COIN of the Realm

Could the counterinsurgency strategy that failed for the U.S. in Afghanistan work for China in Xinjiang?

Guang Niu/Getty Images
Guang Niu/Getty Images

Random arrests, indefinite detentions, and religious oppression are certainly nothing to aspire to. But observers of China’s internal affairs can in some respects consider Beijing’s campaign against Muslim Uighur separatists in the Western region of Xinjiang to be a success, at least to the extent that the unrest there hasn’t devolved into an all-out war. Still, tensions there appear to be rising. There seems to be an increase in violence between Han Chinese and Uighurs, who make up just under 50 percent of the region’s roughly 22 million people, as well as in Uighur-planned terrorist attacks. In late October, a car crash near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square killed five — an exceedingly rare attack on one of the most heavily policed parts of China. On March 1, masked attackers stabbed to death 29 people and injured more than 140 in a railway station in the southern city of Kunming. And an April 30 bomb and knife attack at a railway station in Urumqi, which killed three and injured 27, was all the more dramatic as it took place at the end of Xi Jinping’s first visit to Xinjiang as president.

Beijing has claimed Uighur separatists were responsible for all three attacks, reflecting what appears to be growing concern about the potential for escalation. And this concern could prove well-founded if Beijing does not impose more effective polices. Beijing’s current "strike hard" approach of mass arrests and draconian suppression of political and religious rights seems to be making things worse. Instead, China might be wise to consider implementing aspects of a traditional counterinsurgency strategy, even though the situation in Xinjiang may not fit with the popular conception of insurgency to the tune of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, China tends to use a heavy hand in putting down movements it perceives to be a threat to the cohesion of the state, even when they are as harmless as a group of Tibetan monks celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday. A number of factors inspire this strategy. China is paranoid about any of its potentially secessionist regions — for example, Taiwan, Xinjiang, or Inner Mongolia — setting a precedent by declaring independence. Then there is the perhaps coincidental fact that these regions, in particular Tibet and Xinjiang, are home to critical resources that support the all-important Chinese economy. (Xinjiang is not only massive and strategically important from a trade and defense perspective, but it also contains an estimated 30 billion tons of oil and natural gas reserves.) And finally there is the fear that the international Islamic terrorist movement could direct its violent ire at China.

In this vein, China has used aggressive tactics in subjugating the Uighurs, which has embroiled Beijing and the Uighur movement in a repeating circle of violence. Jailings, executions, and the application of excessive force by the government has catalyzed growing radicalism among the Uighurs, whose attacks in turn evoke more brutal repression which then spur new rounds of insurrection.

Today this cycle appears to be shifting towards a more dangerous dynamic for the Chinese, both because of the growing anger among Uighurs and their increasing ability to draw international support, including in the human rights community. That said, when one looks at the current situation in Tibet, once a darling of the human rights world (and a non-Muslim one at that, which typically means more money and love), support may do little to change events on the ground.

Calls for greater respect for Uighur rights for their own sake will almost certainly continue to fall on deaf ears in Beijing, where concern for international norms rarely seems to drive policy. But Xinjiang may be different because the oppressive measures China has used to counter a rising Uighur movement have shown themselves to exacerbate a longer-term and perhaps quite dangerous problem. Thus, despite deep-rooted fears of loosening its reins, perhaps China could be persuaded to consider other means of controlling the region.

Traditional counterinsurgency doctrine focuses on building host-nation forces and government entities to restore legitimacy and win the support of the population away from the insurgents. Of course, many counterinsurgency campaigns also require the capture or removal of hardcore insurgents; in the case of Xinjiang, this should for the time being be avoided to prevent reinforcing the cycle described above. But other elements of COIN, including improving public services, creating employment, instilling some semblance of rule of law, and providing education for the population would go a very long way in Xinjiang.

COIN has had a rough couple of decades, culminating in the apparent failure of the U.S. and NATO to achieve specific goals in Afghanistan. But this is primarily the result of the misapplication of COIN to cases in which the necessary circumstances for success were absent. The characteristics of a region that is fertile for COIN are generally considered to be as follows: a credible and capable host-nation force; a lack of substantial outside support or safe haven for the insurgency; a robust intelligence network; control of the physical and human terrain; and control of the flow of information. China has all of these in Xinjiang, while in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO had barely any of them.

Rather than use extrajudicial force to control Uighur activists, China might seek to improve rule of law with regard to criminal prosecutions (recognizing that these structures are flimsy anywhere in China) to enhance Uighurs’ sense that the state doesn’t simply exist to oppress them. With regard to economic development, another critical pillar of COIN, rather than the current "rising tide lifts all boats" approach (which appears to mostly benefit Han Chinese in region), China might consider ways to better distribute the revenues gained from the investments and industrialization underway to ensure they reach the Uighur community as well. And while Beijing has announced efforts to invest in public works and services in Xinjiang over the last several years, these too would have to be directed at the Uighur population rather than Han Chinese companies in order to help quell insurgent activity. Of course, there are "stick" elements of COIN that typically accompany these "carrots"; but Beijing may want to err on the side of offering carrots for now, if it wants to win this fight. Too many sticks have been used already.

China would likely have to take one more step that might
at first seem like a bitter pill — relaxing the restrictions on the practice of Islam in Xinjiang, since religious oppression will likely remain at the top of the Uighurs’ complaints. But this and the other steps outlined above seem like a small price to pay to pacify a strategically critical area that has been a thorn in Beijing’s side and whose potential for disruption of the overall Chinese project is only growing.

To be sure, Xinjiang will probably never be a bastion of human rights and for China to consider these measures would represent a major departure from the past. But the region need not be Switzerland to remove some of the most prominent grievances of the Uighur people. If China takes a few pages from the same COIN book that got the U.S. and NATO into a bind in Afghanistan, the tide in the region might actually turn in their favor, not to mention make life a little bit better for the Uighurs.

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm. Twitter: @whitneykassel