China's flawed strategy for dealing with separatism and extremism in "greater central Asia"
Dodds, Matthew I.
Date of Issue2014
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
"Greater Central Asia" has become an increasingly important region for China to expand its global influence and to pursue its growing political, economic, and security interests. However, China faces two major threats to its ambitions in the region: a domestic threat of Uyghur separatism and a threat abroad of Islamic extremism. Since the 1990s, a small number of Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang Autonomous Region have engaged in a violent struggle to gain independence. Representing a small minority of the Uyghur population, these separatists generally fall into two categories: a small number of religious extremists (radical Muslims who seek a separate state in the name of Islam) and the vast majority, who are non-radicals and who are simply using Islam to galvanize support against the Chinese government for largely secular reasons. This paper asserts that Chinese officials largely misperceive the nature of this domestic threat. They are reluctant to acknowledge that China is facing serious domestic problems, instead making a connection between Uyghur radical Islam and social unrest. Since 911 1, officials have attempted to connect a number of Uyghur separatist groups to extremist groups abroad. While some Uyghurs have indeed been radicalized, the effects of radical Islam on Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang have thus far been minimal. Until the Chinese government realizes the true nature of this domestic threat- that it is small, ethnopolitical, and non-religious- it will continue to have a domestic security problem. At the same time, China has suffered a number of attacks on its expanding commercial interests outside of China, primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These attacks to date have been carried out by extremist groups, such as the Pakistani-Taliban (TTP), the same groups that China claims Uyghur separatists are "affiliated" with. While there is little or no evidence to suggest Uyghur involvement in any of these attacks, China's counterterrorism cooperation with regional states, bilaterally with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and multi laterally with Russia and the post-Soviet states of Central Asia has been geared mostly to dealing with the transnational aspects of Uyghur separatism. China has been reluctant to help its post-Soviet partners as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan directly confront these Islamic groups, even though Chinese interests in these countries are increasingly being targeted, for a number of often understandable reasons. It is increasingly clear that both its domestic policy concerning the Uyghurs and its strategy for fighting Islamic extremism abroad are failing. This dissertation posits that by linking domestic Uyghur separatism and Islamic extremism abroad, Chinese policymakers have largely undermined both China's domestic security strategy and its regional security strategy.