On Thursday, May 22nd, two sport utility vehicles pulled into a popular market in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang Province in northwest China. As the vehicles swung through the open street area teeming with elderly shoppers, occupants inside tossed explosive devices into the crowded streets. After exhausting their supply of hand-tossed explosives, the attackers committed a suicidal attack, detonating massive devices installed in the vehicles themselves. Four of the attackers were confirmed dead immediately following the attack while a fifth was taken into custody by Chinese authorities on May 23rd. In all, 39 people were killed and around 100 more were wounded. Witness accounts of the attack alluded to a scene reminiscent of those in Baghdad throughout the height of the war in Iraq:

Some of the photos circulating on social media suggested a hellish scene, with bodies strewn on the ground amid burning wreckage. Others showed flames and smoke billowing out of the end of a tree-lined street guarded by police. (CNN, May 23)

On May 23rd, Beijing issued an official statement declaring its policy intent in response to the attacks in Urumqi:

Without any details, the report said authorities had undertaken a “one-year crackdown on violent terrorist activities” in the volatile region after blasts in the heavily policed city of Urumqi killed at least 39 people and wounded more than 90, according to state media. The number of dead does not include the attackers. (CNN, May 23)

On June 4th, nine ethnic Uighurs were sentenced to death by a Chinese court after being found guilty of terrorism charges. On June 11th, Chinese police shot dead five ethnic Uighurs in Konasheher County in southern Xinjiang. One police officer was killed in the battle. Igniting the clash was the lifting of a Uighur woman’s veil during a house check last week.

Earlier in 2014, an attack in Kunming on March 1 left 29 dead, to include 14 of the perpetrators. The incident in Urumqi on May 22nd is only the latest in a escalating series of attacks seemingly emanating from a restive insurrectionist segment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang. Officially an autonomous region in northwestern China, Xianjiang has been increasingly the location of targeted Chinese government crackdowns in response to a burgeoning insurrectionist Uighur separatist movement. On October 28, 2013, a car laden with explosives and occupied by three ethnic Uighurs crashed into the Tiananmen Square gate just below a portrait of Mao Zedong. The car’s explosives detonated upon impact,  killing all three occupants and two bystanders. More than three dozen bystanders were badly injured. The Chinese government immediately moved to blackout media coverage of the incident but social media web sites began to distribute images of the wreckage. Most of the social media sharing those images were soon shut down.

Urumqi - Photo courtesy of Alexander Flühmann
Urumqi – Photo courtesy of Alexander Flühmann

Insurrectionist activity had begun spiraling upward in the weeks leading up to the attack on May 22. The explosions on May 22nd in Xinjiang marked only the latest of attacks in what is increasingly a hotbed of anti-Chinese insurrectionist activity in recent years. On May 1st, two men characterized as “religious extremists” detonated explosives in a suicide attack, killing one person and wounding at least 79 others.

Reports of ethnic Uighurs involved in insurgent activities in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have elicited fears that militants in Xinjiang are constructing relationships in international jihadist circles that could assist in connecting insurgent nodes in Xinjiang with well-financed and supported international terrorist networks. By facilitating associations with key leaders of international jihadist groups such as the Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Al Qaeda, the insurrectionist campaign in Xinjiang could sustain a sizeable international logistical support network, ensuring the ability to acquire weapons and training for attacks against the Chinese government inside China. Recently, some lenders in China have been advised to cease doing business with Afghan interests, largely out of fear that money flowing between the countries is being funneled to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

It was not immediately clear whether authorities in Beijing had evidence that the Afghan banking system was being used to channel funds to groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). But such a clampdown would mark a new front in Beijing’s battle with groups such as ETIM, which it says are separatists seeking to form their own state that have been responsible for many of the militant attacks to have hit Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. China is also concerned over reports that there are hundreds of Uighur separatists hiding in the lawless tribal region straddling Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan who have repeatedly vowed to attack Chinese targets from their hideouts. ETIM was designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States in 2002, and China has said before that it has proof that ETIM fighters have received training in Afghanistan. (Reuters, May 24, 2014)

ETIM, based in North Waziristan, Pakistan, has long been accused of having extensive ties to The Haqqani Network and other insurgent groups in Pakistan:

To pacify China’s concerns, Pakistan has already clamped down on Uighur settlements besides proceedings against the religious schools in Waziristan which are being used as training grounds for the Chinese militants.

When 20 people were killed in a terrorist attack in the Xinjiang province in July 2011, the Chinese authorities had criticised Pakistan’s failure to crack down on the Uighur rebels as well as their training camps. The Chinese media alleged that those who conducted the 2011 attacks in the Kashgar city had received training in the Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan.

Well placed diplomatic circles in Islamabad say the release of the video by the Chinese separatists would exert further pressure on Islamabad to uproot the ETIM/TIP network from Waziristan, as had been repeatedly promised in the past, especially after the July 2011 terror attack in Kashgar. In the training video, the children, some of whom appear to be no older than six, are shown firing handguns, AK-47 assault rifles and a machine-gun from various positions.

At one point, 13 Uighur children are seen firing AK-47s while standing and lying down. As the children fire their weapons, the black flag of the Taliban and a light blue banner used by the Turkistan Islamic Party can be seen flying in the background. (The News International, April 27, 2013)

Interesting reports regarding Uighur presence northeastern Afghanistan have also surfaced recently. Local Taliban officials, seemingly substantiating the presence of the group in the remote northeastern Afghanistan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, have acknowledged the presence of ethnic Uighurs in the area. Statements from the same Taliban leaders number the Uighurs in the two Afghan provinces at 250:

New ISIS video targets China, shows Chinese Muslims fighting in Iraq

Read Next: New ISIS video targets China, shows Chinese Muslims fighting in Iraq

According to Afghan Taliban sources, there are about 250 Uighur militants in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces.

“They live here with us but are always concerned about their people and mission in China. They are nice people, good Muslims and the best fighters,” a senior Taliban commander said.

He added that Uighur militants were not fond of guns, and resorted mostly to knives and daggers.

China has stepped up security in Xinjiang after a vehicle ploughed into tourists on the edge of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October, killing the three people in the car and two bystanders. China labeled it a suicide attack by militants from the region. (Mehsud and Golovnina, Reuters, May 14)

China’s investment in Pakistan, particularly deals to assist Islamabad with the construction of two ACP-1000 nuclear power plants in Karachi and the sale of six Chinese submarines by the end of 2014, could be construed as inducements to focus more military and intelligence services assets on groups in Pakistan that are harboring and training Uighur militants from Xinjiang.

Xianjiang, the northwestern most province in modern China, is administered by Beijing as an autonomous region. The region is home to China’s Uighur population, an ethnic group distinguished from the Chinese majority Han largely by the group’s Muslim religion and their Turkish ethnic roots.More than 10 million Uighurs reside in Xinjiang, comprising nearly 50% of the population. For Beijing, Xinjiang represents a a key line of communication to Tibet in the south and the states of Central Asia in the west. Recent Chinese government trade agreements with neighboring Kazakhstan highlight the importance of Xinjiang, which shares its western border with the country. Kazkhstan and China have cooperated on a pipeline connecting the two countries:

JSC NC “KazMunayGas” together with China National Petroleum Corporation conducts work on the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline construction project the implementation of which made it possible to ensure the capability of raw hydrocarbons supply from the West Kazakhstan deposits to the promising market of China. First of all the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline construction project is aimed at diversifying oil transportation directions under implementation of the policy of creation of a multi-vector system for transportation of hydrocarbons of independent Kazakhstan. (Kazakhstan-China Oil Pipeline, KMG EP)

Most of the ethnic Uighur population (43% of nearly 22 million people residing in Xinjiang) reside in the southern half of Xinjiang. This area of the province shares important borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan (via the Wakhan Corridor of northeastern Badakhshan Province), Pakistan, and India. Of particular importance in China’s long term geostrategic planning in Xinjiang’s border with India. In particular, China’s ongoing dispute with India over Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin has highlighted a more aggressive Chinese foreign policy, one that has been more willing to engage in territorial disputes in the furthering of Chinese strategic interests. I will explore the strategic implications of Chinese interest in Xinjiang in part two of this series.

Covering more than 1.6 million square kilometers, the Xinjiang region is home to vast deposits of minerals and other resources. Of particular interest to the Chinese government is Xinjiang’s natural gas and oil deposits. In 2010, Beijing leveled a 5% tax on all business dealings related to natural gas and oil in Xinjiang. A 1999 estimate of natural resources in the region burgeons the assessment that Beijing’s motivation in ensuring their control over the region is based on access to potentially valuable commodities:

The province is relatively undeveloped, with substantial quantities of mineral resources… It has the largest reserves of oil, natural gas and coal in the country.  Its coal reserves amount to 27 million tons (40 per cent of the country’s total) and oil reserves amount to 30 billion tons.  Crude oil output, which reached 17.4 million tons in 1999, was the third highest in the country.  The oil and gas reserves found in Tarim, Junggar and Turpan-Hami basins in the region account for one-fourth and one-third, respectively, of the country’s total.

Xinjiang’s reserves of mineral resources are also substantial.  The region’s reserves of beryllium and mica are the highest in China.  Some of the region’s granite products such as “Xinjiang Red,” Tianshan White” and “Snowflower Black” are famous brands in the country.  The country’s largest copper mine is also found in Xinjiang. (The Australia-China Chamber of Commerce and Industry of New South Wales).

A geoscientific research project, funded by State Key Laboratory of Geological Processes and Mineral Resources at the China University of Geosciences, analyzed mineral deposits in depth in the region of Xinjiang and concluded, interestingly, that among the more valuable resource materials in the region is uranium. In a paper titled “A Review of Mineral Systems and Associated Tectonic Settings of Northern Xinjiang, NW China”, the authors make particular mention of a significant uranium deposit near Urumqi, the site of recent attacks against the Chinese government:

…studied and reported on sandstone-hosted roll-front type uranium deposits in Xinjiang. Three of these deposits, Wuyer, Wuyisan and Wuyiyi, are located near the Kazakhstan border in what the authors refer to as YL Basin (Yili) and a fourth in the Turpan Basin, about 200 km southeast of Urumqi. (Pirajno, Seltmann, and Yang, A Review of Mineral Systems and Associated Tectonic Settings of Northern Xinjiang, NW China, 2011)

China’s recent energy deal with Russia, a 30 year trade agreement worth $400 billion, assures China of a source of natural gas for the foreseeable future. As demonstrated by a map by The Washington Post, a pipeline from Turkmenistan could transport the gas through Urumqi as it moves eastward towards its destinations in the more densely populated areas of China along the Pacific coast line. As Russia has become a more assertive international actor in the past two years, so has China begun acting with a more muscled approach in places such as the East China Sea. An interesting point in the timeline of the deal between the two rising powers is when Moscow suddenly lowered the cost of the gas in the wake of sanctions on the country after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. As William Wan and Abigail Hauslohner note for The Washington Post:

“This is the largest contract in the history of the gas industry of the former USSR and the Russian Federation,” Putin told reporters in Shanghai. The infrastructure costs to develop the natural gas fields needed to supply China will top those of the Sochi Games — which are believed to have been in the tens of billions of dollars, officials said.

But the missing price details raised the suspicions of some Russians, who suspect Putin dropped the price of gas significantly for China in a desperate maneuver to ensure a steady cash flow for Gazprom in the face of sinking revenue and Western sanctions. (Wan and Hauslohner, The Washington Post, May 21)

As Ishan Tharoor observes, the marginalization of the Uighur population by the government in Beijing is compounded by the international nature of the issue of the separatist campaign in Xinjiang:

Chinese government white papers point to the considerable economic and infrastructure developments brought about by Beijing in the region — which is rich in resources and sits at a strategic crossroads between China and Central Asia. Clearly, that’s a narrative not accepted by all Uighurs.

While their disaffection remains palpable — and many observers call for a liberalization of Chinese policy in the region rather than an inevitable, harsh crackdown — the Uighurs also have very little leverage. While well-known, their plight is hardly a cause celebre internationally, and few regional governments would risk trade ties and other diplomatic links with China over the rights of one marginalized minority. In the past, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed solidarity with the Turkic Uighurs, but even he sees little point in compromising relations with the world’s next superpower, and promised China’s President Xi Jinping on a visit in 2012 that Turkey would not allow any Uighur separatist activity to take place on its soil. (Tharoor, The Washington Post, May 22, 2013)

The uprising in Xinjiang, while in no way resembling the more violent insurgencies in Mogadishu, Aleppo, or even Donetsk, remains a tinderbox. As the Chinese government pursues a more muscular foreign policy, one augmented by a national security strategy that relies more heavily on the implementation of military and police forces in support of the government’s more aggressive international posture, it will be wary of igniting a wider conflict. The government in Beijing will pursue policies that would contain the conflict inside Xinjiang while simultaneously working to cut off support for the active insurgent nodes in the region.

The nexus of the conflict lies in Beijing’s rising demand for resources and the geographical value of Xinjiang. On the latter point, its importance is in Xinjiang’s necessity as a hub on a vital resource transport line. China’s ability to both import and export natural resources will be a determining factor in the country’s ability to meet the demand of a growing population and sustain economic growth. China’s future pivots solidly on Beijing’s ability to ensure access to resources for purposes of consumption and export. On the surface, the 30-year, $400 billion Russian-Chinese natural gas agreement would provide valuable energy resources for Chinese consumption as China begins to flex its muscle and attain regional hegemonic status in East Asia. However, as that gas would at least partially be transported through Urumqi and Xinjiang, Beijing is moving quickly to stamp out a rising tide of insurrection in the region.

The delicate balance between swift and assertive action to suppress an escalating insurrection in Xinjiang and the risk of inspiring a widened insurgency will be a tightrope that Beijing would be well-advised to walk with great care. Sparks and tinderboxes are natural enemies.

(Featured map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)