Uighur terror rocks Sino-Pak alliance, but will not wreck it
China is expressing publicly its growing anger over alleged support from Pakistani-based terror organizations for Uighur militants. The issue is an important and complex one.
But while it is highly embarrassing for both Beijing and Islamabad, it looks unlikely to threaten their strategic cooperation.
On the other hand, the row exposes once again the tenuous hold the central government in Pakistan has over extreme Islamist groups operating within its borders, often with the support of elements of Pakistan’s own armed forces.
Pakistan officials have previously admitted that the terror separatists operating in the Uighur region have ties with the Taliban movement in Pakistan and with other militants operating on the borders of Afghanistan.
On March 7, Bekri, the governor of the Uighur Autonomous Region in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, claimed some Uighur militants are being supported by Pakistan-based terror groups. He made his comments in the high-profile framework of the 2,270-delegate 18th annual National People’s Congress [NPC] of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
Bekri, a Uighur himself, is regarded a rising star of the “sixth generation” of emerging Chinese national leaders. His comments on this issue appear in part to be a signal of solidarity to the Chinese people, as well as to Uighur Muslim separatists.
Xi expected to maintain hard line on security
The message is, that the new leadership cadre expected to emerge when Vice President Xi Jinping becomes leader of China over the next two years will maintain a tough, uncompromising line on the security and territorial integrity of Xinjiang.
“We definitely won't allow anyone to use an excuse to oppose the leadership of the party and socialist system. We definitely won't allow any development to destroy the unity of our country and upset social stability,” Bekri said.
“We will give protection to the legal activities and stem crimes so as to create a stable environment for Xinjiang’s development.”
Beijing authorities believe the violent Uighur separatists are organized by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement [ETIM]. The Chinese government believes ETIM has significant links to al- Qaeda and other extreme Islamist terror groups.
"We have certainly discovered that East Turkestan activists and terrorists in our neighboring states have a thousand and one links," Bekri said on March 7 while attending the NPC gathering in Beijing.
"But officials, especially in Pakistan, have said over and over again they oppose any violent activities directed against China and will maintain China's national sovereignty and core interests," Bekri said. “China and Pakistan are indeed all-weather friends. This is the basis founded by the previous generations of leaders.”
Anti-Uighur message draws support
Bekri was not the only senior Xinjiang official to send that message. He was carefully supported by Zhang Chunxian, the Communist Party secretary, or leader of Xinjiang. Zhang, who was also attending the NPC, warned the same day that any terrorists caught in the Uighur region would be denied any mercy. He said the government of China would not permit terrorists to threaten women, children and other innocent people with knives.
Zhang echoed Bekri’s claim that many of the terror attacks in the Uighur region over the past year had what he called an international origin.
The government of Pakistan clearly found the relatively tough talk from the strongest ally embarrassing and it appears to have come as a surprise to Islamabad. Initially at least, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesmen refused comment on the report. The official position of Pakistan remains that it backs China in its struggle to suppress ETIM.
The warnings of Bekri and Zhang are not unprecedented. In August 2011 the city government of Kashgar in western Xinjiang issued a statement claiming that terror suspects in the area believed responsible for attacks in July 2011 had been given training, weapons and explosives in mujahedeen terror camps in neighboring Pakistan.
However, the comments by Bekri and Zhang suggest that the Chinese government was unhappy with the lack effective action or cooperation with Pakistan. It has since cracked down on the flow of trained terrorists and weapons and other supplies across the border to ETIM. The latest comments were deliberately made by national leaders gathered in Beijing for the main political gathering of the year.
Pakistan-China alliance focused on India
Pakistan has for decades been China’s main strategic ally to contain India. Indeed, Pakistan’s nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are believed to have far greater accuracy and reliability than India’s because China effectively supplied them to Islamabad.
China also enjoys excellent relations with Muslim nations in general, and with Iran in particular.
Also, Russia, China’s partner in leading the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO], the grouping to maintain stability and strategic security among its partners across the heart of Asia, has been working to improve its own relations with Pakistan. The Russians would like to see both Pakistan and India join as full members of the SCO, where they both hold observer status. China is moving towards full membership for Pakistan, but continues to block rapid Indian entry.
Chinese leaders clearly want Pakistan to toughen up its actions against support for ETIM and other terror groups operating in Xinjiang. But they also clearly want to calibrate their actions and avoid sending any message that might seriously strain their longstanding ties to Islamabad.
Thus, on March 7, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin sang the praises of Pakistan as a leading nation in the international struggle to contain and defeat terrorist groups.
"Pakistan is at the forefront of the international campaign against terrorism and has sacrificed a lot," Liu told reporters. "We believe the international community should speak highly of Pakistan's efforts in fighting terrorism."
Chinese Communist party leaders recognize that it is important to show a united front against the recent spike of attacks in the Uighur region as they start the process of transitioning to the new era of leadership under Xi. He visited the United States on a highly successful trip in February.
The week before Bekri and Zhang made their strongly worded comments, some 13 people were stabbed to death in Yecheng region close to China’s Xinjiang border with Pakistan. Another seven of the terrorists were shot dead by Chinese security forces.
But there is no question that China is determined to re-establish peace security in the Uighur region and all across Xinjiang. The vast province covers one sixth the total territory of the country and contains rich oil and natural gas reserves. It is also the crucial link region with Central Asia and the Caspian Basin, with its oil, natural gas and uranium resources.
The massive and growing immigration of ethnic Han Chinese into the Uighur region has generated ethnic tensions in recent years. Violent clashes between the two communities in 2009 cost almost 200 lives.
Massive Han Chinese immigration has turned the Muslim Uighurs into a minority in their own historic homeland. They now comprise 40 percent of the 21 million people there.
However, Uighur separatists are by no means united. In addition to ETIM, which wants to create a unified Caliphate of all Muslims around the world, other groups are motivated by Pan-Turanianism – a Pan-Turk idea to unify all the Turkic peoples of Asia. Or they are driven by ethnic nationalism to create a separate “Uighuristan” state.