The regional government of China's far-western Xinjiang region is keen to revive the frontier trade with India that once flourished along the disputed western section of the border and is courting Indian involvement in plans to develop a special economic zone in the border town of Kashgar, officials have told The Hindu.
As the Governor of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Nur Bekri, begins a four-day visit to New Delhi and Mumbai on Thursday, the regional government has sought to downplay its role as a bridge for China's investments in neighbouring Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), which serves as a crucial land-link between China and Pakistan.
In a first, the regional government's Development and Reform Committee (DRC) appeared to implicitly acknowledge India's claims to PoK in written responses to questions ahead of Mr. Bekri's visit, making the case for increasing frontier trade with India and describing Kashgar as bordering India, not Pakistan.
There were particular advantages in developing frontier trade with India, said the DRC, pointing to recently announced policies by the Chinese central government to develop the Kashgar SEZ. The policies would support the “construction of the Kashgar economic development zone which borders with India”, said the DRC. “We welcome Indian companies to invest in Kashgar, which possesses great growth potential in bilateral trade.” The DRC said it would also favour the opening of international flights from Kashgar to India, and would “encourage” foreign airlines to open direct flights.
Officials from Xinjiang's Political and Legal Committee, who will accompany Mr. Bekri, said they would like to work more with India on counterterrorism. The XUAR government blamed recent attacks in Kashgar on local Uighurs — a Muslim ethnic Turkic minority group — trained in camps in Pakistan.
“China and its neighbouring countries should together face terrorism since we have mutual interest in this area to guarantee the stability of our countries,” the committee said. “Xinjiang will continue to enhance cooperation with neighbouring countries, including India.”
The government said it was also keen to increase the flow of people from India, in marked contrast with China's earlier reservations to opening up Xinjiang citing stability concerns. It did not, however, reply to questions on whether it would favour the opening up of an Indian trade office or Consulate in Urumqi or Kashgar in the future.
India's Consulate in Kashgar was closed in 1950, following which the Indian trade presence ceased to exist in the region. Since then, an increasing number of traders from Pakistan have established a presence in Kashgar.
However, deep-rooted cultural links with India, sourced in a long history of commercial and cultural engagement between Kashgar and Ladakh and through the Silk Road, have left a strong appeal for Indian culture among Uighurs, evident today in the widespread popularity of Indian films.
Mr. Bekri's visit is part of a recent initiative by India to revive these forgotten links with a region rarely recognised as neighbouring India, and to build closer links with provinces on China's borders.
His invitation by the Government of India, under the India-China Distinguished Visitors' Programme, followed the organising of a cultural performance in Kashgar last year — one which the Indian Embassy in Beijing lobbied hard for — and a visit by Ambassador to China S. Jaishankar to the regional capital Urumqi last week, where he met official from energy companies TBEA and Goldwind, which are looking to expand their commercial interests in India.
Trade between India and Xinjiang has soared this year, increasing 92.4 per cent year-on-year between January and September, reaching $47 million, the highest in the past five years according to the DRC.
“Xinjiang and India enjoy strong trade complementarities,” the DRC said. “There is great cooperation and broad development potential in agricultural products, food, mechanical and electrical products, IT and other areas as well.”