Securing borders is no longer the most important part of a country’s security strategy. China has security challenges in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea. But its greatest security threats continue to be internal — mainly from restive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. The series of recent police encounters with militant groups in Xinjiang shows how difficult Beijing continues to find the job of tackling the challenge in the region. The series of attacks on police stations and policemen, and the government responses that killed at least 35 people since November would suggest that the threat from the so-called East Turkmenistan rebels continue to be very real. The rebels did something late last year that they had not dared to do in previous years — they carried out a suicide bombing in Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of the Chinese State. The official Chinese complaint that the rebels have bases and shelters across the border in Pakistan is also significant. Beijing has always called Pakistan an “all-weather friend” and depended on its support for battling the Uighur rebels. If that equation is changing, it can have far-reaching consequences for the security status of the entire region.
Many of the complaints that the local Uighur community has long had against the Chinese State are not without their basis. The Uighurs routinely face harassment and all sorts of restrictions on their religious and commercial lives. Life in that remote region adjoining Central Asia revolves around the border trade. But the Chinese government’s restrictions on the Uighurs’ travels across the border have severely curtailed their traditional sources of income. The recent spurt in rebel attacks on Chinese institutions, resulting in swift and ruthless punishment, has created a vicious cycle of violence. Many of Beijing’s policies are to blame for this, as they are for the ever-present tension and sporadic violence in the Tibetan-majority areas in the region. However, China’s challenge in Xinjiang has its lessons for other countries around it. The ‘terrorists’ who bomb public buildings and kill government employees in Xinjiang would be a threat to all States in the region. It is a challenge that cries out for countries like India, Pakistan and Afghanistan joining hands with China.