On Point: China's Strategic Challenges Go Well Beyond the Uighurs

by Austin Bay
July 15, 2009

Rioting last week between ethnic Han Chinese and ethnic Uighurs in China's Xinjiang Province left 180 people dead and 1,000 injured. Chinese police and paramilitary forces arrested 1,500.

The Beijing government insistently weighs media coverage of China. The ethnic clashes so troubled Chinese President Hu Jintao that he left the G-8 economic summit. Hu's hasty departure, in front of the cameras of every global news organization, indicates how serious the Chinese government views the violence in its far northwestern province.

Though officially designated the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the region is not autonomous and, as time passes, less Uighur.
Beijing dominates provincial politics, which is one reason the region's 9 million Uighurs chafe. For the Turkic and predominantly Sunni Muslim Uighurs, Beijing's policy of "Sinicization" is a key source of friction. The policy promotes the centralization of Chinese state authority on China's periphery, in the "delicate" border areas that make Beijing very nervous.

The migration of ethnic Han Chinese is another facet. The Han and Han sub-groups are the dominant ethnic group in China, and to ethnic Uighur activists, the slow but massive Han migration into Xinjiang amounts to cultural and ethnic drowning, and eventual Uighur assimilation as the Han population swells.

The Tibetans make the same accusation for the same reasons.
Tibetans have rioted -- in 2008, 200 Tibetans died in a Beijing-ordered crackdown.

Uighurs, like Tibetans, have had their own state. An East Turkestan Republic briefly existed in the 1940s as distracted Chinese nationalists and communists fought the Japanese and their own civil war. The victorious communist army returned in 1949, and East Turkestan disappeared from the map. It has not disappeared from Uighur memory, however, as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) indicates.

ETIM is a testament to Uighur desperation. It is an al-Qaida affiliate. Radical Islamists offer money, weapons training and promises.
Follow Osama bin Laden, and when he establishes the global caliphate, Islamist Uighurs will rule a revived East Turkestan, just like Spanish Muslims will reconquer Spain. The four recently released Guantanamo Bay Uighurs (arrested in Afghanistan, now starting a restaurant in Bermuda) likely fell for such propaganda.

In the wake of the riots, al-Qaida's North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is threatening to attack Chinese workers in Africa. The Uighurs have received some ethnic support from very distant but concerned cousins. A senior Turkish government official has demanded that Turks boycott Chinese-made goods because of the Chinese crackdown. Turkey has a record for supporting the rights of ethnic Turkic peoples throughout Asia.

Turkey is also a member of NATO -- an American audience may not immediately note that fact, but Beijing's foreign ministry does.

Which leads to the strategic issues that pulled President Hu from the G-8 summit.

As the minorities on the periphery see it, China's "Han core" is fighting a slow war of expansion. Beijing, however, scans its borders and sees challenges and threats. Vietnam remains a latent enemy. In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a brief but bloody border war. The South China Sea is a potential war zone, as Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, China and -- yes -- Taiwan -- have conflicting claims. Taiwan is an armed thorn.
Beijing's generals have been telling the world the mainland will acquire Taiwan -- preferably by diplomacy, but by force if required.

The Koreas pose problems. North Korean nukes rattle East Asia.
China fears a collapse in Pyongyang would have dire economic consequences but -- worse, from Beijing's perspective -- could produce a United Korea.
Imagine a super-South Korea, modern, wealthy, militarily capable and biting into China like a bulldog.

Japan, Russia, Mongolia: The Japanese are ancient antagonists, Russia occupies Siberia (which China claims the czars stole), and the Mongols want to be U.S. allies.

As for Central Asian Turkic peoples, Beijing fears the collapse of the Soviet Union is not complete, at least in terms of ethnic political aspirations. The Uighurs are symptomatic.

China's absorption of Tibet remains incomplete, and south of Tibet lies India. India and China fought a war in 1962.

China's Han? Perhaps the core is not so solid. Chinese Han regions (e.g., Guangdong in the south) see differences in language, culture, history and economic development.

President Hu, call your office.


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