Advantage Pakistan as China fails to stem radicalisation at Uighur. The Communist party leadership and the security establishment cannot lower their guard against large organised Islamic cells of East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIM), which, in its new incarnation, Turkistan Islamic Movement, is spearheading the Uyghur insurgency. The army actions by Pakistan spared the Pakistani Taliban, and their Uyghur friends, who are “good terrorists” since “they are helping out on the Af-Pak theatre” ….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem
China is walking the extra mile to deal firmly with Uyghur Islamists in Xinjiang province, which is its national energy strategy base, and growing industrial hub. The Islamists, on their part, are seeking to rewrite history by making Uyghur dominated southern region of the province as their homeland. They have stepped up their campaign in recent months putting thus a big question mark on Beijing’s counter-terrorism policies.
Communist China is not against Islam per se. But as a part of its campaign to “roll back dangerous religious fundamentalism”, it has prohibited Uyghur Muslim women from wearing Islamic veils and ordered men not to grow beards. Uyghur officials are told to insult the community elders by smoking in their presence. “Either you smoke or face punishment”, they are told. Cash rewards are on offer for terrorism tip-offs. In remote Altay, which is close to Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, a tip-off that leads to the arrest of Islamist spies will yield upto to 5 million yuan (US$725,000).
Uighur advocate groups based outside China consider these measures as heavy-handed. The Communist government is responsible for increased radicalisation of our community, they aver. Well, China cannot afford to remain a mute bystander and allow the Uyghur violence to surge, and hit the streets, like it has been happening on the streets of Hotan, a major oasis town on the Silk Road.
The present phase of Uyghur insurgency started in the nineties. Bloody clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese gave way to regular car bombings and knife attacks in market places particularly in the region’s main city, Urumqi. In recent months Xinjiang has become a garrison state of sorts with heavy deployment of police and troops.
Beijing has lined up plans for a big turnaround in the fortunes of Xinjiang, literally “new frontier”, and its “gate and passageway” to the West. The Asian geographic center lies close to the city of Urumqi. It is bang right on the new Silk Road, China is building to revive the age old linkages with Central Asia and beyond.
The much talked about multi-billion dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a part of the same venture though its basic purpose is two –fold. One to get a shortcut to transport petroleum products from the Middle East to China; two to help the industries in Xinxiang and other Western China pockets to find a foot-hold in Middle East markets through the Gwadar port.
Urumqi, Karamay and Ili Kazak are the major industrial centers in Xinjiang. Oil and petrochemicals, electric power production, metallurgy, chemicals, food processing and textiles are the key industries.
Xinjiang has also another special USP. Its land described as “mountains and basins alternating with each other and basins caught in mountains’ embrace” is home to Lop Nor, China’s only nuclear weapons test site spread over 100,000 square kilometers. It is said to be a major location for Chinese nuclear weapons stockpile.
In other words, the stakes are high for the Chinese government. The Communist party leadership and the security establishment cannot lower their guard against large organized Islamic cells of East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIM),which, in its new incarnation, Turkistan Islamic Movement, is spearheading the Uyghur insurgency.
But the intense counter-terrorism policies have not yielded dividends thus far. In fact, the Islamist terrorist’s threat has become much deadlier and much more challenging “than what the Chinese regime had to deal with during the previous decades”, according to reports in the Chinese media.
There are no ready answers for Beijing’s failure on the Uyghur front, more so at a time the militant Uighurs’ threat has come to haunt the unarmed Chinese engineers and workers from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and in Central Asian states like Kirghizstan. For instance, the suicide bombing targeting the Chinese embassy in Bishkek on August 30, 2016 was carried out by an ethnic Uyghur who held a Tajik passport with the name of Zoir Khalilov.
Well, the Chinese authorities are no longer seeing Uyghur militancy in isolation. They consider the Uyghur Islamists as a part of network of international Islamic terror, “with funding from the Middle East, training in Pakistan, and combat experience in Chechnya and Afghanistan”, as the Singapore –based Sinologist, Chien-peng Chung, pointed out in his thought provoking commentary titled “China’s ‘War on Terror’: September 11 and Uighur Separatism” (Foreign Affairs, July/Aug 2002)
Wikipedia has several pages that showcase the linkages the Uyghur groups have with Pakistan based terrorist groups like Pakistani Taliban (TTP), and their allies like Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IUM). The Uyghur groups are working to further the interests of TTP, Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and other Pakistani terrorist groups in Afghanistan as quid pro for the shelter and training they are getting in North Waziristan and ‘Azad’ Kashmir. From the safe havens in Pakistan, the Uyghur Islamists motor down the Chinese built Karakorum Highway (between Gilgit on Pak side and Kashgar, the capital of Xinjinag) corridor to mount attacks on targets in China’s Far West.
China enjoys a unique position in Pakistan. First as an all-weather friend. Second as the new financier bank rolling Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to end Pakistan’s energy crunch and infrastructure deficit. This position, the US has never enjoyed on the Pakistani scene despite pouring in billions of dollars’ worth military gizmos over long decades.
Yet, surprisingly, China has not stood to benefit where it matters most – Islamist insurgency masquerading as Holy War.
Pakistan Army has launched two major drives- Operation Zarb-e-Azb from June 2014 across the country’s tribal belt, and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad in February 2017 primarily in the heartland of Punjab province. Both ops have spared the Pakistani Taliban, and their Uyghur friends, who are “good terrorists” since “they are helping out on the Af-Pak theatre”.
Who said friendship, even the all-weather variety, is not a one-way street? Revisiting history books is no solace. May be time to call the spade a spade with a straight face!