China’s Uighur strategy and South Asian risk

Ethnic conflict Ethnic relations Minority groups Human rights China

China’s Muslim-minority Uighur community, who reside in Xinjiang province of north-western China for the most part, currently face a crackdown that the Chinese authorities claim targets separatist elements. The province has been an immense asset for China. It has a key geographic location, bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Mongolia and Pakistan. It also holds huge energy and mineral resources that make up a large part of China’s total resources. The province’s importance is further enhanced by President Xi’s legacy project, the Belt Road initiative (BRI), its geographical location making it China’s gateway to Central Asia and the Middle East of that major undertaking.

The ethnically Turkic Uighurs are distinct from the majority Han Chinese community, which partly accounts for them being targeted by China. A United Nations human rights panel suggests that hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions, of Uighurs have been incarcerated in “re-education” internment camps.

Key points:

  • China’s policies that target the Uighur minority and their Islamic faith continue amid limited international response.
  • While Xinjiang’s geographic location is beneficial to China’s Belt Road Initiative, the Uighur repression could trigger militant groups on the adjoining Pakistani and Afghan borders.
  • The Islamic State in Khurasan group could utilise the situation to entice other militant groups to overcome their ideological differences and join it in its fight against Chinese repression.
  • China’s crackdown on the Uighurs could backfire against its Han population in Xinjiang and possibly elsewhere in China.
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