The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics

Andrew Small
London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.
Pages 69 to 71

Xinjiang is China’s only Muslim-majority province and by some way its largest, encompassing more than a sixth of Chinese territory. Its land boundaries span Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, India, and the entirety of China’s 520km border with Pakistan. The region holds China’s most substantial deposits of oil, coal and natural gas, as well as sensitive military installations such as the Lop Nur nuclear weapons testing facility. Since the 1990s, it has also been the source of the principal terrorist threat facing China, though the real scale and nature of that threat continue to be a matter of controversy.

Xinjiang has long been wracked with tension between the Chinese state, the swelling ranks of Han Chinese migrants, and the native Uighur population. Aspirations towards greater autonomy or outright independence have never been far from the surface of political life in the province, and the consolidation of stable Chinese government authority has been a project under continuous challenge. One estimate suggests that central Chinese state control in Xinjiang has been effective for only 425 years over the course of two millennia, (20) and the province experienced stretches of independent rule as recently as the 1930s and 1940s. (21) In contrast to Tibet, the government in Beijing did not need to mount a full-scale military conquest when they incorporated it into the newly forged Chinese state between 1949 and 1950. (22) As in Tibet, though, grievances over economic opportunities, population control policies, and land rights have readily escalated, taking on a more potent ethnic, nationalist and religious character. This has been reinforced by periods of outright repression of linguistic, religious and cultural rights, and the routine designation of large numbers of young Uighur men as “separatists” or “terrorists,” fair game for arrest, detention, or worse. Although these phases – such as the Cultural Revolution or the Strike Hard campaigns of the 1990s – have alternated with stretches of comparative liberality, the Uighurs’ sense of themselves as an oppressed minority whose way of life is under attack by the Chinese state is pervasive, and political resistance has been the result. (23) For decades, this resistance was largely secular and pan-Turkic in inspiration, (24) but by the 1990s, the impact of the religious revival across the region (25) and the proliferation of transnational Islamist groups had started to give it a more explicitly Islamic character. (26)

Pakistan was at the heart of this shift. While the closest ethnic and cultural links and the simplest land-borders to cross for the Uighurs were in Central Asia, the Soviet presence there acted as a barrier to trade, travel, and – through its stymying of religious activity – Islamic influence, leaving China’s south-western neighbour to become the main conduit instead. Until the 1980s, cross-border movement between China and Pakistan was limited by logistical constraints and political restrictions, but in the course of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms the Uighurs were given newfound freedom to expand trade with neighbouring countries. (27) Pakistan was the obvious place to turn. The Karakoram  Highway had been completed in 1979 and was gradually opened up in the years that followed. A network of relationships between Pakistani and Uighur traders existed even before the new trade route was completed: many of the Uighurs who fled to Pakistan in the 1930s and late 1940s, fearing persecution from the Chinese Communist Party, had set themselves up in Gilgit, the Pakistani city midway between Kashgar and Islamabad. A modest two-way flow of products saw Uighur traders buy wool and leather goods, clothing, and cutlery and sell tea, hides, electrical equipment, and silk to the Pakistanis. (28) Even more important than the small-scale trade links, Deng’s reform and opening process extended to religion. During the 1980s, China allowed Uighurs to travel through Pakistan to perform the Hajj or to receive religious education. Many of those who were studying in Pakistani universities and madrassas stayed on, and the transit points that were put in place for Uighurs on the way to Mecca, particularly in Rawalpindi, where they stopped while their Saudi visas were secured, became established centres of the Uighur community. (29) The total number of Uighurs in Pakistan was never large by comparison with Central Asia, but their presence and activities would become increasingly sensitive as Chinese concerns over extremist influence there grew.


(20) Lattimore, Owen, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, New York: American Geographical Society, 1940, p. 171.

(21) James A. Millward and Peter Perdue, “Political Histories and Strategies of Control,” in Starr (ed.), Xinjiang, pp. 77–85.

(22) Dillon, Michael, Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Far Northwest, London: Routledge, 2009, p. 77.

(23) For a detailed analysis of how Xinjiang was affected by the Cultural Revolution, see Millward and Perdue, pp. 94–8.

(24) James A. Millward, “Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment”, East-West Center, Policy Studies 6, 2005, p. 7, http://www.eastwestcenter. org/fileadmin/stored/pdfs/PS006.pdf, last accessed 27 Jan. 2014.

(25) Rémi Castets, “The Uyghurs in Xinjiang – The Malaise Grows”, China Perspectives, Issue 49, Sep.-Oct. 2003, http://chinaperspectives.revues. org/648#tocto1n6, last accessed 2 Feb. 2014.

(26) Dru C. Gladney, “The Chinese Program of Development and Control, 1978–2001”, in Starr (ed.), Xinjiang, p. 109.

(27) Ziad Haider, “Sino-Pakistan Relations and Xingiang’s Uighurs”, Asian Survey, Vol. XLV, 4, University of California Press, July/August 2005, p. 525,,  last accessed 27 Jan. 2014.

(28) Ibid.; see also: Alessandro Rippa, “From Uyghurs to Kashgari”, The Diplomat, Dec. 20 2013, last accessed 13 Feb. 2014.

(29) Yitzhak Shichor, “Great Wall of Steel: Military and Strategy in Xinjiang”, in Starr (ed.), Xinjiang, p. 144; Ziad Haider, “Sino-Pakistan Relations and Xingiang’s Uighurs”, Asian Survey, Vol. XLV, 4, University of CaliforniaPress, July/August 2005, p. 525,

© Andrew Small, 2015