Strategic Consequences of Alliance between ISIS and Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang

Monday, June 22, 2015

Mohammad Zare’
Researcher; Foreign Policy Department; Center for Strategic Research, Iran

Xinjiang or East Turkestan region of China, with a population of 20 million people within 13 ethnic groups – where Uyghurs constitute the biggest ethnic group with a population of 8 million – has been always of high strategic importance to Beijing. During recent months, in the light of the latest developments at regional and international levels – especially the emergence of ISIS and increasing influence of this group in Afghanistan, which has raised the possibility of an alliance between this group and separatist groups in China’s Xingjian province – that strategic importance has not only seemingly increased, but is supposed to make the security environment in eastern China prone to more strategic doubts.

China’s policies and Uyghur’s effort to have their identity recognized through violence

The policies imposed on Uyghurs by the central government of China since 1950 has caused the Chinese government to be considered as a “stranger” and the “other” by the people of Uyghur. Such policies included encouraging systematic immigration of the people of Han ethnic group to Xinjiang; efforts made to tamper with religious and ethnic fabric of this province; as well as the implementation of development policies adopted by Deng Xiaoping in early 1980s, which gave priority to eastern coastal regions of China and caused great gaps between the eastern and western parts of the country. These policies in addition to the negative and pessimistic viewpoint of Uyghurs about the Communist party and the Han ethnic group, also provided necessary ground for Xinjiang and Uyghur ethnic group to enter the phase of “having their identity recognized through violence.” The violence occurred both on a limited scale in the form of domestic unrest and clashes with the Han ethnic group like what happened in 2009, and on the large scale in the form of extremism and making efforts to establish links to such extremist groups as ISIS in order to make up for the past damage to their ethnic identity and, more importantly to start a move toward more separatism.

Of course, there is no single code of conduct among Uyghurs when it comes to the quality of their relations with China, but some Uyghurs believe that the only way for them to get closer to Islam is to get as much away from the Communist party and the Han ethnic group as possible. This issue, per se, can reflect the depth of ethnic, religious and identity-related tensions in Xinjiang region and also prove the phobia that Uyghurs have toward China, which can possibly make them resort to ISIS as the most available tool through which they can get their identity recognized and end their isolation. The following table shows alterations in the population fabric of Xinjiang from 1945 up to 2008.


Ethnic groups































As shown in the above table, although Uyghurs continue to account for the biggest chunk of the population in Xinjiang, the change in the proportion of Uyghurs from 82.2 percent to 46.1 percent as opposed to the increase in the proportion of Hans from 6.2 percent of the population to 39.2 percent, has been considered as a systematic effort by China to isolate Uyghurs in their homeland. Now, the basic question is what strategic consequences can escalation and deepening of such conditions have for China?

Strategic consequences

One of the most important consequences of developing ties and contacts between Uyghurs and ISIS and the subsequent separatist efforts by Uyghurs will be more tension and conflicts between Uyghurs and the Han ethnic group, in the first stage, followed by widespread instability and insecurity along the border with Afghanistan.

The second important consequence of such a development, which can put increasing strategic pressure on the Chinese government, is the higher possibility of secessionist tendencies threatening territorial integrity of the country and sending similar destabilizing signals to the Inner Mongolia, Taiwan and Tibet.

The third importance consequence of this development is facilitation of the United States presence in China’s security environment and improved position of India in regional rivalries, especially in Afghanistan.

Another strategic consequence that the spread of ISIS to Xinjiang can have for the government of China is prompting Beijing to take direct measures to build security through the use of force. Such measures can further mar the image of peaceful development of this country in the eyes of the international community, and disrupt China’s efforts to create a harmonious society.

The last consequence that this development can have is to jeopardize investments that China has made in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Caucasus, and to undermine the security of the country’s gas transmission pipelines, which can, to some extent, threaten China’s energy security.


On the whole, and as noted by various Chinese officials, the emergence and spread of three evil forces, that is, separatism, extremism and terrorism, are considered as three basic threats to the national security of China and this has been even mentioned as the main reason for the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As a result, more closeness between Uyghurs in Xinjiang and ISIS, in addition to the spread of ISIS in Afghanistan and Central Asia, can further intensity the aforesaid three major threats to the national security of China. Therefore, recent efforts made by China to negotiate with Taliban group can be considered as one of the basic steps that Beijing is taking to rein in ISIS through Taliban and prevent the possible infiltration of Xinjiang by this group, thus bolstering security of its border with Afghanistan. Of course, China has been cooperating and communicating with Taliban in Afghanistan for years and has even provided this group with various kinds of necessary assistance and military training. However, it seems that as the threat from ISIS looms, China will get even closer to Taliban in Afghanistan.

Key Words: Strategic Consequences, Alliance, ISIS, Uyghurs, China, Xinjiang, Afghanistan, Central Asia,Taliban, Zare’

*Photo Credit: Defense Update

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