Xinjiang: Geographical Implications and Challenges for India


The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) which geographically borders India’s disputed boundaries with China and Pakistan has been in the limelight due to its religious and ethnically divisive policies carried out by the Chinese government against the domiciled Uyghur Muslims. Significantly, secessionist tendencies in XUAR and the Indian administered Kashmir since the end of the Cold War have created hiccups in their respective nation building process. Hence, against the backdrop of USA’s Islamophobia since 9/11, China and India both have sought to embolden their national policies in rooting out Islamist terrorism, separatism and extremism. However, the existent mutual suspicion in their bilateral relationship has inadvertently made XUAR a geographical and strategic barrier for India.


India and China have long coveted their traditional global images post independence from their colonial masters.  However, as terrorism seeks to foil their plans, China’s distorted view of terrorism has proved malignant to India’s national security interests. China’s anxieties pertaining to XUAR is linked to separatism and foreign influence. Hence, to insure China’s security concerns in Xinjiang, relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan and their respective terror groups like JeM and Taliban have been reinforced raising India’s security concerns. Also, the Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) promotion of Chinese labour emigration into its recipient countries usurps the economic opportunities available to the local populace risking the creation of terror outfits namely in Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan given their domestic resentment against China’s counterterrorism policies in XUAR. This resentment may ensue plausible spill over into the Indian administered Kashmir creating strategic risks for India’s national security. However, India’s security concerns remains to be reciprocated by China given the latter’s all-weather friendship with Pakistan indicative in its prolonged resistance to support India’s bid to blacklist Masood Azhar. Hence, India’s membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2017 remains instrumental as India’s security concerns synchronise with SCO’s foundational interests in containing and combatting terrorism, separatism and extremism. However, India’s lacklustre relations with China, Russia and Pakistan in the SCO have emboldened its strategic partnership with the USA enabling India to allay regional security concerns by engaging in Afghanistan’s nation-building process while concurrently cooperating in the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) of the SCO.

Access to Central Asia:  

China’s opportunism in using XUAR as a major connector in the Silk Road Economic Belt has accentuated China’s policies in India’s extended Western neighbourhood viz. Central Asia. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) running through Pakistan-administered Kashmir is a source of economic and security relief to Pakistan which has been sought to be extended to Afghanistan.  The loss of Aksai Chin during the1962 Sino-India war, cession of Shaksgam Valley to China by Pakistan in 1963 and the recent territorial ambitions of China in India’s Galwan valley highlights China’s trepidation in maintaining its territorial integrity by enmeshing its volatile provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet (Xīzàng) within its economic and strategic fold. As a result, India’s options in geographically connecting with the landlocked Central Asian region has dwindled given the Chabahar port interlinkage project remaining in limbo amid growing relations between China and Iran coupled with the unexpected integration of Gilgit Baltistan, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan into Pakistan. Notably, Russia’s activism in securing India’s membership to the SCO was aimed at tackling India’s geographical complexities while balancing China’s interests in Central Asia.  However, India’s capacity building attempts in Central Asia in developing a web of complex interdependence in IT, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, etc. has been asymmetrical vis-à-vis its competitors. Hence, a plausible refurbishment of India’s Connect Central Asia policy is required as the Line of Credit to Central Asian countries, Ashgabat agreement, INSTC and EAEU commitments remains to bear fruit. Meanwhile, political will in rebooting the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) pipeline could rectify India’s foreign policy errors while ensuing energy diversification. However, the caveat lies in balancing India’s strategic interests with USA as well as with the permanent and observer members in the SCO that harbour anti-USA views. 

Shared Islamophobia: 

India’s union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh harbours second and third generation Indian citizens whose ancestors where Uyghur refugees from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The first wave of immigration occurred during the trade and cultural exchanges along the erstwhile Silk Route while the second wave occurred during the Chinese clampdown on independence movements in the XUAR. India’s silence pertaining  to Chinese policies in the XUAR rests against the backdrop of the Panchsheel principles while Turkey, an another abode for the Uyghur refugees although initially vocal about the treatment of its Uyghur brethren presently maintains occasional protests on the issue given its growing economic ties with China. Interestingly, there has been no convergence between Turkey and India pertaining to the Uyghur refugees; instead Turkey has bolstered critical statements on India’s policies in the Indian-administered Kashmir. As China’s security policies in XUAR have started emulating in the Indian-administered Kashmir by means of continued internet shutdown, changes in immigration and property laws, orchestrated visits of foreign dignitaries and the February 2020 riots in Delhi, Tablighi Jamaat outrage and frequent lynching incidents in the country; oppression of Muslim majority locations is a commonality visible in both countries. India’s amendment to its Citizenship law had raised Chinese fears of secessionist tendencies in the XUAR but India’s approach in stifling dissent against the amendment through internet shutdowns had been approved by China. This overarching sense of ethno-religious nationalism experienced in both XUAR and Indian-administered Kashmir is the result of China and India’s repressive policies underlining their skewed perception of threats to national security.


Notably, India and China’s attribution to the moral wounds of colonialism and principle of non-interference has not only been a boon in employing harsh policies to stimulate their perceived peaceful rise but also a bane in respect of pursuing policies to maintain their regional hegemony. India’s despotic polarization of Pakistan as regards terrorism and procrastination in settling the issue of Kashmir bilaterally has intensified hostile relations dimming the hopes for any joint collaborative projects in South Asia or Central Asia. Besides, long-standing hegemonic behaviour of India given its demographic, geographic and economic fundamentals overshadowing other South Asian economies, it has leveraged China in dominating the regional state of affairs through economic and strategic partnerships. The resulting growing ties between China and the BRI recipients in South Asia has ignited a cause of concern for India as the regional identity wanes from a India-led ‘South Asia’ to a ‘Greater South Asia’, a geo-economic concept aimed at diminishing India’s role in South Asia. Thus, India’s bold move in abrogating Article 370 from its Constitution in 2019 that provided special autonomy to the State of Jammu and Kashmir in India, changes in FDI laws pertaining to countries  bordering India and the persistent military build-ups across its disputed boundaries with Pakistan and China have although reasserted India’s territorial sovereignty; it has shifted gears in Pakistan and China highlighting the geopolitical importance of India’s disputed territories to its hostile neighbours.     

Aneetta T. Peedikayil
Aneetta T. Peedikayil
Aneetta Thomas Peedikayil is a lawyer pursuing M.A (International Studies) from Christ (Deemed-to-be) University, Bengaluru, India.


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