Uighur separatism is just as likely to drive China and Pakistan apart as to push them together

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China’s western Xinjiang region borders northwest Pakistan and is home to nearly nine million Uighurs, a Muslim people of Turkic origin, among whom separatist sentiment has historically run high. In the 1980s, hundreds of Uighurs crossed into Pakistan, enrolled in Madrassas, and, with Chinese government training and arms, fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. Upon returning to Xinjiang via Pakistan, some joined violent Uighur nationalist groups. Between 1990 and 2001, these groups carried out approximately 200 attacks in China that killed 162 people.
Following these incidents, the Chinese government launched a massive campaign to quell unrest, providing economic benefits to the Uighurs to erode their ambitions for independence while ruthlessly clamping down on dissent. In addition, Chinese resettlement policies have shifted the composition of Xinjiang’s population from 90 percent Uighur in 1949 to 45 percent Uighur today. While there have been sporadic terrorist attacks in Xinjiang for the past two decades, there has been a marked drop-off in mass organized protests since 1997, and especially since 2003 when Pakistani forces killed the founder of the Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the primary Uighur terrorist group. “Because China’s campaign has been so effective,” Martin Wayne writes, “much of the debate today focuses on whether China genuinely confronts a terrorist threat.” 

Figure below shows there are fewer mass incidents in Xinjiang than in several other provinces as a proportion of each region’s population. No doubt, Uighur unrest remains a serious problem for the Chinese government. But it does not seem to be China’s most pressing internal security issue.

 
Reported Mass Incidents/Population in Chinese Provinces, 1990–2009


 
On the other hand, the frequency of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang has spiked in recent years. In 2009, major anti-Chinese rioting in Urumqi killed at least 197 people, and in 2011 Chinese government reports say at least three dozen people were killed in three attacks in the cities of Hotan and Kashgar. Some experts believe these incidents will catalyze China-Pakistan counter terrorism cooperation and perhaps even spur China to commit significant resources to bolster Pakistani political stability. So far, however, China has shunned ambitious nation-building projects in favor of diplomacy designed to sever links between Uighurs and Islamist terrorist groups. For example, Chinese leaders reached agreements with the Taliban to prevent Uighur groups from using Afghan territory for training facilities and compelled Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin and the Muttahida Majils-e-Amal to disavow violence toward China.
 
More important, the threat posed by Uighur separatism is just as likely to drive China and Pakistan apart as to push them together. Chinese leaders openly doubt the commitment and capabilities of Pakistan’s security forces, even accusing them of warning Uighur groups to disperse prior to raids. They also worry that the recent Pakistani governments are too weak and unstable to secure China’s interests in Pakistan. Over the last 20 years, China has addressed unrest in Xinjiang by curtailing border trade with Pakistan, closing the Karakoram Highway and erecting security fences along the border. According to Ahmad Farqui, the Chinese government employs these measures “to send a strong signal to the government of Pakistan that China would not hesitate to freeze the close ties between the two neighbors if Pakistan did not stop its backing for Islamic militants.” From a Chinese perspective, therefore, ties to Pakistan may not be the solution to unrest in Xinjiang; they may be part of the problem. 
 
Chinese and Pakistani leaders often refer to their countries’ relationship as an “all weather friendship.” Yet an analysis of the key drivers of China’s foreign policy toward Pakistan suggest this is far from the case. While it remains possible that the threats posed by India, energy security, and Uighur separatism will fester and push China and Pakistan closer together, present trends suggest exactly the opposite: China is now more secure and more economically interdependent with India; Chinese analysts widely acknowledge that Beijing’s ambitious plans to build an energy corridor through Pakistan are unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon; and the Chinese government has succeeded in suppressing large-scale unrest in Xinjiang in part by increasing the physical barriers between China and Pakistan. In short, , but rather a marriage of convenience centered on a narrow set of issues. And if present trends continue, that is exactly how it will stay.   
 
This conclusion has implications for US foreign policy toward Pakistan. Some experts argue that China’s interests in Pakistan are expanding and that “the time is ripe for the United States and the PRC to add the stability of Pakistan to the top of their bilateral agenda.” Most proposals suggest that the United States should urge China to participate in multilateral efforts to “fix Pakistan,” mediate Indo-Pakistani border negotiations, and develop energy, trade, and transportation corridors. Indeed, a central aim of current US policy is to coax Chinese cooperation out of a “basic framework of largely coincident objectives,” objectives that were spelled out between the two sides in 2009 as the mutual desire for “peace, stability, and development in South Asia.”
 
It is true that many of China’s interests in Pakistan political stability, economic development, reduction of Islamic terrorism, peace with India mirror those of the United States. And there may be little harm in pressuring China to play a larger role in accomplishing these objectives. But the United States should not expect too much from China. Most of China’s most pressing problems maintaining economic growth, maritime security in South China Sea, Taiwan have little to do with Pakistan. Chinese leaders, therefore, are unlikely to embrace costly proposals to buttress Pakistan’s political institutions or to mediate Pakistan’s conflict with India.
 
On the other hand, China’s lack of interest in an alliance with Pakistan frees the United States to pursue its own interests in South Asia without fear of damaging US-China relations. Chinese leaders may not be excited about the prospect of democratic consolidation in Pakistan, but they would welcome the stability that such an outcome would bring. While some Chinese analysts will characterize US security and nuclear cooperation with India as an attempt to encircle China, Chinese leaders are unlikely to react by forming an alliance with Pakistan, which in their eyes is as much of a security liability as an asset.

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