Xinjiang, the restive northwestern province of China, experienced yet another attack by Uighur separatists this past Sunday. Rocked by a series of explosive detonations, initial reports stated that two civilians were reported killed in the blasts. The New York Times reported:
The blasts, which occurred Sunday, were the latest outbreak of violence to hit Xinjiang despite increasingly tight security. The government-run Tianshan news portal reported three separate explosions in Luntai County, southwest of the regional capital, Urumqi, but the website provided little detail.
The explosions occurred on the same day that 17 officials in southern Xinjiang were punished for failing to prevent a series of attacks in July that left almost 100 people dead, including the imam of the largest mosque in China. (Dan Levin, The New York Times, September 22)
The attacks, which reportedly occurred at 5:00 p.m. local time on Sunday, appear to substantiate assessments of a trending surge in separatist violence in Xinjiang. The latest incident marks a significant escalation in the ongoing conflict in Xinjiang. Reports later in the week, cited by Chinese state media, claimed upwards of 50 deaths in the wake of the attacks. Among these deaths were 40 characterized as “rioters””
State media in China say that a violent clash in the country’s restive Xinjiang region over the weekend was much more deadly than first reported: At least 50 people died Sunday, including 40 “rioters” with about as many wounded during an “organized and serious” terrorist attack.
Earlier this week, state media had reported two died in the incident that took place at two police stations, as well as a shop and a produce market, in Luntai county. Since the mid-2000s, separatists in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region have stepped up a violent campaign against Beijing. (NPR, September 26)
Stung by the continued destabilization of a strategically important region, Chinese officials are likely to crackdown further in Xinjiang in an effort to establish control over a quickly deteriorating security situation:
Exiled Uighur activists and international human rights groups, however, frequently dispute the government’s description of the violence, saying that in many of the clashes, security forces opened fire on demonstrators who were protesting increasingly intrusive policies aimed at restricting religious practices and assimilating Uighurs.
The Times pointed to recent attacks by Uighur separatists as a catalyst for the intensifying conflict. In punishing Chinese officials responsible for quelling the violence, the government signaled a warning to local police and military officials that stemming the onslaught of the attacks is a high national priority:
Also on Sunday, the official Xinhua news agency reported that 17 officials and police officers had been punished for failing to prevent a bloody clash on July 28 that left 37 civilians dead and 94 injured in the southern city of Yarkand. Some of the same officials were also penalized for “being accountable” for the assassination two days later of a pro-government imam outside the Id Kah Mosque, a 15th century landmark in the center of the Silk Road city of Kashgar, more than 120 miles away.
In the July 28 clash in Yarkand, also known as Shache in Mandarin, security forces shot and killed 59 assailants and arrested 15 others, according to Xinhua, which described the violence as a “premeditated and carefully planned” terror attack. (Levin, The New York Times, September 22)
Critics of the Chinese crackdown on separatist violence have noted that efforts to stem the violence through a series of reform laws constrain the free expression of cultural and religious distinctiveness, leaving the Uighur community in Xinjiang susceptible to recruitment by extremist elements:
House to house searches ransacked dwellings in searches for any proof of “conservative” Islamic beliefs. During Ramadan, Muslim students and civil servants were reportedly forced to eat, and to attend work or classes specifically timed at the midday prayer hour. The newspaper’s reporting team found that all internet service has been cut for weeks in several counties of Xinjiang, including texting. Foreigners are not just banned from the area, but detained if they even try to enter.’ (The Bangkok Post, September 22)
The most prominent of these Islamic separatist groups is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Though reports regarding the group’s control over those carrying out the attacks remain clouded by the Chinese media crackdown reporting events such as those this past weekend in Luntai County, ETIM is regarded as the driving force behind much of the violence. Reports of their international support network stretching to Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have affected Chinese national policy, especially with regard to Pakistan:
Some experts say ETIM is an umbrella organization for many splinter groups, including ones that operate in Pakistan and central Asia. The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), for instance, is one of the most prominent groups, formed in 2006 by Uighurs who fled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s. That group took credit for a series of attacks in several Chinese cities in 2008, including deadly bus explosions in Shanghai and Kunming. According to U.S.-based intelligence firm Stratfor, the TIP’s “claims of responsibility appear exaggerated, but the threat TIP poses cannot be ignored.” Stratfor also said that the TIP had expanded its presence on the Internet, issuing videos calling for a jihad by Uighurs in Xinjiang. Ben N. Venzke, head of the U.S.-based independent terrorism-monitoring firm IntelCenter, says it is unclear whether the TIP is separate from ETIM, but notes that the groups’ objectives are both Islamist and nationalist. (CFR.org, September 4)
Commentators and observers unfamiliar with the conflict in Xinjiang are attempting to catch up with years of unrest. Consequently, many have begun questioning whether the separatists in Xinjiang sustain any real affiliation with the Islamic State and the ongoing war in Syria and Iraq. Nick Holdstock of Vice News published an article on the issue this past week, specifically addressing the issue of Beijing’s characterization of Uighurs involved in the conflict in the Levant:
Even if it is confirmed that Uighurs are indeed fighting with IS, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are from Xinjiang.
“Some may have made the trip from Xinjiang,” Pantucci said, “but they could also be from the not insubstantial Uighur diasporas elsewhere around the globe — in particular in Turkey. This all needs to be borne in mind alongside the huge excitement and draw that there is towards Syria/Iraq/ISIS amongst the broader Sunni Muslim community.”
While China’s latest assertion about links between its citizens and international Muslim extremist organizations remains as yet unsubstantiated, it’s significant that it was delivered during the same week that the government announced the sentencing of the Uighur economist Ilham Tohti. He received a life sentence for inciting “separatism,” though his defenders note that all he had actually done was encourage a discussion of the regional grievances motivating violent outbursts like the Kunming attacks.
“The best thing would be for the authorities to take a step back and examine what drives people to such desperation in the first place,” Tohti remarked late last year, after a suicide car crash in Tiananmen Square was attributed to Uighur extremism.
By sentencing a peaceful critic of its policies so harshly, China’s government clearly intends to signal that it will not tolerate opposition to its policies in Xinjiang. But if the government continues to reject any form of dialogue between disenfranchised Uighur communities in Xinjiang and itself, the threats it claims to face could become even greater than it already fears. (Holdstock, Vice News, September 25)
For policy makers in Beijing, the geopolitical value of Xinjiang is multi-faceted. Not only is the region a pivotal location through which China can transport important natural resources from Central Asia and Russia, Xinjiang also has geostrategic value for Chinese security forces which have used improved infrastructure such as roads to contain an ebbing and flowing separatist campaign in Tibet.
Further, high value for Chinese national interest exists in China’s effort to ensure long-term cooperative agreements with several Central Asian states, the most important of which appears to be Kazakhstan. The relationships Beijing has (and will continue) to facilitate with countries such as Kazakhstan represent long-term strategic planning to ensure access to much-needed energy resources as China’s population booms and technology inspires the need for oil and gas.
Recent Chinese-sponsored and run infrastructural improvement projects inside Kazakhstan appear to support Chinese strategic policy in this regard. Connecting China with resource rich Central Asia ensures long-term access to valuable natural resources, the most important of which are oil and gas. As China’s need for energy grows to levels that outstretch its national supply and deposits, Beijing will increasingly look to Central Asia in order to satisfy demand. Recently, Beijing’s 30-year, $400 billion gas deal with Russia ensured a modicum of supply as China’s demand rises. The deal has altered the dynamic of the international security landscape as well as had an affect on international energy markets:
While “Russia has historically shunned China,” this deal represents a turning point in Sino-Russian relations, Goodrich said—not necessarily making them political allies, but at least making them significant economic partners. She said that Russia has had a “historical nervousness of having China inside the country,” but sanctions from the West have forced that to change in a “big, big way.”
Now China will not only have an energy partnership with Russia, but Beijing is also in talks to acquire a stake in Gazprom’s Vladivostok liquefied natural gas terminal and a 19 percent stake in Russian oil company Rosneft, according to Stratfor. (Everett Rosenfeld, CNBC, May 22)
While the geopolitical impact of the escalating violence remains high, the consequences for an eroding security structure in the province stretch outward to impact other national economies. Further, inducement for Beijing to quel the violence is burgeoned by the deal for Russian gas supplies:
Just four months after signing a U.S. $400-billion (2.4- trillion yuan) deal to supply gas to China through a 4,000- kilometer (2,485-mile) East Siberian pipeline, Russia is promoting plans for a second line from the west that officials say could be agreed upon soon.
At a ceremony marking the start of the eastern pipeline project in the Russian city of Yakutia on Sept. 1, President Vladimir Putin and Alexei Miller, CEO of state-owned Gazprom, voiced their readiness to develop the western route to Xinjiang, known as the Altai pipeline.
“If Gazprom works closely with CNPC (China National Petroleum Corp.)–and Gazprom is ready to do this–then we will be able to sign a contract during the meeting between our heads of state in the month of November,” Miller said, according to Interfax.
Putin said the western project could be carried out “even more quickly” than the one in the east, while Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli noted that the route could tap more gas reserves from West Siberian fields. (Radio Free Asia, September 22)
Beijing’s investment in ensuring the security of its bristling northwestern province is high. However, the jury is out on whether the most recent attacks, the resulting security operations, and the crackdowns on religious and cultural freedoms in Xinjiang will inspire a reduction in violence or catalyze wider insurrection. Assessing the intensification of the conflict over the past 12 months leads many to the conclusion that what is past is indeed only prologue.