By B. Raman
The Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) had a lively discussion on the situation in the Chinese-controlled province of Xinjiang on August 6,2011. The discussion was initiated by Shri D.S.Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre For China Studies.
The following is an elaboration of my interventions during the discussions that followed.
There are two Uighur ethnic movements confronting the Chinese. The first is a pro-human rights, pro-democracy movement spearheaded by the Munich-based World Uighur Congress (WUC), which adopts peaceful methods of advocacy like those of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and enjoys the political, material and moral support of the US and other Western countries. The second is the jihadi movement spearheaded by the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan (IMET), which has an ideology similar to that of Al Qaeda and is based in Pakistan. The WUC projects itself as a purely Xinjiang-centric ethnic rights movement. The IMET projects itself as a Central Asia-centric pan-Umma movement. The Chinese concerns are mainly over the threats which they perceive to the security of their peripheral regions, which are populated by non-Han ethnic groups, as a result of the activities of the WUC though peaceful on the one side and the IMET, which is violent, on the other.
After the recent incidents of violence in the interior areas of Xinjiang during July, there has been a plethora of over-assessments regarding the strength, capabilities and reach of the IMET and the likely impact of its activities on China’s relations with Pakistan. I estimate the total strength of the IMET at present as not more than 200. Their Islamic motivation and jihadi determination are high, but their capability for sustained and spectacular terrorist actions of the Taliban or Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) kind is low. They have not so far shown any evidence of having modern weapons or being well-versed in the use of modern explosive devices and other techniques. They are not yet technology savvy. I have not come across any confirmed instance of modern copy-cat terrorism—such as the use of mobile telephones as triggers for improvised explosive devices or use of ammonium nitrate as an explosive material or use of projectiles in IEDs to increase fatalities etc. Explosive control measures inside Xinjiang as well as on the border with its regional neighbours seem to be tight. The result: The IMET has been facing difficulty in acquiring modern explosives. There have been no confirmed instances of suicide terrorism, but many instances of suicidal terrorism (Fedayeen attacks).In the absence of modern techniques and modern material, the IMET has been adopting home-grown techniques such as stabbing, hijacking a motor vehicle and running it over its targeted victims, using poisoned needles to spread panic etc. It unsuccessfully attempted a sky jacking which was thwarted by alert Chinese sky marshals.
Though the IMET has been active for over 10 years now, it has not been able to create an insurgency-like situation in Xinjiang. It started as a hit and run movement with no attempts at territorial control and it remains so today. Despite the ruthless measures taken by the Chinese to neutralise the members of the IMET, it has maintained a capability for sporadically taking the Chinese by surprise and killing innocent civilians and members of Chinese security forces. One could see without difficulty that the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, which controls the police and is responsible for internal security, has a poor capability for intelligence collection and analysis in Xinjiang. The widely-alienated Uighur community has not been co-operating with the Police. The Han community, which remains cut off from the Uighur community, cannot provide useful sources of information. Since the IMET still uses word of mouth communication and avoids or has no access to modern communication technologies, the flow of Technical Intelligence (TECHINT) seems to be as poor as HUMINT. What we have been seeing in Xinjiang is an on-again-off-again battle between pre-modern terrorism and pre-modern counter-terrorism.
In the absence of the use of modern, community-friendly techniques by the Chinese security forces, the ethnic and religious alienation will continue to be strong and instances of sporadic acts of terrorism with the use of brutal methods by both sides would continue. The Chinese are hoping that the rapid economic development of Xinjiang to bring its economy on par with that of coastal China will gradually make the Uighur movement wither away with the depletion of local support for externally-based organisations. So long as the ethnic and Islamic grievances remain strong, this is unlikely.
Chinese concerns over the inability of Pakistan to deal with the sanctuaries of the IMET in Pakistani territory remain strong, but they have avoided giving open expression to these concerns at the central level in Beijing. Their present policy is praising Pakistani action centrally in Beijing, but criticising it regionally in Xinjiang. Pakistan, despite its anxiety to help the Chinese, will not be able to deal effectively with the IMET sanctuaries unless it acts strongly against Al Qaeda-related sanctuaries in North Waziristan, where the IMET is also based. So far, the Pakistan army—either because of collusion or of lack of confidence— has failed to act in North Waziristan in response to US pressure. Will it do so in response to Chinese pressure? It is unlikely because North Waziristan is an important rear base for the operations of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Afghanistan. Pakistan would not like this rear base to be weakened by undertaking a major counter-terrorism operation, which could result in acts of retaliation by Al Qaeda-related groups. Pakistan will continue to follow its present policy in North Waziristan of seeming to act, but refraining from acting — whether the pressure comes from the US or China. To keep the Chinese happy, the ISI will continue to act vigorously against the Uighurs in the rest of Pakistan, but not in North Waziristan. This will cause ephemeral, tactical strains in Pakistan’s relations with China without any strategic impact of an adverse nature. The Chinese will not allow their dissatisfaction over the inadequate Pakistani action affect their strategic relationship with Pakistan. To expect a US-Pakistan like denouement in the relations between Pakistan and China due to Chinese concerns over the IMET bases in Pakistan would be unrealistic.
The chances of the Chinese acting on their own against the IMET sanctuaries in Pakistani territory are weak. They do not have the capability. Nor is it their policy till now to get involved in counter-terrorism operations in foreign territory. All that one can visualise is that the ISI, which has strongly resisted increasing US intelligence presence and activities in Pakistani territory, will allow the Chinese intelligence to increase its presence in Pakistani territory to give the Chinese an independent and enhanced capability for the collection of HUMINT and TECHINT from Pakistani territory.