Since September 11, China has put the blame for a series of terrorist attacks in China, including ones in Beijing and Ürümqi, on the “three Uyghur forces” of extremism, separatism, and terrorism. The U.S. strike against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, China and the United States labeling the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization, and the subsequent capture of Uyghur “fighters” in Afghanistan, have allowed China to link the Uyghurs to Al-Qaeda.
Following several years of inhumane torture and illegal detention at Guantanamo Bay prison, those Uyghur fighters were found not to be enemy combatants. But while the U.S. is close to victory over Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan following the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, China seems to be stepping up its rhetoric and action in the so-called “war on terror” in China and beyond.
In July 2010, China and Pakistan held a joint counter-terrorist military exercise in Qingtong Xia (青铜峡 or Blue-bronze gorge) in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Chinese officials and experts attribute the choice of this region to its geographic and topographic proximity to the Sino-Pakistan border. But culturally, socially, and religiously Ningxia is another autonomous region like Xinjiang, dominated by a Muslim population. To locate such a joint military exercise in a Muslim area indicates an extension of China’s “war on terror” from Xinjiang Uyghus to Ningxia Hui.
(Another article on xinjiangreview.com analyzes proposals by China’s “anti-terror experts” or “project professors” for an “anti-three forces project” in Ningxia.)
In May 2011, China staged the second joint “Tianshan No. 2” anti-terror military exercise together with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Chinese media and officials openly claim that East Turkestani terrorists cross the borders from Central Asia into China. Interestingly, only southwest Central Asian countries took part in this exercise. Kazakhstan and Russia, located in the region’s northwest, were notably absent.
This suggests that China’s prolonged “anti-terrorism” strategy may turn out to be one of the rules of a new great game in Central Asia between China, Russia, and India, and a number of outside influencers, including the United States. China is strengthening its ties with its southwestern SCO neighbors while Russia and Kazakhstan also seem to be forming a bloc within the SCO, for example by means of a customs union. Former Soviet Central Asia is likely to be dominated by China in the southwest and Russia in the northwest.
The assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan did not win much applause in China. This isn’t because China stands by some moral principle that sanctions terrorism or assassinations, but because Obama’s announcement of the death of Osama greatly undermines Chinese claims of links between Uyghur terrorists, Al-Qaeda, and by extension the Taliban.
The same is also true for China’s support for Pakistan in it’s war on terror. Immediately after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden by the Obama administration, it was reported and now is confirmed that China will provide 50 JF-17 jets to the Pakistani air force within a few weeks. The next development, that China will take over operations at the Gwadar port at the request of the Pakistani government, followed on the heels of the announcement of intensified military cooperation. These developments reveal China’s strategic consideration of Pakistan’s role in “anti-terrorism” now and in the future.
It is clear that China is strengthening economic and military relationships with countries neighboring Kashgar, and reinforcing it’s relationship with Pakistan, in order to build a safe zone from Kashgar to Gwadar. The Kashgar-Gwadar corridor is important to China not only to gain access to energy from the gulf, but also to cut off Indian access to southern Central Asia. The “war on terror” is increasingly turning into a strategic ideology and a weapon for launching a new great game among former and rising powers in Central Asia.