On August 30th, an ethnic Uyghur man drove a van laden with TNT into the Chinese embassy compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Although no one was killed besides the driver, the geopolitical consequences of his attack may be far-reaching. According to investigators, the attack was planned and carried out by members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a terrorist organization whose primary goal is to secure the independence of China’s Uyghur-populated Xinjiang region, which it refers to as East Turkestan. Naturally, China regards ETIM and other Uyghur separatist movements as a major threat to its territorial sovereignty, and for decades it has tried to suppress the development of Uyghur identity by placing severe restrictions on virtually all Islamic religious practices, bolstering the police and military presence in Xinjiang, and facilitating the migration of Han Chinese into traditionally Uyghur areas.
Up until now, the extent of this campaign has mostly been limited to Xinjiang. After last month’s incident in Kyrgyzstan, however, China may decide that it needs to get more serious about combatting Uyghur separatism abroad. In recent years, Uyghur militants have established contact with terrorist organizations in Syria, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Although China has traditionally relied on the support of foreign governments to prevent these groups from accessing Xinjiang, diplomatic solidarity is simply not going to be sufficient in an age of transnational terrorism and diffuse central authority. Furthermore, China’s expanding economic presence across the globe makes it far more vulnerable to attacks outside its borders, similar to the one in Kyrgyzstan. However, before making any projections about what the future may hold, it is important to remember how Xinjiang already plays a major role in China’s foreign policy.
Xinjiang’s impact is most acutely felt in China’s relations with Central Asia. As a Turkic ethnic group, Uyghurs have historically had close linguistic and cultural ties with the region. There are also large diaspora communities living in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. As a result, many people in the Central Asian republics harbor latent sympathies for the Uyghurs’ plight, and pan-Turkism has emerged as a powerful ideological challenge to China’s control over Xinjiang. In order to prevent these sentiments from spilling over into active confrontation, Beijing has been consistent in its support of authoritarian regimes throughout the region, which have made combatting Islamic extremism one of their main priorities. In particular, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes four Central Asian republics among its members, is heavily influenced by Chinese concerns about cross-border security. One of its self-declared guiding principles is to fight the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Although this abstract framework often implies state repression in practice, China’s policymakers are completely willing to tolerate this so long as Uyghur separatism remains in check.
Another common theme in China’s approach to Xinjiang is the importance of economic development. In order to discourage Uyghurs from seeking independence, officials in Beijing hope to combine the “hard power” deterrence of physical and cultural intimidation with the “soft power” attraction of investment and infrastructure growth. It is no coincidence that Xinjiang is an integral part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, a massive infrastructure project designed to link Chinese firms with consumers in the rest of Eurasia. Xinjiang lies at the heart of the “New Silk Road” route that will extend from Lianyungang on China’s eastern coast to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. With all the new railways and highways being built in Xinjiang, many observers believe that the region is set to experience an unprecedented economic boom. Uyghurs themselves, however, are more skeptical of this “carrot-and-stick” strategy. In 2014, after Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the creation of the Silk Road Fund, which aims to invest $40 billion in countries along the OBOR project, many Uyghers expressed concern that this would only lead to increased repression in Xinjiang. A spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress, Alim Seytoff, told Al Jazeera that “Chinese investment has not brought so-called prosperity, stability or peace for the indigenous Uyghur people in East Turkestan.” International trade may not be the silver bullet Chinese officials believe it to be.
The big question now is whether groups like ETIM will push China to get more involved in the war on terror. Today, there are more than two thousand ETIM militants fighting in Syria under the leadership of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the successor organization to the al-Nusra Front. Ever since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, there have been some marked changes in ETIM’s rhetoric and propaganda. In a recent call for Uyghurs across the world to join jihad, ETIM leader Abdul Haq claimed that “today they are making jihad in [Syria], helping their brothers, and tomorrow the soldiers of Islam must be willing to return to China to emancipate the western province of Xinjiang from the communist invaders.” Furthermore, new videos and publications released by ETIM’s media center are increasingly trying to contextualize the struggles of Uyghurs in Xinjiang within the framework of global jihad. Although ETIM does not by any means represent the entire Uyghur population, its continued presence in Xinjiang is a serious concern for China’s leadership. Last month’s attack in Kyrgyzstan might just be the impetus for Xi Jinping to expand the international scope of China’s counter-terrorism operations.