A spate of terror attacks in recent weeks targeting railway stations in China has brought into the spotlight the government’s concerns about growing capabilities of extremist groups in the far-western Xinjiang region, with Chinese officials and strategic experts fearing that terror groups could soon become further emboldened by possible instability in neighbouring Afghanistan following the imminent withdrawal of United States-led NATO forces.
Chinese strategic scholars are now calling on Beijing to rethink its long-held reluctance to play a greater security role in neighbouring Afghanistan – where Chinese involvement has largely been limited to investments in mines and infrastructure projects – amid fears that a deteriorating situation there could impact security in Xinjiang in the wake of three daring attacks in recent weeks that have left at least 30 people killed and more than 200 injured.
Only on Friday, five people in Xinjiang’s southern Kashgar prefecture were given jail terms ranging from seven to 15 years for spreading “video and audio material to incite separatist activities”, the official Xinjiang Daily reported, adding that the southern Xinjiang border regions of Hotan, Kashgar and Aksu which border Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Central Asia were “areas overseas separatist forces attempt to penetrate the most.”
This week, a government think-tank released a first ever National Security Blue Book, or policy guideline, warning that as Chinese overseas interests were expanding, terrorism in China was “taking on new characteristics.”
“The risk of China facing more international terrorism is being intensified,” the book said, adding that there were “10 terrorist attacks in China last year.”
On Tuesday, six people were injured as at least one assailant armed with long knives stabbed passengers at a railway station in the southern industrial metropolis of Guangzhou.
This followed an attack last week in Xinjiang’s provincial capital Urumqi that left at least three people killed and 79 injured when attackers detonated explosives and stabbed people. The biggest attack was on March 1, when a group of apparently trained attackers stabbed passengers in the railway station of Kunming, in southwestern Yunnan.
The Urumqi and Kunming attacks, according to officials, were carried out by extremist Uighur groups from Xinjiang. The Uighurs are an ethnic Turkic Muslim group native to Xinjiang, which has a history of ethnic tensions between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese. Many Uighurs have blamed increasing Han migration and religious restrictions as stoking unrest and ethnic riots.
The attacks have prompted warnings from Chinese strategic experts for Beijing to step up attention on its western frontier. Zhao Minghao of Peking University in a recent article warned that the government should not be distracted by maritime tensions on its eastern frontiers with Japan and countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam over the South China Sea.
“Although confronted by diplomatic challenges including the Diaoyu Islands disputes [with Japan], the South China Sea spats and the North Korean nuclear issue, Chinese leaders also have to pay attention to the security to the west of the nation. Afghanistan in the post-2014 era is posing another challenge for China’s neighbourhood diplomacy,” he warned.
“To safeguard the stability in border areas and economic interests in Afghanistan, Beijing should continue to play a role on relevant issues. China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region borders Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor. When the Taliban was in power, Al Qaeda set up training camps and provided arms equipment for terrorist and separatist groups from Xinjiang.”
Chinese officials believe members of the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) have been hiding out in border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In recent months, Beijing has indeed begun to show greater interest in playing a broader role in Afghanistan beyond investing in projects. China has organised separate bilateral and trilateral dialogues involving Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan and India, and also pushed for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) grouping to take up a greater role there following the NATO withdrawal.
In February, Foreign Minister Wang Yi travelled to Kabul and declared that “the peace and stability of this country has an impact on the security of western China.” He said China wanted to “strengthen cooperation in security issues and the fight against trans-national crimes and terrorist activities, such as those by the ETIM.”
China has signalled it would be willing to provide greater security assistance, but so far its moves have been tentative and cautious.
In September, President Xi Jinping told visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Beijing that he was ready to deepen economic and security support in “a key year” for the country, referring to the withdrawal. When the visit concluded, however, Beijing only announced a rather modest 200 million Yuan ($32 million) grant to support Kabul.