The Uyghur Predicament in Xinjiang
Of all the major non-Han ethnic groups including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tajiks, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang are one of the most important ethnic groups who are closely related to other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang and the rest of Central Asia. Eighty percent of Xinxiang’s Uyghur live in the Altishahr region which borders on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Apart from their Muslim identity they are most closely tied with the Uzbeks in Central Asia by their language which belongs to the Turkic family.
The language acts as the real barrier to assimilation of the Uyghurs into the national Chinese identity as most Uyghurs can’t understand Chinese and likewise the Chinese can’t understand the Uyghur language. The process of assimilation led by the state therefore included measures like augmenting the demographic profile of the region and educating Uyghurs in the Chinese language and launching a language reform program in 1950s when a new script for Uyghur based on modified Latin alphabets was created.
All this was viewed by the Uyghur as a Han Chinese imposition and was resisted. Eventually the ‘old script’ reappeared unofficially and the Uyghur started connecting more with the Muslim community. The genesis of the insurgency in Xinjiang therefore lies in this process of nationalism that seeks to build a monolithic society assimilating the Uyghur identity into the national Chinese identity while the reactionary Uyghur nationalism seeks to connect with the larger ‘Muslim Ummah.’ The Chinese dread the possibility of this Uyghur nationalism transforming itself into a more potent state-subverting Islamic nationalism and this core concern dictates their policy towards Afghanistan.
Chinese Security Imperative in Afghanistan
There is a tendency to see a distinction between Chinese security interests and Chinese economic interests in Afghanistan but this is not true as its economic interests are tied to its security interests and is a securitized economic engagement with Afghanistan. This is reflected in Beijing’s use of the economic pill in Xinjiang, the white paper on ‘History and Development of Xinjiang’ in 2003 specifically mentioned that the Central government planned for a growth rate of nine percent for the Xinjiang region as part of the great western development strategy and aimed to double its GDP in 2010 from what it was in 2000.
The Silk route initiative was part of that strategy to integrate and bring economic growth to the region. It is also a fact that the Chinese are wary of the security situation and have ended their investments in Afghanistan. The Chinese further worry about the insurgency and have refrained from making any further investments in Afghanistan and have put on hold the construction work of ongoing projects until they are sure of the emerging security situation.
Any insurgency needs a base area where it can incubate and grow, and China is well aware of the fact that the insurgents in Xinjiang find their support base across the borders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The narcotics trade is the financial lifeline of these activities and in this regard any surge in drug trafficking in Afghanistan directly impacts China.
Other Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, etc. have similar concerns regarding terrorism and drug trafficking. The Chinese therefore have a very strong security incentive to remain invested in Afghanistan and therefore despite its intention not to invest in Afghanistan there is a very high likelihood that they will remain invested there. While China’s anti-drug activity has been strong and there has been some cooperation in intelligence sharing and providing aid to other central Asian nations, these efforts face complexity because many Central Asian nations don’t have their writ running over their entire territory and even within Central Asian nations there is lack of cooperation as far as intelligence sharing goes. Some levels of anti-Chinese activity although not necessarily militant are tolerated in these countries as in the case of the activists affiliated with Rebiya Kadeer and Washington based Uyghur World Congress in Kazakhstan and the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan in Uzbekistan.
As American and NATO troops withdraw in coming months, it is absolutely impossible to extrapolate what the power configuration will be. It is interesting therefore that the creation of the Shanghai Five Group (which became the SCO) and the initiative that came about in 1996 occurred just when the Taliban were beginning to take control in Afghanistan including control of Kabul in 1996. Not surprisingly, China conducted business as usual even though they did not officially recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It reflects the flexible multi-pronged policy approach that China has towards Afghanistan and its intention to have room to maneuver in an unsure environment. This manifests its willingness to engage with any actor depending on the cost-benefit analyses.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has categorically ruled out putting boots on the ground in Afghanistan and that has been the official line since 2008 and like India does not seek involvement in the Afghan quagmire. However to make sure its defensive security interests are covered in Afghanistan it has resorted to a variety of options one of them being multilateral co-operation through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Are Pakistan and China on the same page?
Pakistan is indeed one of the most important neighbors of Afghanistan and has most closely linked religious and cultural ties with it. The Chinese are well aware of the influence Pakistan carries with some of the non-state actors who have networks across the border in Afghanistan and Pakistan especially in the FATA region. It is also true that Pakistan has somewhat less control on some of these actors. Some of these outfits like Tehreek-e-Taliban are on a outright collision course with it and there is a limit to which Pakistan can act against these outfits without agonizing the Pakhtun, Pashtun and the Pathan populace.
Pakistan interests lie in denying sanctuary to these non-state actors in Afghanistan but more importantly it is embroiled in a security dilemma in Afghanistan and views any rise of Indian influence in Afghanistan as a direct threat to its security. India has consulates in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, and for a country of the size of Afghanistan it is too much for Pakistan’s liking. Pakistan therefore has an offensive interest in one to support and foster insurgent groups (Afghan Taliban) in Afghanistan with which it has close ties so as to promote its agenda in Afghanistan and counter any kind of Indian influence whether generated through economic or developmental aid which aligns with its traditional objective of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan.
China has an absolute interest in Afghanistan to counter against the ills of extremism, terrorism, separatism, drug trafficking; its security and consequently economic interest lie in stabilizing and preventing a radical Islamist takeover of Afghanistan which is in direct contradiction to Pakistan’s relative interest in Afghanistan. It is remarkable in that both Kashmir and Xinjiang face threats and destabilization that emanate from the same Af-Pak theatre. In both cases the insurgencies import ‘political Islam’ to further their cause and both of these regions have their socio-cultural and economic situations that are very distinct from the metropolis or the mainland in their respective countries. Xinjiang in many ways is China’s Kashmir and therefore there is more strategic convergence of interest between India and China who have similar domestic security concerns regarding Afghanistan acting as conduit of extremist Islamist terror into their territories.
Chinese strategic thinking and implications for India
Despite this India should be wary of expecting this convergence to translate into any real cooperation on the ground in Afghanistan or for its full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. For China, Pakistan is an indispensable ally both in military and geostrategic terms which include Chinese investments in the Gwader port in Pakistan to mitigate its dependence on the Straits of Malacca for its energy needs. Pakistan is one of the prime markets for Chinese military hardware and equipment exports, and its need for Pakistan to crackdown on the militant outfits that cause trouble in Xinjiang compels it to have a cordial relationship with Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan is almost part of all multilaterals that have their attention focused on Afghanistan and many view ‘Af-Pak’ as one entity makes a strong rational for China to see it as a more potent actor in Afghanistan, even as India is sidelined because of Pakistani sensitivities regarding India’s participation in these multilaterals.
Besides there are material reasons why Pakistan holds importance for China which are pretty well known. Pakistan has been a voracious importer of Chinese arms and equipment; the militaries of the two countries have significant and numerous exchange visits at very senior levels and they have conducted numerous military exercises including counter-terrorism drills.
Since the strategic interests of each country in Afghanistan are different, to a large extent the first indicators towards the future security situation and stability in Afghanistan will come from the Bilateral Security agreement being negotiated between America and Afghanistan when it takes it full shape, and until then China will not make the mistake of putting all of its eggs in one basket. China’s first priority would be to seek a security architecture based on multilateral mechanisms and at the same time equip and train the Afghan National Army under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization to prevent a resurgent Taliban from gaining control without becoming directly embroiled in the Afghan quagmire, even as it sidelines India by honoring its commitment towards its ‘all weather’ friend.
It is therefore not surprising that the Chinese view any Indian military presence in Central Asia as ‘destabilizing’ the region and having a clear geopolitical purpose rather than a counter-terrorism purpose, aimed at Pakistan. If the situation deteriorates to the destabilizing non state actor’s benefit China could negotiate a deal with these non-state actors through the Pakistani establishment while at the same time deploying a paramilitary force or Chinese police, as some experts in the strategic community in China have suggested to safeguard its investments and installations). India can only articulate its interest in Afghanistan, in the Shanghai Co-operation Organization through Russia and it will be difficult for India to convince China to agree to its full membership in the SCO.
The one incentive it can give to China is by offering it a quid-pro-quo by giving it full membership to SAARC. In any case one must not forget that apart from India Pakistan also seeks full membership in the SCO. It is not going to be case that, on the parameters which Indian accession to the full membership of SCO is considered, and given Pakistan is not. Indian membership into the SCO will inevitably be accompanied with full membership of China’s ‘all weather ally.’ In that case the whole purpose and objective of joining SCO for India could be attenuated to some extent but a similar move can be made in the SAARC to nullify inclusion of China by inviting Japan to be a full member of SAARC on the same political parameters on which Chinese membership is considered. But for any of these efforts to succeed it must first bring Pakistan on board and assuage its security concerns regarding Indian engagement in Afghanistan.