Sunday, September 19, 2004

Separatism and the War on Terror

A while back I blogged about Xinjiang, an autonomous region of China. Xinjiang is on the westernmost part of China, putting it next door to the "-Stans" (Muslim republics that broke away from the Soviet Union). The population is largely Muslim (called Uighurs), and separatist groups have taken inspiration from the "-Stans" and have pushed for independence. China has tried to develop Xinjiang in order to encourage loyalty. However, Beijing is also trying to subdue separatists through a number of initiatives. They have tried to draw the Muslim republics into China's sphere of influence, allowing them to join the "Shanghai Five". Futhermore, China has worked to label the separatists as terrorists, thus enlisting the help of the US and allowing them freedom to combat separatism. According to the analysis of ISN, China's "war on terror" also fits into its long term plans to dominate Central Asia and to draw closer to Pakistan, one of Asia's three (or more) nuclear powers.
China's anxiety over the Xinjiang region was more in line with the interests of the Central Asian states, and Beijing was able to use this convergence of concerns to increase its regional profile. In June 2001, Uzbekistan was admitted to the Shanghai Five, which then evolved into a permanent group called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.). The coalition worked to prevent Kazakh and Uighur separatists from using Asian states as a safety zone to plot separatist activities, and it established an anti-terrorist center in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan where the member states could better coordinate their efforts. ...

After11 September 2001, Washington's priorities quickly changed in Central Asia, as fighting Islamic terrorist networks tied to al-Qaida became a top priority. The US established bilateral agreements with the member states of the SCO ... . Beijing began to worry that its "strategic competitor" was pursuing a long-term strategy to contain or encircle China's activities on its western border. In this new environment, China tried to link its efforts to suppress the Uighur separatists to Washington's "war on terrorism" as a means of engaging the Bush administration with the hopes of maintaining its prominent role in Central Asia. On 12 October 2001, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said, "We hope that our fight against the East Turkestan [Xinjiang] forces will become part of the international effort against terrorism."

Washington dismissed the ties between Uighur separatists and al-Qaida in an effort to isolate China's interests from those of the other SCO members. In October 2001, President Bush said that China should not attempt to use the "war on terrorism" as an "excuse to persecute minorities". However, since the US reengagement of the region, Beijing and Washington have established closer ties, largely for economic reasons, and the Bush administration gradually allowed its interests to shift towards those of China in return for cooperation on intelligence and anti-terror initiatives. Some analysts believe that Beijing is cooperating to gain concessions on Taiwan, Tibet and the Xinjiang region. ...

This new relationship with China has increased the importance for Washington to distinguish between violent militant groups and peaceful independence movements. It is in Washington's interests to root out those groups that have a history of cooperation with terrorist organizations outside of China's borders, but it is also important that peaceful independence movements are given tacit backing from Washington. This maintains pressure on China for concessions on human rights issues important to Washington, as well as weakening China's control of its periphery regions - a strategic importance should a conflict occur between the two states in the long term. Beijing has received Washington's cooperation in dismantling groups such as the United Revolutionary Front of Eastern Turkestan ...; the Wolves of Lop Nor ...; and the Uighur Liberation Organization, where the group's dispersion throughout Central Asia has allowed it to assassinate Uighurs viewed to be cooperating with the government of China. However, other groups, such as the East Turkestan National Congress and the Regional Uighur Organization, have received tacit and financial support from Washington. The Uighur American Association was the recipient of a grant from the US-government-funded National Endowment for Democracy - a first for a Uighur exile group.

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