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Central Asia: China's Mounting Influence, Part 4 -- Facing Militant Threats

  • Kathleen Moore

China and Central Asia are facing similar threats from militant Islamic groups, but are they working together to fight them? China and four Central Asia states are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has focused on cooperation in the name of security. Such cooperation has involved information-sharing, some joint military exercises and, as of this year, an antiterrorism center in Tashkent. But experts also say cooperation appears to be a way for China to restrict activity by Uyghur nationalists in the region.

Prague, 18 November 2004 -- "There was an explosion. Are you a journalist?"

"Yes," he said.

"One man blew himself up over there."

"Did you see it?" asked the journalist.

"When I came he had already blown himself up. I came five or 10 minutes after the explosion," said the man.

"Did people die?"

"One person died," he answered.
"Kyrgyzstan deported two young [ethnic Uyghurs] to China. The Chinese authorities tortured and killed them. Then they gave their bodies to their parents in [the Chinese city of] Kashgar [in Xinjiang]...saying disease had killed them."

That was the scene outside the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent in July, on the day suicide bombers attacked it, the Israeli Embassy, and the state prosecutor's office.

Uzbek authorities blamed radical Islamist groups for the blasts, which killed seven people, as well as for an earlier wave of violence in March that left nearly 50 people dead. They presented the violence as part of global terrorism, saying the attackers may have had links with Al-Qaeda.

Other Central Asian countries say they are also worried about the rising influence of radical Islamist groups.

China, too, has seen violence in its region that borders several Central Asian countries, and blamed a series of bombings and assassinations in the late 1990s on separatist Muslim Uyghurs.

But the radical groups appear to have different agendas. Those believed to be behind the Uzbek violence -- or at least the main suspects, as it's still unclear who's responsible -- seek social as well as political change with the creation of an Islamic state in the region.

In the case of China, it's separatism -- Muslim Uyghur groups seeking an independent state in the northwestern Xinjiang region.

So how are the countries working together to solve the problem? Uzbek President Islam Karimov said, "We are in full solidarity with China in the fight against the three evils -- international terrorism, extremism, and separatism."

Karimov was speaking in June, on the eve of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The grouping is the main regional forum for cooperation in security, as well as other spheres.

Its members -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, along with Russia and China -- pledged to unite and step up regional efforts against terrorism and extremism.

So far, experts say that's meant some intelligence sharing, treaties allowing joint criminal investigations, and military exercises.

In 2002, Kyrgyzstan became the first foreign nation to hold military maneuvers with China. The following year, there were exercises involving SCO members in Kazakhstan and China.

But experts say the cooperation is mainly a way for China to restrict activity by Uyghur nationalists in the region. China has asked for help in capturing Uyghur exiles it calls terrorists.

In recent years, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have both deported Uyghurs at China's request.

Li Hua, first secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, says it is normal to deport what he called "criminals." "There are laws in the world according to which criminals must be held responsible," he said.

The trouble, says regional expert Niklas Swanstrom, speaking with Radio Free Asia, is that some of those who are being deported may be innocent. Swanstrom is executive director of the program for contemporary Silk Road studies at Sweden's Uppsala University. "When a country comes and says, 'Hand over the terrorists,' it's really hard to say, 'No, we're not going to do that.' But in many of those cases, they are not necessarily terrorists," he said.

Sadyk, a Uyghur living in Bishkek, told RFE/RL earlier this year that Uyghurs who are deported are in grave danger: "Last year, Kyrgyzstan deported two young [ethnic Uyghurs] to China. The Chinese authorities tortured and killed them. Then they gave their bodies to their parents in [the Chinese city of] Kashgar [in Xinjiang] last September, saying disease had killed them."

Kamron Aliyev, an independent Uzbek analyst, believes Central Asian authorities will seek to clamp down further on Uyghur groups in order to foster good relations with China: "In Uzbekistan and in other Central Asian countries, there are a number of independent Uyghur organizations that deal with their cultural, language, human rights, and national dignity issues. Local governments that are getting assistance from China now will be trying to close them down. Governments will try to restrict freedom of their activities. We can expect that Uzbekistan's security service will be conducting talks with China on these issues."

To be sure, experts say there are limits to cooperation in the name of security.

Alex Vatanka says that, on paper at least, there is a strong incentive for China and Central Asia to cooperate. Vatanka is a regional security expert with the "Jane's" military publishing group in London: "One of the main characteristics of these states is that they are suspicious of one another, which is obviously a major, major obstacle to any deep-seated and fundamental shifts in attitude in regards to transnational threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking. [Central Asian countries are] suspicious of the Chinese, and I think they're trying to balance the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans against one another and -- given the relative poverty of the region -- maximize benefits to themselves. So far they seem to have done an okay job, but nothing is standing out as a prime example of how regional cooperation has achieved specific objectives. As far as the pan-Islamism goes in the region, the threat is exactly today what it was two, three years ago."

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Uzbek services and Radio Free Asia contributed to this report.)