China divided: Beijing struggles for control

China divided: Beijing struggles for control

The 60th anniversary of the establishment of the autonomous region of Xinjiang has been saluted by Beijing as a great step toward a stronger national unity. However, rising tensions and incidents seems to jeopardize Beijing’s control over one of its most strategic regions. 

This October, the massive celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Urumqi were disrupted by the dreadful news of an attack in a coal mine that is believed have claimed the lives of 50 workers.

The incident seems to be related to the separatist groups allegedly involved in several terrorist attacks both within the region and outside its border. According to Yu Zhengsheng, Chairman for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference present in Urumqi for the celebrations, Beijing will deploy additional military units to protect the Beijing’s strategic interests in the region and eradicate what it sees as three evils, “separatism, terrorism and extremism.”

Indeed, the reinforcement of the CCP’s control over ethnic groups and Muslim minorities in the area has increased since economic development has become the most urgent priorities for Beijing. Under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, the CCP has spared no efforts to eradicate any source of instability in the energy-rich Xinjiang region which plays a critical role for Beijing’s energy security strategy. The regions has an estimated 21 billion tons of oil reserves and also one of the largest coal and gas reserves in the country.

China’s restless demand for energy has risen dramatically in the last decade, transforming the country from net oil exporter in 1990’s to the world largest consumer. According to the current Chinese Five-year plan, oil imports are meeting 61% of internal demand in order to ensure a steady supply to its rampant resource-intensive industrial base.

However, enhancing the role of the Xinjiang region has been always an important goal for the CCP, and in order to pursue energy security goals in the last two decades, China has invested money and built a capillary network of infrastructure, transforming one of the most remote regions into a vital, strategic outpost for oil and gas extraction and transport.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Beijing’s strategic interests over such a remote region have also significantly increased, allowing Xinjiang to play a vital role as a bridgehead for promoting economic, diplomatic and security cooperation with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan even before the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 1996.

Source: Source: China Daily USA 11

Since the central government designated the region as one of the country’s five energy bases, an enormous amount of investment has flooded in. According to Beijing, more than 50 SOEs have invested in the construction of strategic facilities for the enhancement of hundreds of energy-related projects, totalling close to USD 300 billion. Foreign firms have also become more prevalent in the region.

From a strategic perspective, Xinjiang is the main door for precious oil supplies arriving from Central Asia. Several pipelines including the West-East Gas Pipeline which runs throughout the country are supplied in the Tarim and Ordos Basins, located in the southern part of the region. While Xinjiang does not represent one of the country’s largest hydrocarbon reserves, its petrochemical industry infrastructure is the main hub for the refinement and transit of the oil and gas entering to China from Central Asia.

However the existence of Uyghur ethnic minorities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan has created increasing concern to Beijing, whose strategy to contain and deter the radicalisation of Muslim minorities has become a source of political tensions in a region, where Beijing’s strategic interest could be seriously jeopardized.

Moreover, the region is more susceptible to extremism due to religious repression and the crackdown of Uyghur communities. Coupled with massive Han immigration, this has led to a profound resentment toward the central government.

Since 2001, Beijing has launched an extensive military campaign to neutralise separatist organisations considered terrorist groups trained in Afghanistan prior 9/11 who are active in the region. While China has pursed the agenda of replacing the former Soviet Union in the region, establishing strong ties with its neighbours, Beijing has not effectively provided any alternative model of integration and inclusion for the local minorities. Rather than launching campaigns to prevent the growth of separatism and terrorism it has pacified the region through harsh repression.

The growing insurgency and separatism in Xinjiang, strongly augmented by radical Islamist organisations present in the border areas, have been growing because hawkish repression by Beijing. This strategy could impose significant costs to the central government if insurgents were to start targeting energy infrastructure such as mines, pipelines and refineries, limiting or disrupting vital energy supplies in the country.

In order to avoid this, China has extensively relied on its police apparatus and marginalisation measures toward Uyghur minorities. This vision has, for some extent, prevented Beijing to employ more tolerant policies or even make few concessions toward Uyghur’s religious and economic claims.

Creating efforts to reduce the spread of anti-Chinese sentiment and separatism while isolating radical Islamic groups to mitigate the risk of potential attacks toward sensitive energy infrastructure would be the most viable tool for the CCP to prevent the destabilisation of the region and a domino-effect that would jeopardise core Chinese interests in Central Asia.

However, despite calls for unity, the Chinese political elites still perceive the region as a fundamental pillar of Beijing’s strategic power projection toward Central Asia and solving the Uyghur question does not seem to be one of the government’s priorities.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.