Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 21

Interethnic Tension Could Affect Pipeline Security

by David Nissman

October 1 marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment ofthe Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. This territory is inhabitedat present by some nine million Uighurs–a Turkic sedentary peoplewith more than a millennium of continuous cultural history– overone million Kazakhs, approximately half a million Kyrgyz and anundetermined number of Chinese (probably around five million).The Chinese were brought in mostly in the 1950s during one ofthe Chinese government’s occasional efforts at sinifying the area.

Between 1948-1974 various popular uprisings against Chinese rulewere reported. Subsequently other movements, described by theChinese media as ‘nationalist’ or ‘Islamic,’ surfaced, but noneof these were successful. The anniversary, which was marked onOctober 1, 1995 is not, in fact, an occasion which is celebratedjoyfully by the Uighurs, Kazakhs or Kyrgyz. Days and months precedingthe anniversary were filled with various warnings by the Chineseauthorities as well as by the leaders of neighboring countries– Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — "former Chinese citizens,"i.e., Uighurs and Kazakhs who had fled over the borders of Xinjiangto neighboring regions in the former Soviet Union.

The first of the warnings appeared in Kyrgyzstan: in January,the republic prosecutor’s office warned the Uighur national organizationIttipak against any advocacy of the secession of the Xinjiang-UighurAutonomous Region from China and the creation of a self-sufficientcountry. According to the prosecutor’s office, this action "wouldarouse doubts about the friendly relations of the Kyrgyz and Chinesepeople."

At the end of August, Li Donhui, chief of Xinjiang’s Public SecurityService told the Chinese news agency that "hostile forcesat home and abroad" are stirring up trouble in China’s westernborderlands, an area inhabited by a number of Muslim minorities.Li said his organization would "quickly crack down on thosecases which pose the greatest danger to the integrity of the state."

On September 12th, Itar-Tass reported that during the meetingin Beijing between President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and JiangZemin, chairman of the Peoples Republic of China, Nazarbayev explainedAlmaty’s position regarding the situation of former Chinese citizensliving in Kazakhstan (the tens of thousands of Uighurs and Kazakhswho had fled over the border during the various uprisings in Xinjiang)and discussed the situation of the "over one million"Kazakhs now living in Xinjiang. According to Itar-Tass, at theconclusion of these discussions Kazakhstan and China "cameout against fomenting national separatism on their territoriesand will seek to turn the border between them into a border offriendship and mutual confidence."

During the talks, an agreement was reached on the laying of oilpipelines connecting West Kazakhstan with the eastern coast ofChina. These pipelines have to run through Xinjiang.

Moreover, the planned pipeline connecting the Turkmen oil andgas fields to the Yellow Sea could be affected by developmentsin the Xinjiang region. This pipeline will pass through Uzbekistan,Kazakhstan, and China proper. A great part of its more than sixthousand kilometers will also pass through Xinjiang. This pipelinehas already been guaranteed some of the multibillion dollar financingby Mitsubishi, and is now well beyond the talking phase and intothe feasibility and planning process.

The potential for ethnic turbulence in Xinjiang is obvious: otherwise,the anniversary would not have been preceded by warnings fromthe Chinese, Kazakh and Kyrgyz governments. The question for pipelineconsortiums is: how real is the ethnic threat to the future pipeline,especially one such as the Turkmen-Japanese pipeline?

Ethnic threats have been used quite recently in the competitionfor a Caspian Sea pipeline to transport oil from Azerbaijan toEurope via either Russia, through the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk,or Turkey, and the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. An official ofthe Russian oil company Lukoil argued against the Turkish routeby saying that "blueprints for extending the pipeline throughTurkey pass over ‘Kurdistan.’ Neither Russia nor Turkey can doanything about the Kurds." He emphasized this point by pointingout that not only did the projected pipeline pass through TurkishKurdistan, but also through Iranian Kurdistan. He neglected tomention that the Russian alternative would pass over Chechnyawhere the threat of ethnic violence also exists.

The embodiment of the Kurdish threat is the PKK, the Kurdishnational liberation movement conducting the war against Turkeyin Eastern Anatolia. According to a Turkish source, the PKK isalso strong in Kazakhstan, where 150-200,000 Kurds, the descendantsof those exiled to Kazakhstan from the Caucasus during the Stalinistera, are concentrated near Jambul, somewhat west of the Kazakhcapital and also on the potential Turkmenistan-Japan pipelineroute. One reason for the potential Kurdish threat to the Turkishpipeline route is that the Kurdish people do not stand to benefitfrom its presence. But what about the Uighurs, the Kazakhs andthe Kyrgyz in


Benefits to those residing in areas through which a pipelinepasses depend on their relations with the central government inthe country where they live and the builders/owners of the pipelineitself. Since one of the parties involved in the Turkmen-Japanesepipeline is the Chinese National Oil Company (i.e., the Chinesegovernment) it can be presumed that the benefits received fromthe pipeline are directly dependent on their relations with Beijing.At the moment, it is safe to say that these relations are betterthan those between the PKK and the Turkish government. Nonetheless,as the chorus of warnings indicate, the relationship is unstableto say the least and can worsen at any time. The Chinese havenot hesitated to apply repressive force against uprisings in thepast and there is no indication that the Beijing leadership willhesitate from using such methods again.

If the pipeline consortium were to rely on Beijing’s use of theChinese Army to perceived threats to the pipeline, this wouldnot exactly be a public relations victory for consortium members,and might have negative consequences throughout other countriesthrough which the pipeline passes.

Furthermore, any repression of the Kazakh and Ughuir populationin China

could have repurcussions in neighboring Kazakhstan. Despite Nazarbayev’sassurances to the Chinese government, Kazakhstan’s populationsympathizes with their co-ethnic Kazakhs and Uighurs whom theybelieve are oppressed by the Chinese government. It is not hardto imagine a retaliatory strike against the pipeline as it passesthrough Kazakh territory should Beijing resort to force.

Another way of protecting the pipeline would be if the consortiumwould itself establish direct connections with not only the Xinjianggovernment, but also with the peoples along the pipeline route.It would demonstrate good will (to put it euphemistically) and,by so doing, help ensure that the pipeline itself would not bethe target of local sabotage. There is an example for this

in the very recent past: when British Petroleum went into Azerbaijanto exploit Caspian Sea petroleum, its public relations departmentmade sure that BP acquired the image of a benefactor to the peopleof Azerbaijan. It did this by making large contributions, bothfinancially and otherwise, to Azerbaijan’s cultural and educationallife. By so doing, it avoided being labeled as merely anothercapitalist exploiter from the West plundering Azerbaijan’s naturalresources.

The consortium building the pipeline should think long and hardabout how to protect its property. One way it can do this is tolearn as much about the regions through which the pipeline willpass, and the peoples who inhabit these regions. It is a casewhere knowledge is not necessarily power, but it may mean security.

David Nissman is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.