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World: Analysis From Washington--Thunder Out Of China

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 27 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - With the passing of China's "paramount leader" Deng Xiaoping, Beijing's relations with its own far-flung regions and with its immediate neighbors are once again in motion, a development with enormous consequences for stability within that country and across Asia as a whole.

The two most widely reported developments so far are the expanding separatist challenge to Chinese rule in the Western province of Xinjiang and multiple Chinese military probes into Indian territory. But a third, the relaxation of tensions between China and Taiwan, may be just as important in the long run.

On Tuesday, several people were reportedly killed when bombs went off in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi. These explosions, apparently timed to coincide with the funeral of Deng, appear to be part of the campaign by Uighur nationalists to achieve independence from Beijing, a drive that the Chinese have sought to suppress every bit as brutally as they have the efforts by Tibetans to reclaim their independence.

The Uighur movement is unlikely to be able to wrest power from the Chinese anytime soon, even though the Muslim Uighurs form some 60 percent of the population. Beijing has moved numerous ethnic Chinese into Xinjiang since the 1950s -- Han Chinese now form 37 percent of the total population -- and Beijing maintains a sizeable military force there.

But Chinese fears of instability, especially during a period like the one begun with the death of a leader like Deng, could easily spark a cycle of violence in an area Beijing has had difficulty in maintaining the kind of control it has elsewhere.

Local military commanders may either overreact to Uighur challenges or fail to respond to new attacks, either of which could intensify support for the Uighur national movement. And because Uighur and other Muslim groups outside China are now watching developments there more closely than ever before, any Chinese move against the Uighurs would inevitably have consequences far beyond Xinjiang.

One Chinese action has already had consequences beyond its borders. On Wednesday, Indian External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral told the Indian parliament that reports that Chinese troops had entered Indian territory six times between February 4 and February 18 were "very serious" and that the Indian government would issue a statement on the matter this week.

What makes these incursions so disturbing to India is that they come on the heels of what Indian officials had said was definite progress between Beijing and New Delhi over resolving their longstanding border dispute. China claims some 90,000 square kilometers of what India says is its territory, and the Chinese army has occupied some 33,000 square kilometers of that area since the 1962 war between the two countries.

There are several possible explanations for the recent incursions, but there is not enough evidence yet to rule any one of them in or out. First, they may not represent any serious change in the Chinese position. The Indian politicians who called attention to them noted that China had violated the border several times last year as well.

Second, they may reflect the efforts of local military commanders who are taking advantage of the inevitable weakening of the chain of command following Deng's death to sabotage a policy these commanders may not like.

Or third, they may represent a genuine effort by China to see how far it may be able to go to press its claims just now both because of the outside world's uncertainty about Chinese behavior and because of the patriotic feelings that such a conflict would ignite in China itself.

Given the uncertainties of an interregnum, at least some in Beijing may see such an upsurge in patriotism as a way to navigate through the difficulties ahead.

But a third development this month in China's relationships with the outside world points in a different and more hopeful direction. That concerns Beijing's ties with Taiwan.

Both Beijing and Taipei insist that there is only one China and consequently each disputes the legitimacy of the other to rule its respective territory. Not surprisingly, that has usually meant an extremely tense if distant relationship between the two since the Chinese communists seized power on the mainland in 1949.

Recently, however, the two sides have begun to open new channels. Last month, the two agreed to allow direct shipping between Taiwan and the mainland for the first time, a development that may increase Taiwan's investment in mainland firms.

And this month, Beijing and Taipai abandoned the expensive practice of routing telephone calls between the two through third countries and have begun to allow callers in each country to use direct satellite and undersea cable links.

While less dramatic than the events in Xinjiang and on the Indian border, this rapprochement may be especially important this year. To the extent that Beijing can improve its ties with Taiwan, the Chinese communist government is likely to be able to overcome western concerns about its takeover of Hong Kong this summer.

But the violence elsewhere and China's role in it are a reminder that Beijing has at least two faces, and one of them remains anything but supportive of genuine cooperation and tolerance.
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