Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 13

China’s need for energy to fuel its burgeoning economy means that Xinjiang is now critical to its future. The Tarin Basin alone has proven reserves of over one billion tons of crude and 59 billion cubic meters of natural gas. These oilfields are expected to provide 50 million tons annually by 2010. [1] Xinjiang is where the last 240 kilometers of the new 3,000-kilometer Kazakhstan to China oil pipeline will run into, where the oil will be refined or sent eastwards. The Chinese economy requires these resources for its industries and energy craving cities on the east coast, so it will brook no interruptions. The exploitation of natural resources from the impoverished western periphery to assist rich eastern cities will lead to a backlash in relations between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese, which will further strain relations between the two groups. This will only exacerbate the Uighur’s bitterness and distrust towards Beijing, giving them another cause for Uighur independence and insurgency against the Chinese.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has been one means of suppressing Muslim fundamentalism in its member states, and China sees it as a useful tool for influencing Central Asian affairs. In the future, this organization could become a double-edged sword for China since the spread of democracy and the increasing desire for transparent governments in Central Asia could have a threatening spill over effect in Xinjiang. Democratically-influenced governments could change their foreign policies when dealing with China, giving tacit support for Uighur independence, or demanding more rights for their Muslim brothers.

Such a shift could precipitate another mass migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, further marginalizing the Uighur population in the region. This in turn would tend to radicalize Uighur separatists. The Chinese and Kazakh government cannot secure the entire border, so insurgents could establish bases in these remote mountainous areas in much the same way that the Red Army used mountainous areas to create its Soviets in the 1930s. But on the other hand, the Chinese government fears that granting independence to Xinjiang could lead to the break up of the country, similar to the late Soviet Union.

The new infrastructure, including oil refineries, the pipeline, railways, power stations and the power grids are vulnerable to attack by insurgents who could cause vast damage to China’s economy with little effort. A Uighur “People’s War” would be a nightmare for China. One way of keeping such an insurgency in check is by displays of force, which Chinese security forces have not been lax in showing. Xinjiang has become the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) testing ground for new tactics and equipment for high altitude warfare. The Xinjiang Military Area Command has an armored regiment that has as its mission to develop mobile operations and field survival techniques in high altitude warfare. Xinjiang is also required as a training area for the PLA, which will need large areas to develop its new concepts in high altitude warfare. The annual exercise in Xinjiang also enables joint exercises with its neighbors to refine command and control arrangements with similar forces in the region.

Xinjiang is not only important as a high altitude training area. The Xinjiang Military Region, and not the Nanjing Military District, has now become the premier information warfare test center for the PLA. Secondly, it is the training area for large-scale operational level developments. Because of its isolation and varied terrain, it has become the premier training area for developing the new “informatized” warfare that the Chinese military is striving for. China can develop its idea of information warfare in a relatively free airspace and ground environment enabling the use of offensive electronic warfare and large scale maneuvers away from prying eyes and without interfering with commercial activities. The Xinjiang military region recently saw a series of exercises in the Taklimakan Desert where it incorporated a C4I LAN into a division in an area 1,000 km long that integrated intelligence, command and control, automated artillery fire support, airspace surveillance and control and logistics resupply. [2] Units in Xinjiang have been commended by the PLA hierarchy as leading the way in the field of C4I. [3] This also means that if a series of insurgent incidents were to occur simultaneously in different parts of Xinjiang, security forces already have the infrastructure and means to rapidly respond to them.

The Chinese have conducted an information war campaign against the Uighurs in international forums by labeling them terrorists and producing a white paper and briefings outlining their crimes against China. With two foreign cultures in the same area, misunderstandings and incidents are bound to occur. The Anti-Secessionist Law, recently passed by the Politburo, applies equally to Xinjiang and Tibet, as it does to Taiwan. Thus, China can now use the criminal code to attack the Uighur independence movements wherever it perceives them to be. To justify the use of the PLA to suppress Uighur independence, Chinese security forces have referred to the “war against terrorism.” The Chinese State Council on December 27, 2004 released a White Paper on National Defense. Non-traditional security threats like terrorism were evoked throughout the paper, as in the following passage:

China attaches great importance to security cooperation in the non-traditional security fields with other countries, maintaining that in jointly combating non-traditional security threats, it is imperative to address both the symptoms and root causes and to adopt comprehensive measures. [4]

The heavy handedness of the Chinese security forces has, however, defeated China’s heavy propaganda campaign. The international media and the United States were particularly concerned with China’s detention of Rebiya Kadeer, the prominent exiled Uighur businesswoman who was recently released. The raiding without a warrant by Chinese Security forces of the headquarters of Akida, the company she owns, shows that they are still sensitive to any perceived sentiments of Uighur independence. Uighurs also perceive it as an example of Chinese business interests trying to take over Uighur businesses, with the assistance of Chinese security forces. [5] The crowds near the raid enabled Kadeer’s son, Ablikim Abdiriyim, to escape by getting in the way of Chinese security forces chasing him. The recent Human Rights Watch report on Xinjiang outlines the daily religious repression that the Chinese government exerts on the Uighurs, and the methods the Chinese government uses to repress them. [6] The report includes translations of Chinese neibu (internal use only) documents outlining these methods.

Running counter-terrorist exercises in Xinjiang enables the Chinese Security forces to develop counter-insurgency and terrorist techniques in the area they would be expected to operate. For example, on August 6, 2004 the first joint counter-terrorist exercise between the PLA and Pakistani forces, called “Friendship 2004” was run in Xinjiang. A high altitude cold weather exercise, it comprised over 200 soldiers that included personnel from the PLA’s dedicated anti-terrorist battalion. The exercise scenario entailed the searching and tracking down of terrorists over Xinjiang’s mountainous terrain. [7]

The morning of October 20, 2004 saw an anti-hijacking exercise carried out in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital city. It involved more than 600 participants from various government departments including Foreign Affairs, Public Security, Fire, Civil Aviation as well as the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Armed Police. [8] It was organized jointly by the national group responsible for counter terrorism and its Xinjiang counterpart. The exercise was primarily a command and control exercise to assist in developing and testing procedures for the “international cooperation in fighting terrorism.” Xinjiang security forces faced a real hijacking on May 11, 2005 when a man armed with dynamite hijacked a bus at a petrol station in Yining bound for Urumqi. [9] Police negotiated with the man, but he detonated a stick of dynamite and was shot dead. Police said a family dispute led to the man’s actions, who was not an Uighur.

Reuters reported on September 13, 2004 that security forces in Xinjiang had prosecuted 22 cases of groups and individuals for alleged “separatist and terrorist activities” in the period from January to August 2004. A Chinese military newspaper noted that Chinese forces have recently used tanks in a combat zone. [10] Given that the only area in China where combat operations have occurred recently is Xinjiang, then tanks were probably employed against Uighur insurgency.

Many Uighurs view the Chinese as colonizers, and this is bound to lead to further armed insurgency. Central Asia is awash in infantry weapons including rocket-propelled grenades, explosives and mortars courtesy of the many wars that occurred in the region in the 1990s. Chinese constructed infrastructure designed to exploit Xinjiang’s mineral wealth offers soft targets for these groups and the ability to deal a major blow to China’s economy. As democracy expands in Central Asia, there will be calls for more Uighur representation and rights to the wealth from oil and natural gas exports from the region. A change in government by one of the eight nations that border Xinjiang could see a government sympathetic to the Uighurs’ plight. As any insurgent force requires secure base areas to train and regroup from, a sympathetic Central Asian government could provide these covertly. If this occurred, the Uighurs could adopt a more aggressive posture regarding the Chinese security forces. To counter an increased insurgency, the Chinese security forces have invested heavily in updating their command and control to ensure a rapid response to any outbreaks of violence. The volatile mix of ethnic and religious repression can only lead to a resumption of insurgency and instability in Xinjiang with consequences for the Chinese economy as well as the Uighur’s themselves.


1. “Xinjiang to be No.1 oil production area,” Xinhua News Agency, May 22, 2005.

2. “Xinjiang Military District Logistics Sub Dept Conducts Precision Support Exercise,” Beijing Jiefangjun Bao, November 20, 2004

3. “Lanzhou Military Region Motorized Infantry Brigade Strengthens Ability of Command Staff,” Renmin Jundui, January 1, 2005.

4. China’s National Defence in 2004, The State Council Information Office, Beijing,

December 27, 2004.

5. “China: Uighur Activist’s Family Threatened,” Human Rights Watch Press Release, May 14, 2005.

6. Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch, New York, 2005.

7. “Joint Sino-Pakistan Counter-Terrorist Exercise,” Bingqi Zhishi, No. 204, October 2004, p. 23.

8. “China conducts anti-hijacking drill,” People’s Daily, October 21, 2004.

9. “Bus hijacker in Xinjiang shot dead,” People’s Daily, May 12, 2005.

10. “Shenyang Military Region Mechanized Division Conducts Maintenance Exercises,” Beijing Jiefangjun Bao, February 19, 2005.