Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Take Part in Anti-Uyghur "Terror" Exercise in China
China, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have carried out counterterrorism exercises in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang province, under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And while exercises like this are often conducted against hypothetical or at least thinly veiled enemies, that's not the case with this one, named Tianshan-II -- it was all about the Uyghurs:
"Signs are the 'East Turkistan' terrorists are flowing back," Vice-Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei said after the exercise. "The drill was designed against the backdrop that they are very likely to penetrate into China from Central Asia..."
A spokesman for the National Counter-terrorism Office of China said that while the region is generally stable, the "three forces" have been colluding with "East Turkistan" terrorist forces both in and out of China to involve in cross-border activities in recent years.
They wait for opportune moments to start up disturbances that have remained a common threat to SCO member states, the spokesman said when describing the reason why Xinjiang was chosen for the exercise.
In July 2009, nearly 200 people were killed and 1,700 injured in Urumqi, the capital of the autonomous region, in violence believed to have been masterminded by a separatist group based overseas.
Uyghur separatism, of course, is not a "common threat" to any SCO member state other than China, and the violence in Urumqi was, by all accounts, the product of local grievances rather than being "masterminded" from abroad. But anyway, the specific scenario of this exercise, according to Peoples Daily Online::
The scenario called on the three countries to coordinate a manhunt for separatists who had set up a training camp on the Chinese side of the border, according to the Ministry of Public Security.
Pictures showed special police units as well as armored vehicles and helicopters were deployed to intercept a tourist bus that had supposedly been hijacked by terrorists. The units were charged with freeing the abducted passengers.
The only comment I could find from Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan was on the Chinese Ministry of Public Security website, in Chinese (with google translation to English here), and they appeared to just give general statements about cooperation and fighting terror, saying nothing about an East Turkestan threat.
This exercise happened the same week that several Uyghur activists based in Central Asia were forbidden from traveling to the U.S. for a conference, allegedly at China's request. The advocacy group Human Rights in China noted that when a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson was asked about that issue afterwards, she pivoted remarkably quickly to talking points on terrorism and the SCO:
Q: According to reports, China has pressured Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into preventing some people from these countries from coming to the United States to attend a certain conference. Please confirm.
A: I haven't seen these reports. Terrorism constitutes a threat to the security and stability not only of China but also of Central Asian states. Strengthening cooperation and jointly combating regional terrorism is an important part of the cooperation between China and Central Asian states...
Though there hasn't been much overt sign of Uyghur disquiet lately, Beijing certainly seems to think there is still a serious threat.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.