China and the Importance of Xinjiang

July 10th, 2009

Chinese President Hu Jintao bailed out of the G-8 summit on Wednesday to return to China, in order to deal with the continued unrest and security crackdown in the northwestern Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. While the unrest there is a major security concern, China is not necessarily worried about the Xinjiang violence spreading like wildfire across the country, or even jumping provincial borders like the 2008 Tibet protests did.

If there is one thing Beijing is adept at, it is quashing local unrest — particularly unrest in far-off provinces populated with ethnic minorities who, at least according to some Chinese reporting, have links to international terrorists and are being instigated and manipulated by outside “splittist” forces.

Xinjiang, like its neighbor Tibet, is one of China’s ethnic “autonomous” regions; a province that officially allows special social, religious and even political rights for the ethnic minorities native to the region. However, in both Xinjiang and Tibet, these privileges are not always evenly applied, if they are applied at all. As a way to prevent these ethnic communities from attempting true autonomy or even secession, Beijing has followed a policy of internal migration, moving the majority Han Chinese into these ethnic regions to dilute the population — a tactic first seen four decades ago. These Han settlers are given economic incentives and at times come to dominate certain segments of the local economy and political machinery. In addition, they begin to change the ethnic balance of the region over time.

In Xinjiang, for example, Han Chinese now make up some 39 percent of the total population (which includes ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and Tajiks, among others). Compared to the Uighurs, however, there are now nearly as many Han, and in the capital Urumqi, Han outnumber Uighurs by nearly 3 to 1. This reality has created its own tensions, as the Uighurs feel discriminated against in their own homeland. Elsewhere in China, however, Uighurs (along with other ethnic minorities) are given other privileges, and recent government attempts to deal with economic disparities by moving the Uighurs to jobs in eastern China — where the economic downturn is cutting into existing work — are exacerbating existing antipathy by the Han toward the Uighurs. These social tensions usually remain beneath the surface, or at least relatively under control, until something sparks the latent uneasiness and clashes break out.

Despite the immediate sense of crisis, Beijing has shown itself quite capable, through the use of overwhelming force if necessary, of dealing with isolated or localized crises. Tibet was calm by the time the Olympics rolled around last year. Xinjiang likely will be pacified in the next few weeks as well, placing a lid back on the boiling cauldron.

China has strategic issues at stake in Xinjiang. The province, like Tibet, is one of the vast buffer zones shielding the core of China from an invasion by foreign hordes — or their ideas. But Xinjiang also has long served as a key route for Chinese commerce: the Silk Road. Throughout Chinese history, various dynasties have reached out west, seeking to maintain a grip over the dusty trails between cities and oases linking China to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. China defended these routes from the Mongols in the north, the Central Asians and even the Tibetans, who would occasionally ride down from the plateau to seize the profitable passages. These trade routes, in fact, were so useful in supplying China with anything it could not find or produce at home that China’s history is often lacking in any major naval presence — there just wasn’t a pressing economic need for a navy when western land routes were so vibrant.

As China entered the modern era, the importance of the Silk Road routes faded as sea commerce became the dominant form of its economic intercourse with the world. From the foreign treaty ports to the booming coastal cities like Shanghai and Qingdao or manufacturing hubs in Guangdong, China now looks more and more to the seas for its economic lifelines — and, by extension, is beginning to put more emphasis on its naval development. But this is also exposing China’s weakness: The seas are vast, and U.S. forces patrol them. In theory, at least, China’s maritime trade routes are rather vulnerable, and Beijing has grown more dependent upon these sea routes for vital commodities (energy not the least among them) and export markets.

This had led Chinese strategists to look back to the old days, to the old Silk Road routes, as a way to preserve economic security. Central Asia has vast energy resources, and the oil and natural gas doesn’t have to be loaded into tankers and shipped by sea. Instead, it is moved by pipeline in a steady flow to China’s booming coast. And the gateway to Central Asia is Xinjiang. This reinforces Beijing’s perceived need to keep the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities under control.

Attributed to

10th July 09

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