Xinjiang Factor in China’s Arab World Strategy

IITM CSC Article #61
15 July 2013

 Xinjiang Factor in China’s Arab World Strategy  

When Xinjiang turns violent, People’s Republic of China identifies three evils of separatism, extremism and terrorism as the reason. Often, the Chinese regime holds East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as responsible for instigating violence. China accuses ETIM for using some anti Chinese elements among the Uighur Muslim community to create instability in Xinjiang. This year the frequency of violence has been one of the serious concerns of China. Bachu County of Kashgar prefecture as well as Southern Hotan prefecture witnessed violence that left more than 20 people dead in the last week of April. A few days before the fourth anniversary of 2009 Urumqi riots, township of Lukqun in Shanshan County also experienced violence with a death toll of 35. Unlike the past, the Chinese regime directly hinted at the role of Syrian rebel forces in assisting and instigating violence in Xinjiang. Though China has consistently linked Xinjiang violence to the global jihadi movement and to overseas Uighur activists, this time China has gone one step ahead by blaming the Syrian rebels. Beijing also underscored the role of US in creating instability in China.

Chinese state media claim that Uighur fundamentalists from the East Turkestan secessionist faction managed to travel to Turkey and join the Syrian rebellion, where they were given training and sent back to China to carry out attacks. The Global Times reported that some members of the East Turkestan faction had moved from Turkey into Syria. Authorities had arrested a 23-year-old youth, named Maimaiti Aili, belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who had taken part in the Syrian war. Though the overseas Uighurs denounced the Chinese claim as misperception, the Chinese regime might be focusing on larger goals through the internationalization of Uighur violence. China makes comparisons between Xinjiang and Chechen separatism and also accuses Syrian rebels and US for prompting violence by using the extremist factions among Uighurs.

China’s attempt to accuse the Syrian rebels for Lukqun violence can be understood as PRC’s deliberate endeavour to address a larger question of instability created in the Middle East due to the Arab Spring. China’s stand on Syria thus supplements Russian President Vladimir Putin’s argument that US sponsored democracy has left most of the Islamic societies unstable and strengthened religious fundamentalism. China’s concern on the increasing instability in the Arab region is not new.  China has underscored the regional instability caused by the “progressive forces” in these nations since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

 First and foremost, China was taken by surprise about when the Arab Spring caused an unprecedented level of regional instability. Second, the massive scale of anti government protests in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt could galvanize and politically mobilize discontented Chinese societal groups. However, by accusing Syrian rebels of violence in Xinjiang, China has once again reiterated its permanent stance on opposition to foreign military intervention and foreign sponsored democracy. People’s Daily declared that military coup in Egypt is evidence to the argument that western style democracy is a failure in non western societies that are culturally different.

China’s articultation linking of Syrian Xinjiang and the Egyptian military coup  convey a message to both its domestic and global audience. China sends out a strong message to the dissident forces in Xinjiang that the anti government sentiments propagated within China with the assistance of outsiders can only lead to chaos and instability. China has also confronted the US led western forces for creating a conducive environment for such extremist groups to flourish in the Arab region in the name of democratization.

Change in Chinese policy towards the volatile Arab region is expected in the coming days. China may come closer to Russia in expressing their mutual concerns about regional instability in the Arab region and may possibly take a pro active role.  The Chinese regime is prepared to play down economic interests when it comes to its engagement with the Arab world.

Being an authoritarian state itself, PRC neither has any obligation to propagate democracy or back democratization of Syria or Egypt. Besides, China would continue to argue that sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries should be respected. Hence China’s prolonged support to Syrian government is apparent. However, the current attempt to use the violence in Xinjiang as a reason to denounce the rebels of Syria enables China to put forth its Arab strategy. Chinese state would continue to condemn any attempt to generate political instability in the Arab region. China would also adopt a pro active role in resolving the crisis in the Arab region by projecting itself as one of the victims of Arab political instability. Thus Xinjiang violence may accelerate China’s political and diplomatic roles in the Arab world.



R Veena,
Research Scholar, China Studies Centre, IIT Madras
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