When thinking of China’s peripheral states, Westerners often tend to think last about the countries of the former Soviet Union that lie to the northwest of China, the newly independent nations of Central Asia bordering China’s restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. This area across China’s far northwestern border, composed of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, is certainly not overlooked by Beijing. Historically, it was known as West Turkestan. The adjacent area within China that is now Xinjiang (meaning “New Territories”) was formerly known as East Turkestan and is populated largely by the Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslim minority. The Uighurs are far from content with their economic and political status and receive sympathetic support from fellow Uighurs in the Central Asian Republics, especially Kazakhstan. There is a small, but active, cross-border Islamic independence movement. Border disputes between China and the Central Asian states, carried over from the Soviet period, have been an additional complicating factor.
Xinjiang has been and remains a hotbed of anti-Beijing unrest, especially in recent years. This Muslim dissent is fueled by exacerbating factors such as the conspicuous transition to independence of the Turkic Central Asian nations, the rise in the region of Islamic fundamentalism, and unhappiness with Beijing’s domestic policies for the “autonomous” region—one of five such regions in China. In addition to the very large and aggravating influx of ethnic Chinese, for which Beijing is sharply criticized, Uighurs feel that other Chinese policies or failures to act are keeping them in poverty. The Hans are perceived as reaping most of the benefits of exploitation of Xinjiang’s considerable natural resources and profiting from the growing economic links with the neighboring countries. Beijing’s poverty eradication measures are viewed with disdain and considered a meager, token effort. Not surprisingly, some of the same complaints about Beijing's policies are heard from Tibet.
Bombings, rioting, and assassinations by separatists have been met by Beijing with police raids, very large-scale arrests, and numerous executions of Uighurs—all in an attempt to curb terrorist actions and crush the independence movement. Some of the Uighur terrorist incidents and killings were provocatively timed to coincide with the funeral in February 1997 of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and the visit to China in June and July 1998 by U.S. President William J. Clinton. Reports of the frequent killing by separatists of police in cities near the borders continue, with eight such deaths alleged in August 1998. Harsh action in Xinjiang by Beijing may have included use of armored PLA units in addition to the People’s Armed Police (PAP). Stringent security measures have been instituted to prevent further unrest and have even spread to western Beijing where thousands of Uighurs live. Although the number of actual separatists in Xinjiang appears to be relatively small, resentment among the minority population is widespread. The Uighur population as a whole bridles under the restrictions and opposes Beijing’s actions. The many highly resented Han Chinese in Xinjiang remain fearful for their personal safety.
Neighboring countries' support for the dissidents is significant. Kazakh activists have accused Beijing of persistent human rights violations in Xinjiang and of repressing their fellow Uighurs. A pro-separatist organization in Kazakhstan named the United National Revolutionary Front calls for the removal of Han Chinese from Xinjiang and the establishment of an independent Islamic Republic of East Turkestan. Beijing feels that moral support, sanctuary, and arms have been provided by sympathizers in the bordering Central Asian countries. Separatists supported in this way are seen by Chinese leaders as menacingly, and increasingly, well-armed and financed.
Despite its heavy-handed security and military actions within Xinjiang, China has met the threat from Kazakhstan and its Central Asian neighbors with a diplomatic and economic offensive. In April 1996 in Shanghai, President Jiang Zemin signed an agreement with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan on security and confidence-building measures on their borders. The (significantly) multilateral agreement is designed to reduce border tensions although no clashes had occurred in some years, but it also serves to make clear to Washington the nature and range of Beijing’s options and influence. The three Central Asian states signed the agreement despite protests by the Uighur minorities in their countries. These opponents argue that China is trying to obliterate or neutralize Uighurs in Xinjiang. The specific provisions of the treaty require the parties to inform each other about military exercises within 100 kilometers of the borders, ban military exercises directed toward another party, and state that military forces of the five states will not attack one another. The treaty, it should be noted, also serves to establish solid links between Beijing and the Central Asian capitals for cooperation in quelling cross-border Uighur dissent.
A year after that agreement, in April 1997, following serious unrest in Xinjiang in February 1997, the presidents of these five countries concluded another treaty, this one signed in Moscow. It provides for troop reductions on China’s borders with these countries of the former Soviet Union. In an especially noteworthy step toward transparency and confidence-building, the pact limits forces within 100 kilometers of the borders and provides for mutual inspection. The agreement was also pointedly described as a lasting model for regional security arrangements, pointing up China’s verbal campaign against alliances. Former Foreign Minister Qian said:
"We have tried alliance, and we have tried confrontation. Both did not work, and now we must find something else. Our relations are not confrontational, but they are not an alliance as well."
Several months later, as unrest in Xinjiang simmered, China and Kazakhstan signed a $9.5 billion oil and pipeline deal. The arrangement was evaluated by Western specialists as economically infeasible. Beijing, however, was undeterred by this projection. China’s purpose went beyond development of oil fields and pipelines; the Chinese economic offensive also had as its target fostering Kazakh cooperation in curbing Uighur separatist efforts and other Muslim dissent.
In July 1998, the “group of five,” as the gathering of the five countries was called informally, met in Almaty (still the commercial center of Kazakhstan, with the new capital being Astana) and agreed to collaborate on fighting organized crime and political separatism. On the margins of that meeting, Chinese President Jiang and Kazakh President Nazarbayev signed an agreement settling border disputes, described as the final document concerning borders between the two countries. The resolution reportedly slightly favored the smaller country, with Kazakhstan gaining undisputed possession of 53 percent of the disputed areas. Of greater consequence was agreement between Jiang and Nazarbayev to develop a 15-year economic program, including a proposed automobile plant in Kazakhstan, electrical transmission arrangements, Chinese investment in the country, and construction work by China in the new capital. Also of significance was further confirmation by the two leaders of the September 1997 oil production and transport deal, although Western executives continued to express doubts about the viability of the proposal.
These diplomatic and economic undertakings by Beijing suggest that in this pesky situation China is far more ready to employ military force within its borders than without. This seems to be the case although the small countries involved would not likely be able to repel a PLA force dispatched to “assist” in crushing the Uighur movement in Kazakhstan, for example. Certainly, there are many good reasons for Beijing to refrain from the use of force in such situations with a neighbor. However, its readiness to employ force in 1962 against India, in 1979 in Vietnam, and on other occasions against Vietnam in the South China Sea cannot be ignored in contemplating which options Beijing is prone to select. It appears there was not even the threat, direct or implied, of the use of the PLA in the difficulties, which spanned a number of years, which were designed to undermine Chinese sovereignty in Xinjiang, and which included efforts to embarrass Beijing on the world scene.
Instead, Beijing has cast its lot in the direction of cooperative arrangements with these comparatively tiny neighbors. In its effort to cement bonds with the Central Asian states, Beijing took full advantage of the good will engendered by settling border disputes and then went so far as to hold out the promise of sweeping economic ties. Consequently, it seems the most likely role in next few decades for the PLA in this troublesome region for China will be to safeguard pipeline construction as much as to back up the PAP and the Public Security Bureau forces in their activities within Xinjiang.