Xinjiang's other minorities equally important to region

By Zheng Liang Source:Global Times Published: 2012-6-19 18:55:07

On a recent trip to the Altay region in the northern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, I ran into a group of tourists from Kazakhstan. When asked about which part of Kazakhstan they were from, one old man blurted out in Putonghua, "I am local. I am from here!" Then I realized that some of them were Chinese Kazaks who had emigrated to Kazakhstan years ago.

Xinjiang is officially a "Uyghur autonomous region," but 47 ethnic groups can be identified in the region. In addition to the dominant Uyghur and Han groups, the Kazak, Kirgiz, Mongol, Hui, Xibo, Tajik, Uzbek, Dawoer, and Russian minorities have very long and colorful histories in the region. While more than 80 percent of Uyghurs reside in southern Xinjiang, the non-Uyghur ethnic minorities are spread among remote areas and the borderlands.

For example, Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture borders on Kazakhstan in the northeast, as does Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, to the north of Ili. In southern Xinjiang, Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture borders on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County on Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

This distribution of ethnicities brings about three major cross-border ethnic groups in Xinjiang: Kirgiz, Tajik, and Kazak.

These three cross-border ethnic groups are of great significance to China's economic expansion in Central Asia, energy security, and stability in Xinjiang. To promote trade and economic exchange with Central Asian states, 15 overland trade passes are currently in operation in Xinjiang.

The largest among them is Alatav Pass Port, which is in Bortala connecting China and Kazakhstan. The Horgos Port is the largest in Ili, followed by Dulata and Baktu Ports. In early 2012, China and Kazakhstan jointly declared a special trade zone in Horgos, where traders enjoy visa-free status to facilitate the trade between the two nations.

While trade with Kazakhstan dominates northern Xinjiang, the Irkeshtam and Turgat ports were built for trade with Kyrgyzstan. Both of them are located in Kizilsu in southern Xinjiang. Tashkurgan's Khunjerab Pass, located 5,000 meters above the sea level on Pamir Plateau, is crucial to trade with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Khunjerab can be reached through Karakoram Highway, also know as the China-Pakistan Friendship Road. China has invested heavily on maintaining this road, which is periodically cut off by summer mudslides and buried under the snow in winter.

The trade between China and Central and South Asian nations has been booming in recent years. The cross-border ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, together with Uyghurs, play an essential role. Kirgiz, Tajiks, Kazaks, and Uyghurs have natural linguistic and cultural affinities with various ethnic groups on the other side of the border. They are the biggest facilitator of China's trade with Central and South Asia.

In addition to trade, China has signed agreements with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to build pipelines to transport Central Asian oil and gas, through Xinjiang, to East China to relieve China's energy dependency on the Middle East and Iran. The pipeline in China starts from Horgos in Ili.

Xinjiang's cross-border ethnic minorities are also critical to the security and stability of China's far west, which will face a potential surge of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism after NATO and the US withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. Observers have long been questioning the Afghan security forces' capability to combat the Taliban and effectively controlling borders with neighboring countries.

Xinjiang's Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, which shares borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, will be under serious security pressure. In case of a Taliban resurgence and possible infiltration after 2014, close cooperation with Tajik and Kirgiz herders on the Pamir Plateau will help form the first line of defense against threats from Central and South Asia.

Moreover, economic development should be boosted in border areas too. In addition to billions of yuan invested by the government of Xinjiang since 2009, the central authorities have installed two special economic development zones in Horgos and Kashi, hoping to further boost the local economy.

Xinjiang's non-Uyghur ethnic minorities are vitally important to China's domestic security and interests in Central and South Asia. They could be natural bridges linking China and Central Asian nations, and the geographical location of non-Uyghur autonomous regions is critical to Xinjiang's security and stability.

Non-Uyghur ethnic minorities deserve more attention in the process of modernization and policy revision in Xinjiang.

The author is a scholar with the Journalism and Communication college, Xinjiang University.

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