Amid Xinjiang's Troubles, China Banks on Central Asian Neighbors

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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Chinese President Xi Jinping plants a tree in Kazakhstan's capital Astana during his Central Asian trip, Sept. 7, 2013.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping was preparing to make a landmark visit earlier this month to Central Asia, police gunned down 22 ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs in what they called an "anti-terrorism" operation in China's restive northwestern Xinjiang region.

And four days after Xi returned to Beijing last week following his whirlwind Central Asian tour, reports emerged that police had conducted a separate raid on a "terrorist" training camp and munitions center in Xinjiang, killing a dozen Uyghurs and wounding 20 others.

Increasing tensions in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and fears of trouble in the neighborhood with the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan next year may have dogged Xi as he went on his Central Asian trip from Sept. 3-13.

Xinjiang, the largest Chinese administrative region, shares vast borders with five Muslim countries—Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Xi visited Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and two other Central Asian states, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, bagging tens of billions of dollars worth of energy deals and investments during his 10-day trip in what one analyst said was an extremely rare feat by a leader of a major power.

By boosting energy-based investments in the region, Beijing will get vast amounts of oil and gas to power its rapid economic growth but also strengthen ties with governments and influence them not to support Uyghur groups fighting for greater political, economic, and religious rights in Xinjiang, experts say.  

"China wants a stable backyard," Johannes Linn, a former World Bank vice president for Europe and Central Asia, told RFA, characterizing Beijing's Central Asia strategy as one driven by economics, energy security, and broader security concerns in the region.

He said that it was not in Chinese interests to see Central Asian nations plunge into civil war, be gripped by localized conflicts, or be troubled by any spillover of terrorist activities from Afghanistan.

In addition, Beijing is equally worried that minority Uyghur communities in Central Asian states may fuel anti-establishment campaigns in the troubled Xinjiang region.

"Any kind of support from what could be Uyghur minorities in border areas in their neighboring Central Asian countries in their own territory would obviously not be welcomed," Linn said.

He cited as an example Kyrgyzstan, where there is a large population of minority ethnic Uyghurs.


Xi Jinping (3rd from left) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (second from right) pose with Central Asian leaders during a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Sept. 13, 2013.
Xi Jinping (3rd from left) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (second from right) pose with Central Asian leaders during a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Sept. 13, 2013.

Chinese authorities have always been concerned that mountainous Kyrgyzstan, possibly the most politically unstable Central Asian state, could be used as a refuge and base from which to launch an insurgency in Xinjiang, where minority Uyghurs are resisting ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and an influx of Han Chinese.

During Xi's visit to resource-starved Kyrgyzstan, China agreed to provide soft loans of more than U.S. $3 billion for energy projects, including for a 225-kilometer (140-mile) Kyrgyzstan-China gas pipeline which will pump gas originating from energy-rich Turkmenistan to Xinjiang's Silk Road city of Kashgar.   

The substantial energy supply deals that Xi signed in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, and the stress the Chinese leader placed in a landmark speech on measures to open up transport links throughout Eurasia, reflect Beijing's growing engagement in the region, said Linn, now a senior analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

"Central Asian leaders, while perhaps privately worried about the long-term consequences of too tight an embrace by China, welcome the low-key approach of their big neighbor, which promises to strengthen their own hand economically and politically at least in the short term," he said.

Xi also proposed that China and the Central Asian states build a “New Silk Road” to serve as an “economic belt” of Eurasia, connecting “3 million people from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.”

China's trade with Central Asia's five nations has exploded 100 percent since their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, according to Beijing's state media.

Soft power

In a projection of soft power during his trip, Xi offered 30,000 Chinese government scholarships for students in Central Asian member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional grouping led by China and Russia.

He also offered free study tours for an additional 10,000 students and teachers at Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes throughout Central Asia.

The Central Asian states were subtly told to reciprocate the Chinese actions.

They were asked by Xi to jointly combat the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism, and extremism—a constant reminder to the people of Xinjiang whenever violence flares up—and safeguard regional security.

"Beijing fears Uyghur unrest in the far western province of Xinjiang, where Han Chinese have faced sporadic violence from separatists and Uyghurs angered by what they see as efforts at Sinification," Will Piekos, a research associate for Asia Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), said in a blog post reviewing Xi's trip.

As the United States withdraws troops and military aid from the region, Central Asian leaders fear extremist elements will turn to the northwest in search of a new fight, while Beijing worries that terrorism in these states will bleed into Xinjiang and encourage Uyghur separatists, he said.

"They hope the SCO can fill the gap left by the U.S. withdrawal," he said.


But the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) says the SCO has shown itself ineffective in times of unrest.

In a report earlier this year, the ICG warned that there is a risk that Central Asian militants currently fighting beside the Taliban extremist group in Afghanistan may take their struggle back home after 2014.

"This would pose major difficulties for both Central Asia and China," it said. "Economic intervention alone might not suffice."

ICG said China's "primary concern" in Central Asia is the security and development of Xinjiang.

Beijing's strategy to reinforce both economic development and political stability in the region is aimed at insulating Xinjiang and its neighbors from any negative consequences of U.S. and NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan, the think tank said.

"The problem is that large parts of Central Asia look more insecure and unstable by the year," it said. "Corruption is endemic, criminalization of the political establishment widespread, social services in dramatic decline and security forces weak. The governments with which China cooperates are increasingly viewed as part of the problem, not a solution, as Chinese analysts privately agree."

No contagion

But some experts argue that China's Central Asian charm offensive is not driven by the troubles in Xinjiang.

"Xinjiang isn't just the driver for" Xi's Central Asia visit and the investments and energy deals that he had bagged, Martha Brill Olcott, co-director of the Central Asia program at Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFA.

"I don't reject that Xinjiang is an important factor for China. It is. There is no question about it," Olcott said. "But I don't think they are concerned about contagion from Central Asia. That was an issue of the early 1990s."

While China recognizes that there are security challenges in Xinjiang and has policies directed to it, "I think the policy drivers in Central Asia are really much greater Chinese state foreign policy ambitions and economic needs," she said.

Calling Xi's trip a "victory lap," Olcott said China has come to displace both the United States and Russia "as the great power with the most influence in Central Asia."

Russia can no longer effectively counter China’s economic ties with its Central Asian neighbors, she said. And preoccupied with withdrawing from Afghanistan without destabilizing the region, the United States, she said, needs Beijing to help stimulate Central Asia’s economic development.

"All of this leads to China coming out on top in the region."


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