Conversation: Uighur Separatism and Chinese Foreign Policy

MIN READJul 1, 2014 | 22:12 GMT

John Minnich:  Hi my name is John Minnich, I'm an East Asia analyst at Stratfor, and I'm joined today by Rodger Baker, the vice president of East Asia analysis. So, Rodger, we've been watching recently this apparent kind of explosion of activity all throughout the Muslim world, really centered in Iraq and Syria but with signs that there is potential connections to or at least sort of synergies with what's happening in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and that kind of raises the question to think about what's been happening in Xinjiang with the Uighur Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang over the last six to eight months. And this is particularly relevant, because on Saturday we have the five year anniversary of the 2009 Urumqi riots that killed about 200 civilians, which in a lot of ways marked the epitome of what I think is the previous paradigm in Xinjiang unrest, which is ethnic-based but essentially secular, without any kind of overt religious message.  So, the question is do we begin to see some kind of paradigm shift given what we've seen in Xinjiang over the last six months. And I would say there are two primary characteristics to that. One is that we've begun to see signs that ethnic unrest is spreading in a certain sense. So instead of it just being a Uighur-based thing we have recent events that suggest that Hui Muslims are also involved in some attacks.  Now, the second thing is that these attacks used to primarily target police forces in China, but now we see signs that they're spreading to Han civilians, both in Xinjiang and throughout China. What do you think?

Rodger Baker: Well I mean it's still kind of early to tell whether or not this has finally crossed over ethnic barriers. The attack in Yunong — there was some suggestion that the attackers, the Uighur attackers, may have had some ability to shelter from the local Hui population. We had the other attack in Guangdong, where it appears that it was Hui Muslims, based on what they were wearing, their dress. Interestingly, we haven't seen much since that attack giving any further details from the Chinese on really who it was or who they caught in that operation.

John: I guess, though, it raises the question of the degree of coordination between these attacks. Now, in the past what we've mostly identified is that you have a variety of very, very localized issues, you know, in specific towns in Xinjiang, but do we start to see signs that you know within Xinjiang and within China that there is a little bit more coordination, potentially signs of organization. And is that organization based in Xinjiang, or is it coming from somewhere else?

Rodger: Well, I think one of the things you have to look at first is methodology and targets. So, in some ways the methodology has been very similar to what they've done in the past. They've used vehicles, they've used knives, maybe some small explosives. We've seen them up the types of explosive they're using. Most interesting though is the shift in targets, as you noted, particularly to transportation infrastructure: hitting at infrastructure, hitting at rail areas, and then hitting at marketplaces, which is isn't completely off of what they've done in the past, but certainly is very far superior targeting. 

John: Marketplaces with Han Chinese.

Rodger: That suggests either coordination in the planning process, or a similar source of inspiration. In other words, there are numerous methods of distributing both propaganda and methodologies that are going through the Islamic world on how to carry out attacks, how to carry out certain targeting, what types of bombs to build and things of that sort. We've noticed for example, Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) which is in some sense the successor to East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has claimed credit for an attack in Xinjiang but hasn't necessarily claimed credit for the attacks in the other places.

John: Right.

Rodger: It doesn't mean they didn't do it. 

John:  But just for clarity, TIP, ETIM, these are the organizations that we're familiar with as kind of militant groups based out of or operating in Xinjiang. But we also know that they have historical connections to al Qaeda, to groups in Afghanistan. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rodger:  Well, both ETIM and its successor TIP, originate outside of Xinjiang, not really inside Xinjiang when they took their more concrete form, and it was because they were unable to really rally and push for their ideas inside of China. Both are more Islamic-based than purely ethnically-based. A lot of what we say that takes place in Xinjiang is primarily ethnic. Even though the militant activity is more about ethnic and socio-economic differences, than about the pan-Islam. ETIM, TIP have connected early on to al-Qaeda to other groups. We see them primarily training in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We've seen them be individuals active in Syria, in Iraq, in all of these places. And they're connecting into the broader ideology which in some ways reaches its sort of pinnacle in what we're seeing in ISIS.

John: So, given these connections we're beginning to see, how does that affect the Chinese government's response? What do we expect from the Chinese government going forward? I mean we know that after this sort of spate of attacks over the last eight months, we did have Beijing come out and in May announce a year-long anti-terror campaign, and this is something that, you know, insofar as there have always been security efforts, very strong security efforts, but we've never seen it codified in quite the same way and we've never really seen the government before identify this as a religious extremist issue in quite the overt way that they're doing now. What do you think that means or implies about a shift in the way Beijing's going to approach it going forward?

Rodger: Well, it's a real challenge for China. Traditionally, China has had some concerns about say cross-border elements. When ETIM obviously put Turkestan rather than just Uighuran, it connected it to the central Asian militancies and the Chinese were very nervous about that sort of broader-based element. They used the shanghai cooperation organization and other interaction with the central Asian states to really step up anti-terrorism cooperation, anti-terrorism training and things of that sort to try to keep it down. The challenge for China though I think is that in the past, China really hasn't been targeted or identified as a potential target by anyone other than primarily the Uighurs. It really hasn't been seen (outside of Xinjiang) as the place that people need to target. They’re more focused on both the local regimes in the Middle East and the United States, and maybe some European nations. We're starting to see China here in videos starting to appear in Islamist propaganda as another one of these countries that is oppressing Muslims. The Uighurs are starting to gain some sympathy and some support, at least in the extremist circles. And that can really change the way China has to deal with it, because China has tried to remain neutral everywhere it goes. 

John: Well it'll be interesting to see how this plays into broader evolutions in Chinese foreign policy that we've been watching here. And this comes back to this idea that, you know, for most of Chinese history, you had this very contained unit in itself. China is an island, right? But over the last twenty years, we've started to see China move to a place, and it's an inexorable process. It's something that China can't stop, where they are suddenly importing a vast amount of resources from around the world, and a lot of those resources come from parts of the world where these kinds of ideas are virulent, where they're spreading very quickly, where they're very well established. So China, on the one hand, is dealing with this internationalization in its own backyard of the jihad problem, but also how does that play into this question of how can China evolve or will China evolve to become a global power?

Rodger: Yeah, that is going to take place over a long period of time. This is the fundamental issue for China. China has little choice but to emerge in a stronger role globally

John: Right.

Rodger: It recognizes that it is not capable yet to take that sort of strong role and it's trying to avoid any perception of imperialism in following in the European model or the American model. That means it's trying to rely on things like increasing its contribution to UN peacekeeping forces. It's always tried to play both sides of a conflict so that whoever wins is nice to the Chinese. That's starting to fail.

John: Right.

Rodger: We're seeing it fail in parts of Africa. We're seeing it fail in parts of SE Asia. And China has to redefine what it is, at the same that the government is trying to redefine what the economic structure is, at the same time its struggling with how does it redefine the role of the party and the relationship between the party and the people. All of these are coming together at the same moment. And in some way it seems insurmountable and in some ways that there's no option but for the Chinese to change their course.

John: Right. Well, on that note: that's all the time we have today, but thank you very much Rodger. If you want more information, please go to our website. Thank you very much. 


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