Options for Managing Xinjiang Uighur Ethnic Tensions

Daniel Urchick is a defense and foreign policy analyst.  Daniel tweets at @DanielUrchick.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Unrest and separatist tendencies amongst the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang Province, People’s Republic of China (PRC)

Date Originally Written:  March 08, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 27, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is written from the perspective of a PRC government official offering options for countering ethnic violence, separatism, and extremism amongst the Uighurs in Xinjiang. 

Background:  Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs comprise an estimated 42 percent of Xinjiang’s population of 19 million.  Uighur unrest was historically sporadic and easily suppressed but since 2008 Xinjiang has seen a slow, but noticeable rise in violent activity that appears to be aimed at local actors, such as the local government structure, state security forces, Han immigrants, and Uighur “collaborators,” rather than at the Chinese Central Government in Beijing.  Some Uighurs have called for total independence from the PRC due to cultural oppression.

Uighur terrorism has allegedly occurred across the PRC, including dual bombings in Yunnan Province in 2008, a bombing in Tiananmen Square in 2013, and a knife attack at Kunming Airport in Yunnan that killed 29 and injured 143 in early 2014.  In late February 2017, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a video of Uighur members who claimed they would shed rivers of blood in the PRC and avenge the oppressed[1].  This video marked the first time Uighur militants had officially been tied to ISIS[2].

The PRC has increasingly relied on a heavy-handed and repressive approach to security operations in Xinjiang.  The arrests and detention of protesters, even peaceful ones, are estimated to be well into the tens of thousands, with an estimated 1.8 executions occurring weekly in 2008[3].  Tens of thousands of PRC security components currently operate in Xinjiang[4].

Drivers of Uighur unrest may include being barred from 95 percent of the civil-service positions in Xinjiang[5], being forced to teach Mandarin in Uighur schools, and, until recently, anyone under 18 was prohibited from entering a mosque.  Despite efforts to placate the Uighurs with promises of foreign direct investment, increased employment opportunities, and modernization projects, the majority of these opportunities are still reserved for the Han Chinese.

Significance:  Xinjiang links the PRC to Central Asia and the greater Middle East geographically, ethnically, and religiously.  The problems of ethnic separatism and religious extremism in the Middle East and Central Asia flow into Xinjiang.  For this reason, in addition to poor administrative practices, there is a small, but growing problem with separatism and terrorism in the region.  Fear of an ISIS-like organization forming in Xinjiang, combined with a theoretical collapse of adjacent Tajikistan, has spurred the PRC into creating an entire security organization: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Option #1:  The “Alaska” model— Reward the Uighurs with economic dividends based on exploiting Xinjiang’s resources.

Risk:  Economic dividends have historically been reserved for Han Chinese who may grow agitated with the loss of an exclusive “perk,” causing them to lash out at the local and Central Government.  Unhappy Han may direct their frustrations towards the Uighur population, who may respond to violence with greater violence, exacerbating the situation.

Gain:  Opening resource management to the Uighur population will co-opt Uighur elites and likely remove environmental concerns and wealth imbalances as a historical justification to protest resource exploitation in Xinjiang.  Option #1 places the onus of environmental degradation on the Uighur elites vice the local and Central Government.

Option #2:  The “Scotland” model— the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintains direct control of international and interprovincial trade, as well as military and police functions, but cultural autonomy exists in exchange for loyalty.

Risk:  This model allows the Uighur identity to grow unchecked, which may develop to a point of seeking greater separation from the rest of the PRC.  Misplaced faith in Uighur officials by the CCP could create Uighur opposition leaders in future periods of unrest and rising tensions.  The granting of such a high-level of autonomy to Xinjiang may spark calls for similar policies in other ethnic minority regions in the PRC.

Gain:  The PRC government maintains control of local security apparatus while receiving maximum economic benefit to be distributed as it sees fit.  True autonomy for the region reduces international and domestic criticism of PRC governance in the region.

Option #3:  The “Hawaii” model— Calls for the creation of an “indigenous people’s organization” to communicate with local officials about ongoing and future disputes with the government or Han population.

Risk:  The creation of the indigenous people’s organization could result in a legitimate alternative authority to the Central Government in Beijing, which, in turn, could eventually organize the Uighur population to formally challenge PRC government authority.  This organization may create avenues for Uighurs who support violent extremism to move into positions of authority.

Gain:  This indigenous people’s organization places an administrative barrier between the local government and Uighur population’s criticism and frustrations.  Both the Central Government and local government can use this organization as a scapegoat when tensions flair, while staffing it with vetted personnel. 

Option #4:  The “Australian” model— Special privileges are granted to minorities, such as no birth restrictions, tax exemptions, and assured education.

Risk:  Special privileges conferred to the Uighurs risk increasing resentment among the Han population towards the Uighurs, leading to increased hostility and even greater inter-ethnic violence.  Even more worrisome, the Han populace in Xinjiang, and around the PRC, may become resentful of the Central Government for withholding highly coveted privileges.

Gain:  Removing restrictions that apply to the rest of the country promotes a sense of exceptionalism in the Uighur population, encouraging loyalty to the PRC.  Assured education encourages educated Uighurs to become local elites and support the Central Government that supported them.

Option #5:  The “West Bank” model— Government promotion of cultural and Islamic tourism to Xinjiang Province.

Risk:  Exposes a larger portion of the PRC populace to Islam, increasing the potential for conversion to a religion that believes in an authority other than the Central Government in Beijing.  Islamic tourists to Xinjiang could bring ideas about Islam and its role in society and government that the PRC government views as destabilizing, further increasing tensions.

Gain:  Uighurs are potentially exposed to more moderate Islamic ideas on a wider scale, rather than radical Islamist ideas that proliferate under or due to government suppression.

Other Comments:  The models presented above can be found with greater detail in Dru Gladney’s 2003 paper “Responses to Chinese Rule in Xinjiang: Patterns of Cooperation and Opposition,” published in the Mongolian Journal of International Affairs (http://www.mongoliajol.info/index.php/MJIA/article/viewFile/122/123).

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Katie Hunt and Matt Rivers. “Xinjiang violence: Does China have a terror problem?,” CNN, December 02, 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/02/asia/china-xinjiang-uyghurs/

[2]  Ryan Pickrell. “ISIS Vows To ‘Shed Blood Like Rivers’ In First Threat Against China,” Daily Caller, March 1, 2017. Retrieved from: http://dailycaller.com/2017/03/01/isis-vows-to-shed-blood-like-rivers-in-first-threat-against-china/

[3]  Drew Gladney. “Responses to Chinese Rule in Xinjiang: Patterns of Cooperation and Opposition,” The Mongolian Journal of International Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.mongoliajol.info/index.php/MJIA/article/viewFile/122/123

[4]  “Xinjiang deploys over 10,000 armed police in latest show of force after terror attacks,” South China Morning Post, February 28, 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2074711/china-stages-another-huge-show-force-xinjiang-wake

[5]  Preeti Bhattacharji. “Uighurs and China’s Xinjiang Region,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 29, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.cfr.org/china/uighurs-chinas-xinjiang-region/p16870

China (People's Republic of China) Daniel Urchick Minority Populations Option Papers Uighur

Options to Arm Volunteer Territorial Defense Battalions in Ukraine

Daniel Urchick is a defense and foreign policy analyst and a Young Professionals in Foreign Policy East Europe and Eurasia Fellow.  Daniel tweets at @DanielUrchick.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Ukrainian-Separatist conflict in the Donbas.

Date Originally Written:  February 20, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 2, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of a Ukrainian National Security Advisor, offering options on the possible utilization of the pro-Ukrainian government territorial defense battalions, supplementing the regular military and Ukrainian Government’s efforts to either defeat the separatists in the Donbas region, or create a more favorable situation on the ground for the next round of peace talks.

Background:  The Ukrainian military appears to have begun what has been characterized as a “creeping offensive [1]” to the north of Donetsk City in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).  Ukrainian Military forces have made limited advances into the neutral space between government and separatist-controlled territory, known as the “gray zone,” to capture several contested villages such as Novoluhanske north of the city of Horvlika.  It is estimated that about 5,000 Russian troops remain in the Donbas in various capacities along with about 40,000 pro-Russian separatists.  The Ukrainian Military has an estimated 60,000 soldiers along the line of contact with an additional unofficial estimate of 10,000-11,000 “territorial defense battalion” personnel along the front and dispersed around the country.  There are currently 40 territorial defense battalions operating in Ukraine today[2].

Most of the territorial defense battalions were formed by wealthy business oligarchs who provide the majority of the funding and limited supplies.  As a result, most men in any given battalion are likely more loyal to the oligarch that formed the organization than to the State.  Most battalions are integrated into the Ukrainian Military to some degree.  Some remain completely outside the official Ukrainian Military structure.  Still others are in the process of being more fully integrated into the Ukrainian Military structure.  Non-integrated defense battalions do not receive sufficient materiel and logistical support from the military thus they cannot adequately defend against or attack the heavily armed separatists.  Integrated battalions fair little better in their armament and have been provided second tier light armor assets.

Significance:  The arming of territorial defense battalions is an important question aimed at winning the conflict with the Separatists in the Donbas, or at the least, producing a more favorable situation on the ground in future peace negotiations.  The battalions are an important source of manpower with high morale that could be better utilized.  Providing better equipment to the battalions could radically impact the domestic political situation in the Ukraine.  Thus, the right answer to the question of arming the battalions is important to both the defense and political communities in Ukraine, but also to every Western nation supporting Ukraine.

Option #1:  Supply territorial defense battalions full access to the Ukrainian Military’s arsenal of modern heavy armored equipment and other advanced weapon systems.

Risk:  Territorial defense battalions may still not fully submit to the authority of the Ukrainian Military and remain more loyal to their oligarch founders, increasing warlordism.  Battalions with low discipline may also choose to upgrade their equipment in an unauthorized manner, endangering their safety and the safety of friendly forces around them.  The obligation to maintain, fund, and supply armored assets fall on the Ukrainian State which has faced budget constraints since the September 2015 sovereign debt restructuring deal.  Providing territorial defense battalions with heavy armor assets could give Russia, the DNR and LNR pretext for an overt arms race and security dilemma, leading to a breakdown in the relative stability of the Minsk II Agreement.

Gain:  If used in a defensive capacity, the fully equipped territorial defense battalions could become a highly capable reinforcement to the normal line of contact against any possible separatist (counter)offensives, raising the level of deterrence.  As a credible deterrent force, the battalions will allow the military to mass its regular forces for local superiority should it choose to go on a larger offensive.  Supplying the battalions with better equipment is a popular political move.  Option #1 would reinforce the coalition government of President Poroshenko, which has right-wing elements, who have been the most supportive of past armament plans.  Territorial defense battalions are incentivized to remain operating within the Ukrainian military force structure and supporting the government that has now adequately supported them.  Equipment interoperability is maintained throughout Ukrainian forces operating along the line of contact, easing logistical problems that have plagued the military.

Option #2:  Continue to restrict the supply of modern heavy armor assets and other advanced vehicle systems to the territorial defense battalions.

Risk:  The territorial defense battalions, as an important pool of military manpower that can be utilized along the line of contact for both defensive and offensive operations, is deprived of equipment that would be critical to their survival in such operations.  The Poroshenko Government risks increased public dissent by going against public support for arming these battalions.  President Poroshenko also risks further splintering his coalition and pushing the right-wing elements of parliament further away from cooperation.  The battalions will not have an important incentive to remain operating within an official force structure, as their perception of being cannon fodder grows.

Gain:  Right-wing affiliated territorial defense battalions, or battalions with particularly strong loyalty to an oligarch who could be potentially hostile to the Poroshenko regime in the future, are denied heavy weaponry.  Battalions that have low morale, or are facing discipline or disbandment, will not be able to defect to the Separatist-controlled territory with important heavy weapon stocks.  The Ukrainian government does not have to provide funding and supplies for an expensive military equipment program during a time of fiscal constraint.  The restriction helps prevent the flow of weapons onto the black market from these battalions low on funds, morale or discipline.  The DNR and LNR, as well as Russia, are not given a pretext for breaking off the Minsk Agreements entirely or for launching a preemptive offensive.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Webb, Isaac. (2017, January 26). “Ukrainian forces creep into war’s gray zone,” KyivPost, retrieved from: http://www.pressreader.com/ukraine/kyiv-post/20170127/281500750970900

[2]  Pejic, Igor. (2016, October 05). “Kiev’s Volunteer Battalions in the Donbass Conflict,” South Front, retrieved from: https://southfront.org/kievs-volunteer-battalions-in-the-donbass-conflict/

Daniel Urchick Irregular Forces Option Papers Russia Ukraine