The China-Xinjiang-Central Asia Triangle: A Relationship beyond Economics and Religion
Tejusvi Shukla

Over 50 countries in a joint statement condemned China’s alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang on 31st October, 2022. Yet again, none of the Muslim-majority countries from Central Asia which share both religious and ethnic ties with Xinjiang were signatories to this joint statement. Apart from the Chinese big pockets in the region, which are popularly considered as the sole reason behind the silence of Central Asian Republics on the issue, a long and nuanced history interacting with diverse contemporary dynamics that lie at the root of this have been deprived its due attention. Any analysis of the same shall broadly consider three independent, yet interdependent actors – China, Xinjiang, and Central Asian Republics.

The policy of the People’s Republic of China in Xinjiang has evolved over these seven decades, and by implication, so has its policy with the Central Asian Republics. The relationship between the three shall be looked at as a triangular one with Xinjaing at the apex of this relationship based on ensuring regional security and attempting de-Islamisation (or at least controlling growth of radical Islam). While this relationship has now evolved to include economic interdependence, energy security of China, as well as a battle of power rivalry between the United States and China, this relationship continues to hold its foundations in the security arena. In understanding this, it becomes pertinent to examine the history of Xinjiang and its interaction with both China proper and the Central Asia Republics.

It must be noted that Xinjiang was never a part of China proper – either geographically or culturally/ethnically – until the 18th century when it was occupied by the then Chinese ruler. However, despite the occupation, resistance for independence was ongoing so much so that two times in history – 1930s and 1940s – an independent East Turkestan Republic was formed in Xinjiang until it was re-occupied in 1949 after the Communists won the civil war.[1] Xinjiang, at this point, held one-sixth of China’s geographically territory, and despite sitting over a host of mineral wealth as well as the connecting point to Central Asia and West Asia in terms trade route, was the poorest of China’s provinces. The Sino-Soviet split in 1960 further resulted in a crippled economy in Xinjiang which continued till the 1990s after the independence of Central Asian Republics that resulted in the demilitarization of the Sino-Soviet borders. Meanwhile violent protests in Xinjiang continued. Over 19 revolts and 194 major incidents of violence occurred during 1957-80.[2]

While the Chinese were dealing with the restive province already, the 1990s brought three challenges at its doorstep – the rise of political Islam in and around Central Asia to fill the vacuum left by the Soviets; the aggravating Islamic movement in Afghanistan; and a consequently instilled confidence in the Xinjiang to fight for independence and form an Islamic Republic. Each of these motivated China to establish a regional security initiative with three Central Asian Republics under the Shanghai Five in 1996 – that became the predecessor to the 2001-Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The grouping focussed on recognizing three evils – radicalism, separatism and terrorism – as a regional threat and laid the foundation of a collective security agreement in the region. Following the 9/11 attacks, China merged its policy in Xinjiang with the Global War on Terror and identified itself as a “victim of terrorism at the hand of the Uyghur separatists” for a long time.[3] This was coupled with the idea of economic development of the province under the “go west” campaign based on the “double-opening” policy where Xinjiang was economically “opened” both to the Chinese mainland and Central Asia.[4]

Despite concerted efforts, incidents of violence continued with the bloodiest one recorded in 2009 riots in Urumqi. Following established links between Uyghur separatists with Al Qaeda and Taliban and a simultaneous growth in radical Islam in the region, China roughed up its control in Xinjiang and so-called re-education camps started appearing in 2014 (which were further expanded in 2017). It is notable that one major reason for engaging with the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan is also triggered by Beijing’s apprehensions about the Xinjiang’s stability in the contemporary scenario.

During this tumultuous history of evolving relationship of the China and Central Asian Republics with Xinjiang at the meeting point, four aspects may best define this mutual multilateral cooperation. One, the regimes in Central Asia fear separatist tendencies to spiral into their own territories. A consequent military cooperation between most of these countries with China only strengthens the rationale behind this argument. As traces of emerging Islamic tendencies in the region have begun challenging the ruling regimes, the threat has been recognized by most of these Republics. Two, in the region itself, ethnic tendencies are stronger than religious tendencies. Affinity to similar ethnicities historically holds much more importance than their Islamic identity. Three, fear of reciprocal treatment creates fear among countries. Kazakhstan, for example, has a sizeable Kazak population in Xinjiang. Any support to Uyghurs from Kazakhstan could result in Chinese wrath on Kazak population in Xinjiang – leading to a refugee problem in the country in the worst case. Four, and finally, economic interdependence in the contemporary times is certainly an unavoidable factor that restraints upsetting mutual relations.

Endnotes :

[1] Debata, M. R. (2015). Xinjiang in Central Asia’s Regional Security Structure, International Studies, 52(1–4), 53–65. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020881717721756
[2] Ibid.
[3] Tukmadiyeva, M. (2013), Xinjiang in China’s Foreign Policy toward Central Asia Connections: The Quarterly Journal, Retrieved August 24, 2022, from http://connections-qj.org/article/xinjiang-chinas-foreign-policy-toward-central-asia
[4] Li, M. (2016). From Look-West to Act-West: Xinjiang’s role in China–Central Asian relations. Journal of Contemporary China, 25(100), 515–528. https://doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2015.1132753

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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