Paul Pillar

China's Central Asian Problem

News out of Xinjiang—the vast portion of Central Asian steppe that the map tells us is part of China—is sometimes hard to come by. The Chinese regime's proclivity for squelching word of anything anywhere in China that hints of challenges to the regime's authority combines with the sheer remoteness of this region to make good information about dissent or unrest there sparse. But the word that has dribbled out over the years indicates the regime is very concerned about separatist activity and sentiment among the predominantly Muslim Uighur population.

The latest news concerns lethal violence in Kashgar, a city near the westernmost point of both Xinjiang and China as a whole. Kashgar is farther from Beijing (over 2,500 miles) than it is from more than two dozen other national capitals. Although the map says this is part of China, the Chinese regime is confronting its Uighur problem more as a remote imperial power, trying to assert its control in an area inhabited by an alien population. In other words, they have a challenge that in some ways is similar to the one the United States faces in trying to project its power in the same part of the world.

The two powers confronting such a challenge ought to be able to help each other. China needs to be a big part of the regional diplomacy and cooperation that the United States requires to deal with its predicaments in the region, including how to extract itself safely from the civil war in Afghanistan. Thanks to the maps drawn by nineteenth century British and Russian diplomats who designed Afghanistan to be a buffer between their two empires, China even shares a (small) border with Afghanistan.

It is next door in Pakistan—where there are so many things that Washington wants Islamabad to do, or to do more vigorously, but rarely seems to be muster the leverage that gets results—that China could be of most help. In the report from Kashgar, local Chinese officials charged that the violence in question was perpetrated by members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement who had trained in Pakistan. The public Chinese accusation about a Pakistani connection was especially significant given the length and depth of the Chinese-Pakistani alliance. China has given Pakistan many reasons to be grateful, including probably assistance in the design of Pakistan's early nuclear weapons. There are corresponding reasons to think China has more leverage with Pakistan than the United States does.

Of course, experiences with North Korea should temper any hope about China using its leverage with nearby allies. But that case is different because of China's concern about the effect on itself of an implosion of the North Korean regime, including possibly waves of refugees heading into China. Events in Pakistan are not going to cause waves of Pakistani refugees to trek across the Karakoram Mountains into China.

So the posture toward China when the subject comes up of Islamic militants crossing borders in Central and South Asia should be, “We're in this together.” The one important hazard to avoid is getting sucked into equating a fight against terrorists with oppression against a subject population. The Chinese have shown a proclivity for doing so in its treatment of the Uighurs. But they are not the only country to be guilty of such conflation; Russia and Israel are a couple of others that have done so as well. The United States ought to be able to craft policies that keep its hands clean of any condoning of oppression while still maximizing its chances for benefiting from someone else's leverage.