Xinjiang – the spreading arc of instability
China’s troubled Xinjiang region shares borders with eight countries, which is perhaps one reason President Hu Jintao dropped out of the G8 summit to head home, underscoring the seriousness of the situation and the need to quickly bring the vast oil-rich region under control.
Xinjiang touches Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, besides the Tibet Autonomous Region.
China, as this piece for the Council on Foreign Relations points out, has long been concerned that these states on its periphery both in central and south Asia may be tempted to back a separatist movement in Xinjiang because of the Uighurs’ cultural ties to its neighbours.
To that extent it has cultivated close ties with some of these neighbours, even trying to promote direct trade between Xinjiang and the provinces of neighbouring countries just over the border.
In April this year, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region signed an agreement to establish friendly provincial relations with Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, according to this report in the state-run China Daily.
The two sides agreed to explore partnership in oil and gas resources, bilateral trade and agriculture besides vowing to accelerate work on a long-planned direct rail link.
More importantly, Pakistan’s ambassador to China, Masood Khan, who signed the agreement, said the two sides must deepen their partnership to oppose “terrorism, extremism and separatism.”
Beijing’s concerns over the instability in Pakistan especially in the NWFP spilling over into Xinjiang have frequently surfaced, although in perhaps characteristic style, they have gone about it in low-key manner, quite different from the Western approach.
In March this year, Xinjiang governor Nuer Baikeli, speaking on the margins of China’s annual parliament meeting said his region faced threats from violence rippling across south and central Asia. Militant attacks in Pakistan and even the one in Mumbai and the violence in Afghanistan showed Xinjiang had reason to fear, he said.
The links go back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. As the piece for the Council of Foreign Relations noted, many Uighurs travelled into Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s and 90s, where they were exposed to Islamic extremism.
China has worried ever since about the militants slipping in and out Xinjiang.
Pakistan’s Daily Times noted the Chinese concerns, but said Islamabad could only play a limited role given that it was itself fighting to regain control of its territory in the northwest from the militants.
[PHOTO: A boy runs past an overturned car just outside the Uighurs neighbourhood in Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region July 8, 2009. REUTERS/Nir Elias]