In the year 751 CE, the largely Arab-Persian army of the Abbasid Caliphate met the Chinese imperial forces of the Tang Dynasty on the banks of the River Talas near today’s Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan border in Central Asia. Initiated by a border dispute between client states, the conflict soon led to a confrontation between the two empires. At stake was control of the ancient, lucrative trade route, the Silk Road.
The Battle of Talas was said to be the “first and last” meeting of Arab and Chinese armies. Although it was what could be described in military terms as a mere skirmish, it arguably had long-lasting geopolitical implications. Islam had arrived in China less than 20 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in 632 CE. Initially through emissaries and then with trade, the early Muslims saw the first mosque established during the Tang era. However, the Umayyad Caliphate which had been deposed by the Abbasids a year before the Battle of Talas, had continued the territorial expansion set by the Rashidun Caliphate before it, so a clash with Imperial China was inevitable at some point in Central Asia, where the latter already had an established sphere of influence.
The Abbasids allied with the then-powerful Tibetan Empire, and the Uyghurs also benefited from defections of Karluk Turks in their ranks. An internal rebellion in China a few years later led to its withdrawal from Central Asia and its so-called “Western Regions” and cemented Muslim domination of the Silk Road for centuries. However, over time the emergence of sea and then air freight routes rendered the Silk Road from China across the Middle East to Europe almost obsolete.
However, it seems to have been given a new lease of life by China’s ambitious multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is planned to connect Beijing with over 70 countries across Africa, Asia and Europe by land and sea networks, consisting of six economic corridors. The BRI was first coined by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.
The following year, with growing unrest in Xinjiang among the Turkic-speaking Uyghur population, the Chinese government commenced its so-called re-education programme of the Uyghurs. This was intensified in 2017 with mass surveillance and detention of up to a million Muslim Uyghurs. One Business Insider article last year suggested that in addition to fears of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang, the region is also home to some of the most vital elements of the BRI.
Drone footage leaked last year has resurfaced on social media in recent days showing prisoners shackled in chains being forced onto trains in China’s autonomous Xingjian region. It has once again shed light on Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority, who have long-complained of state suppression. It is alleged that forced sterilisation and slave labour is taking place in “concentration camps”.
Two weeks ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that sanctions will be imposed on three senior officials in the Chinese government over “human rights abuses” targeting Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has also accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses.However, China’s ambassador to the UK has dismissed allegations of concentration camps as “fake” and denied their existence. Instead, Beijing calls them “re-education camps” aimed at countering religious extremism and separatist ambitions among the Uyghur community.
The heavy-handed crackdown by the authorities has led some Uyghur activists and fellow Muslims to frame what is happening as “China’s war against Islam”. The counter-argument to this has for some time highlighted the fact that Uyghurs are not the only or even the largest of the 10 recognisably Muslim ethnic groups among China’s 55 ethnic minorities; the Hui, Kazakhs, Dongxiangs, Khalkas, Salas, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Bao’ans and Tatars are all Muslims, in addition to the Uyghurs. The Hui are ethnically close to the majority Han population and are the third largest ethnic minority; they are well-integrated and accommodated by the state, and are spread widely across China. Nevertheless, even the Hui have started to express their concerns that they will be targeted next by Beijing.
The unfortunate truth, though, is that religious extremism has become embedded among significant segments of the Uyghur community. This does not justify collective punishment, but it does help to explain the genuine security concerns that the state may have.
For example, at the turn of the 20th century, a Wahhabi-inspired Islamic movement appeared in China, called Yihewani, based on the Arabic word ikhwan or brotherhood, not to be confused with the later Muslim Brotherhood. After relaxed state attitudes towards religion in China during the Deng Xiaoping era (1978-1989) which led to a religious revival in the country, there was an increase in Saudi Arabia-funded religious propagation during the 1990s. That is when Beijing began to pay more attention to its own Salafi community.
According to one 2017 policy brief on Uyghur Foreign Fighters, Uyghur jihadists first caught the world’s attention after 9/11, when the US and coalition forces killed and captured a number of Uyghurs fighting alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan under the banner of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
Other Uyghur jihadists received training in Chechnya, and there are many fighters active in the Middle East and South East Asia. ETIM’s offshoot, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), is currently fighting alongside Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. According to the Syrian ambassador to China, there are around 5,000 Uyghurs fighting in Syria. Neighbouring Turkey, which supports various armed groups against Damascus, has also been pivotal as a migration route from Xinjiang to Syria and has offered consistent support to the Uyghur cause over the years under the umbrella of pan-Turkism.
Security and economic interests tend to go hand in hand. Separatism and Islamic extremism are threats which are taken very seriously by China, but we cannot simply dismiss the heavy-handed crackdown on perceived dissent and the engineered migration of ethnic Han to Xinjiang, a region with strategic connections to the BRI and home to most of the country’s coal and natural gas reserves.
As in the past, control of the Silk Road and by extension Eurasia led to hegemony as per the Heartland Theory. Having succeeded over Imperial China, the Abbasid Caliphate certainly achieved great power and status in a golden age. China is widely expected to be the next superpower and is on track once again to exert its influence on the Silk Road, more so than ever before. To ensure this, Beijing will focus on consolidating its control over its most restive yet one of its most resource-rich regions.
As has happened in many other places, the Covid-19 pandemic has also had an effect. Disruptions to the BRI project brought on by lockdown measures have forced China to focus on domestic matters, to the cost and resentment of the Uyghurs.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.