As Ankit discussed last week, China may alienate its close friend Pakistan through its discrimination against ethnic Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Uyghur “autonomous” region in western China.
However, it is just as possible that China will itself be alienated from Pakistan due to Pakistan’s role in incubating Uyghur radicals. The past few days have seen the bloodiest violence in Xinjiang between ethnic Uyghurs and Han Chinese — both civilians and government forces. Over 100 individuals died in the latest bout of violence, which began when Uyghurs attacked police stations in Kashgar. Two days later, the pro-government imam of Kashgar’s largest mosque was stabbed to death. Kashgar, located near the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, is demographically one of the most Uyghur cities in Xinjiang as well as being a traditional center of Uyghur culture. Among the dead were 59 alleged terrorists gunned down by police.
The Economist reports fears that the conflict in Xinjiang may soon take on features of the Chechen conflict against Russia. Chechen nationalism and demands for autonomy were met with brutality, which in turn radicalized the Chechen movement and fused it with Islamist jihadism. Likewise, Chinese brutality in Xinjiang may lead to a similar radicalization of the Uyghur movement. However, like the chicken or the egg argument, it is impossible to fully argue that the Chinese crackdown will radicalize Uyghurs or if radicalized Uyghurs have indeed infiltrated into China from Pakistan, leading to the worsening of the security situation there.
While many Chinese officials often exaggerate the role of Pakistan as incubating Uyghur radicals to justify their brutality or cover up their own security failures, it is true that the recent increase in violence is linked to Uyghur radicals with ties to militants in Pakistan. They have also picked up strategies learned in Pakistan. Uyghur militants have adopted some aspects of classical modern jihadist violence, such as suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings of civilians, after noting the effectiveness of such strategies in other conflicts like Iraq and Syria. Adopting a jihadist strategy also generally strengthens the zeal of fighters, making it harder for governments to defeat or negotiate with them.
The recent violence has been linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the most important subgroup of which is known as the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), which operates from Pakistan. TIP is now based in North Waziristan, which has largely been out of the Pakistani government’s control. There, it mainly trains with the widely feared and hardened Uzbek militants. TIP’s connections in North Waziristan have allowed its fighters to gain experience fighting in other conflicts such as Syria and Iraq while helping other foreign jihadis from the Middle East become more aware of the Xinjiang conflict, which has hitherto been a relatively peripheral concern for jihadists.
According to reports, the Chinese military is currently engaged in halting the flow of terrorists from Pakistan up the Karakorum Highway and through the Khunjerab Pass into Xinjiang. China would like Pakistan stem the tide of Uyghur militants into China. The failure of Pakistan’s military to do so have led to suspicions in China that some mid-level members of Pakistan’s army are sympathetic to the Uyghur militants and that the problem is not due to Pakistan’s incapacity to eliminate militants in Waziristan. Many of these sympathetic soldiers have been influenced by Pakistan’s Islamization policies since the 1980s. Many Chinese officials believe that Pakistan’s intelligence services have contracts with Uyghur militants who may be used, if needed, in places like Kashmir and Afghanistan. As such, Pakistanis are unwilling to fully take out the Uyghur militants within their borders.
Many Chinese are hopeful that Pakistan’s current operation in Waziristan will end the problem of militancy in Pakistan, including that of Uyghur terrorism. However, given Pakistan’s addiction to using militants as proxies, it would be surprising if the current operation in Waziristan truly eliminated militancy in the region. If Uyghur militants were to continue to operate in Pakistan after the conclusion of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, this would be ill received in China, causing it to increasingly reevaluate its relation with Pakistan.