A fence in the middle of nowhere

Maj Gen Sudhakar Jee

President Xi Jinping had one clear message for the Uyghur Muslims in his uncharacteristically long visit – accept the Chinese version of Islam or perish. Though the Islamic world may be largely ignoring the plight of Uyghur Muslims in Xinxiang province in the era of “ummah and Muslim brotherhood,” but Chinese are not blind to the imminent threats they face from North-West.

Hence, a 57.6 Km long security fence has come up around 25-30 Km along the northern approaches of Karakoram and Qara Tagh passes. The fence was built around 2019 but came to light only in recent months. Built inside Chinese territory, the fence is one of a kind People’s Liberation Army (PLA) infrastructure. There are 50 such sensor posts roughly a Km apart, powered by solar panels.

It is assessed that it is most likely aimed at preventing the free movement of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). After blocking the Tajikistan border, China now wants to box the Uyghurs and other extremist elements infiltrating through Afghanistan via the Wakhan corridor.

Xinxiang: An Open Wound for China

Xinxiang consists of 18 percent of the Chinese territory. Encouraging the settlement of ethnic Han communities has been part of state policy in China in various regions. In Xinxiang also, Hans are being encouraged to settle since 1949 to outnumber the indigenous Uyghur Turkish Muslims. Today, the 12 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang still represent a slight majority but the Han population is in the majority in many cities, including the capital of Urumqi.

Though Xinjiang is the largest region in the country and the largest economy among non-coastal provinces, the majority of Uyghurs still live in rural areas and have been largely excluded from this development.

Xinxiang lies at the heart of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aimed at rejuvenating the old silk route connecting to countries in Central Asia, Europe, and beyond. Thus, Chinese authorities are seeking tighter control of Xinxiang.

There have been protests in Xinxiang against state-incentivized Han Chinese migration in the region and widespread economic and cultural discrimination. The deadly riots of 2009 in Urumqi, reportedly left 200 dead. Weeks before President Xi’s 2014 visit, Uyghur militants stabbed more than 150 people at Kunming Railway Station in Yunan province in southwest China, killing 33 and injuring 143.

Whenever feeling threatened, ‘reform’ and ‘re-education’ become the buzzwords in the Chinese state policy. In 2017, China doubled down with its “Re-Education Camps” in Xinxiang. There is an increased amount of surveillance, with roadblocks and checkpoints, confiscation of Uyghurs’ passports, and the introduction of “people’s convenience cards” aimed at restricting Uyghurs’ freedom of movement from going out of hand.

These centers held between one and three million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Central Asian ethnic groups. They were subjected to intense surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labor, and forced sterilizations.

The authorities also put the region under tight surveillance, suppressed Uyghur religious practices, destroyed mosques and shrines, sent residents to work in factories, stepped up birth control measures for Muslim women, and forcibly placed children in boarding schools. The state began advocating intermarriage between Han Chinese and Uyghur people.

Chinese Version of Islam

Under Xi, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has pushed to Sinicize religion, or shape all religions to conform to the officially atheist party’s doctrines and the majority Han-Chinese society’s customs. Though the government recognizes five religions—Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism—it has long feared that foreigners could use religious practice to spur separatism.

The Chinese government has characterized any expression of Islam in Xinjiang as extremist, a reaction to past independence movements and occasional outbursts of violence. It says, “it would combat the three evils—separatism, religious extremism, and international terrorism—at all costs.”

Geo-Strategic Importance of Xinjiang

President Xi’s four-day visit from July 12-15 earlier this year focused on projecting a stable and united Xinjiang. This was important to project Xi Jinping in a positive light as he is seeking a crucial third term.

Strategically located, Xinxiang shares a total land border length of 5600 km with eight countries namely Mongolia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, India, and illegally occupied Gilgit-Baltistan. Historically, the Xinjiang Region along with Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Manchuria acts as a buffer zone and provides its strategic depth to the Chinese mainland by repelling attackers or invaders.

The capital Urumqi, part of the Turkestan region, is regarded as ‘The center point of Asia’, which lies in the suburbs of Urumqi, strategically unique in its dimension, being the furthest from any oceanic influence from any of its directions.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) takes off from Kashgar in Xinjiang. Thus, Xinxiang is the fulcrum of President Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Four of six major BRI land routes pass through Xinjiang.

Xinxiang is considered an energy powerhouse with its solar, wind, and hydropower resources. It also produces about a fifth of the world’s cotton albeit through forced labor of Uyghurs. Xinjiang is rich in oil, hydrocarbons, gas, and other natural resources while being the hub of minerals such as Molybdenum, Tungsten, iron, copper, zinc, chromium, and nickel.

It is also home to three Chinese air bases of great military significance namely Hotan, Kashgar, and Ngari Gunsa. The PLAAF has strategically deployed some of the countries’ best-advanced fighter jets on these bases – the H-6 Bombers, J-20, J-10, etc.

Proximity to India   

The Karakoram Pass is a reasonably well-defined northern extremity of the Aksai Chin between India and China. It is the highest altitude pass connecting the erstwhile Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir with Sinkiang in China.

There is a school of thought that such a fence may be in existence elsewhere along the line of actual control (LAC) with India to provide early warnings of future ground offensive actions from India’s Depsang and DBO Sub-Sectors. India has also completed the construction of 256 Km Darbuk-Shyok – Daulat Beg Oldi (DS-DBO) road in 2019.

China has already developed some underground military storage facilities in Xaidullah or Shahidullah, next to the Chinese National Highway G-219 between Xinxiang and Tibet.

Achilles’ heel of China

China has been dealing with the Uighurs with an iron hand, further alienating them from all aspects of the developmental policy. Pointing out to terror outfits like Al-Qaeda, China has momentarily necessitated the need for security from the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) operating on the fringes of Pakistan and Afghanistan soon after the attacks in Hotan and Kashgar.

In China, diversity of ethnicity, religion, and culture is regarded as ‘waywardness’. Thus, it is a “my way or highway” policy for Uyghurs. China has already connected itself with Pakistan – the epicenter of all Islamic terrorism planning, with an umbilical cord called CPEC. And, it would flow the poison into China instead of nectar to its economy connected to benefit of warm seas. This is what China is worried about and hence, a fence in the middle of nowhere.

(Maj Gen Sudhakar Jee, VSM, is a former colonel of the Mahar Regiment who superannuated in 2020 after more than 37 years of active service. He has commanded troops in varied terrain, climate, and conflict zones. Currently, he is pursuing a doctoral thesis on the India-China border dispute.)


Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

Images courtesy of (Image Courtesy: Twitter/ @Kyangs_Thang) and Provided

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