like many colonial powers of the past, demonstrates a sort of imperial blindness in Xinjiang Province. While underlying basic issues will provoke protest from the Uyghur population, harsh and unnecessary measures like restrictions on personal dress serve as daily reminders of humiliation at the hands of the central government. Chinese security forces do not seem to have learned from the continuous failure of shock and awe tactics, instead opting for similarly heavy-handed measures with each new outbreak of violence.

The situation in Xinjiang is of serious importance to both China and its strategic competitors. Unfortunately for the Chinese government, attempts to keep Xinjiang under strict control will continue to prompt violent backlashes from Uyghur groups. The continued destabilization of Xinjiang Province can only harm Chinese interests in Central Asia and increase China’s vulnerability in a dramatic confrontation with the United States and its regional allies. In essence, China now faces a choice between its desire to aggressively cement its territorial unity and a compelling strategic need to keep the peace in Xinjiang.

Uyghur activists, for their part, face difficult choices as well. Separatism is decreasingly viable as Uyghurs do not make up an absolute majority in Xinjiang and Han Chinese continue to immigrate to the region. Xinjiang’s Uyghurs would face nearly insurmountable challenges in a separatist conflict with the rest of China. But hardline Uyghur groups now have the opportunity to target critical infrastructure projects related to the New Silk Road. Combined with clear messaging to the central government, Uyghur resistance groups could offer peace in Xinjiang in exchange for increased autonomy and economic opportunity. Such a plan could easily backfire, however, validating the Chinese government’s “counter­terrorism” narrative and increasingly alienating Uyghurs from the rest of China.

There is no easy path forward for the parties in Xinjiang. It seems unlikely that tensions will fall in the short term, which augurs poorly for both the Uyghurs and the government in Beijing. China’s New Silk Road strategy may provide an opportunity for the CCP and Uyghur leaders to strike an uneasy bargain, albeit one that can halt the cycle of repression and retaliatory violence. It may appear implausible now, but China may decide that its security as a great power requires a new political arrangement in Xinjiang.

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