Turpan's Flaming Mountains

By Matthew Brown
Staff Writer

Robed horsemen navigate craggy mountain paths, laden with soviet era weapons and explosives. Their furtive eyes watch the sky for the bright glint of a surveillance drone. The fiery blast of a suicide bomber unites a national landmark and a remote desert village in a shared moment of tragedy. Heavily armed security forces patrol impoverished towns, glittering cities, and meandering highways on the hunt for an elusive foe. Masked operators break down the doors of a family home; the males inside are taken away, never to be seen again. From atop a clay brick minaret, a muezzin calls out the Adhan in a mournful voice that echoes across desert sands.

You would be forgiven for reading this and imagining some conflict-scarred country in the Middle East. Images like those above have become familiar to Western audiences, long exposed to the sights and sounds of the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this land of mujahideen, secret police, ethnic conflict, and ambiguous morality is actually China, specifically the administrative division called Xinjiang. It is here that the forces of radical Islam, ethnic identity, and nationalism collide head on with Chinese hegemony. China is entrenched in a campaign here that is known to the West as the Xinjiang Conflict, at least to those few who know of its existence. The Xinjiang Conflict has had a long, troubled history and in recent years the conflict has increased significantly. Unsurprisingly, little news of China’s own shadow war makes it off of the mainland. In this two part series, I will introduce you to the conflict itself and the geopolitical interests which prolong it. To foster some sense of familiarity with the region, we will first cover the land, people, and prizes found in this restless territory, whose very name (Xinjiang: an old frontier which returns recently) acknowledges the tensions lying below the surface. Part two will then examine the secessionist forces operating in the territory, their motivations and sponsors, and conclude with China’s response to an enduring struggle which has brought the war on terror to the very heart of Beijing.

Muztagh Ata

A Desert in the Sky

First, let us sort out our geography. Xinjiang is the largest Chinese administrative division, the equivalent to a state or province. In an already immense country, Xinjiang dominates; the entire nation of Iran could fit into the territory with room to spare. Located in the most northwestern portion of China, you could imagine it taking the shape of two large bowls pushed together. Where the rims touch, the region is divided by the Tian Shan mountain range, an austerely beautiful locale typical of the territory as a whole. The depression of the northern bowl is called the Dzungarian Basin and the southern depression is the Tarim Basin. Rimming the northern bowl are the Altay and Tarbagatai mountains. The southern bowl’s rim consists of the Altun, Kunlun, and Karakoram mountains. Besides the impressive mountain ranges, the other major geographical feature is the Taklimakan Desert of the Tarim Basin. It was along the perimeters of this extensive desert that the Silk Road split into its two main western routes. Climatically, this elevated region is primarily semi-arid or desert. The harsh weather, terrain, and seasons have confined the population to narrow bands of foothills at the bases of mountain ranges or near desert oases.

Map of Xinjiang's Location in China

Xinjiang’s size and its location at the very edge of the People’s Republic of China has created a long, winding border. The nations of Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the Chinese administrative division of Tibet all share a mountainous border with Xinjiang. Details of just where China ends and another country begins are somewhat vague. China and India both stake claims to the Chinese held Aksai Chin region, while Pakistan, India, and China each claim the Chinese held Shaksgam Valley. Much like the Kashmir question between Pakistan and India, these border disputes are frozen conflicts where little progress towards reconciliation has been made. These locations often contain important mountain passes critical for future transit projects. For obvious reasons, control of these key land routes in and out of China are of central importance to all parties involved.

Native Sons

As noted before, the scarcity of water in the region has confined the major population centers to narrow belts at the base of the mountain ranges, where the yearly snow melt can be easily utilized. Extensive irrigation networks have transformed these settled areas into productive agricultural zones that stretch the entire length of each mountain range. These belts are home to the majority of the 21.8 million citizens of Xinjiang. Ürümqi, the capital, is the largest city with 3 million citizens residing in the rapidly modernizing metropolis. The nine other major cities, many of which have histories dating to before the adventures of Marco Polo, are home to a plurality of ethnic groups. Of these groups the Uyghur, the Han, and the Kazakhs are by far the largest.

Map of Xinjiang's Ethnic Groups

Uyghurs, the most numerous group, make up 43 percent of the population and have the longest history of settlement in the region. They are a Turkic speaking group with a unique mixture of Mediterranean and Asian genetic descent. Although their early history is disputed, mostly for political reasons, some form of Uyghur population has lived in the region for about 4,000 years and have attained and lost power over the region as history dictates. Historically, the southwestern Tarim Basin has been the region these people call home. Uyghurs are almost exclusively dedicated to the Sunni branch of Islam. Since completing their conversion in the 17th century, several famous mosques have been erected.

The next largest group consists of the Han people, who make up 40 percent of the population. Han history in the region is almost as complex as that of the Uyghurs; the two are linked by a long chain of violent conflicts. Major Han immigration to the region occurred following the Qing Dynasty’s 18th century conquests, and another large wave in recent years. These people share a common culture with the ethnic Hans who populate most of China. Mostly Buddhist, the Han retain strong economic and family ties with China’s heartland. Since the Qing Dynasty conquests and subsequent waves of immigration, the Han have mostly settled in the northern Dzungarian Basin, with the exception of a few cities in the Tarim Basin.

Lastly are the Kazakhs, who inhabit the most northern regions of Xinjiang. Forming approximately eight percent of the population, they are practicing Shi’a Muslims of the Ismaili sect. Significant cultural links between the Xinjiang Kazakhs and their brothers to the north in Kazakhstan make these people an island of eastern Turkic culture. Besides the Kazakhs, the Han, and the Uyghurs, 14 other ethnic populations, such as Tajiks and Russians, also share the land.

Treasure, Trade and Transport

Natural gas extraction in Xinjiang is by far the most dominant feature of the economy and is of crucial importance to Chinese energy security. Over 25 percent of China’s natural gas is supplied by Xinjiang via the West-East Gas Pipeline, which spans 4,000 miles and terminates in the metropolis of Shanghai. A volume of 420 billion cubic feet of natural gas passes through this pipeline annually. Such monumental numbers has required the completion of equally titanic engineering projects in the Tarim and Dzungarian natural gas plays. The northern city of Karamay, which means ‘black oil’ in the Uyghur tongue, is the center of Dzungarian natural gas industry, while Aksu in the Tarim Basin is the southern counterpart. Ethnically, Aksu is split more or less equally between Uyghur and Han populations while Karamay is 80 percent Han.

Coal, Xinjiang’s next leading energy export, is of similar importance to natural gas for the region. Over 38 percent of China’s estimated coal reserves are deposited in near-surface level banks that make for easy extraction. Although the exploitation of these coal deposits lag behind the natural gas efforts, conservative estimates predict that 800 million tons of coal will be extracted from Xinjiang every year by 2020 C.E. These huge deposits are mostly located in the Dzungarian Basin, but a very large coal bank also exists in the Tarim Basin as well.

The natural wealth locked within the ground of Xinjiang includes valuable minerals as well. Iron, salt, beryllium, rare earth metals, and 48 other valuable ores have been discovered and exploited to varying degrees all across the region. Extraction of these minerals has a long history in the region and many current mines have expanded upon earlier exploitations from antiquity. Agriculture is surprisingly productive for such an arid region, thanks to centuries of irrigation projects. Large amounts of grain and fruit are grown in the region for distribution to the rest of China.

All of these economic efforts rely upon huge amounts of water, which is naturally the one scarce resource in Xinjiang. Competition for water rights is a divisive issue; local farmers, mining corporations, and neighboring countries all compete for access to the few reservoirs available. To mitigate this issue, neighboring Tibet has been pegged as a possible source of much needed water; several recent engineering projects have been proposed to divert water from the Yarlung Zangbo River of Tibet.

Of course, all of these goods must find a route to market. Exports leaving China through Xinjiang total $19.3 billion per year, while imports are approximately $5.9 billion per year. Many of the manufactured items and foodstuffs produced in China must pass through Xinjiang on their way to Eurasian consumers. The same Silk Road routes that generations of merchants used before have now grown to accommodate unprecedented traffic. A vast majority of these goods pass through the city of Horgos, located in the northwest portion of the Dzungarian Basin. A ‘land port’ that abuts Kazakhstan, the Chinese side has been the site of rapid modernization and expansion. Conversely, the Kazakh portion is positively anachronistic; remove the cars and telephone wires and you have a medieval village. Thanks to extensive investment, Horgos has become the most vital transit point for Chinese goods headed to Eurasia and beyond. All of this trade is facilitated by an extensive transportation network. Numerous highways, railways and several large airports have been constructed in a short period of time and many more are planned. As China continues to extensively invest in development of its neighbors economies, the needs of Eurasian consumers can only grow. So too will the roads into and out of China.

They Call It Peace

With this overview of Xinjiang’s geography, people, and resources now complete, we are now ready to delve into the Xinjiang conflict armed with knowledge of the greater context forthcoming events will take place in. The strategic location of Xinjiang, its extensive supply of vital natural resources, and its large ethnic Han population sum up to a prize that China simply cannot afford to lose. Necessity, as we will see, compels the Chinese government to retaliate swiftly and brutally to any threat to regional stability. Yet, as the United States has learned, ruthlessness and firepower often create more of the very enemies you hope to eliminate. Up next; diplomacy or jihad, democracy or autocracy, the battle for supremacy amongst secessionist groups pits them against each other almost as much as against China. Plus, clandestine operations and knife wielding maniacs.

Cover photo by Colegota

Authors of additional images linked here, in order of appearance: Muztagh Ata photo by Colegota; Map of Xinjiang’s location by TUBS; Map of Xinjiang ethnicities by QuartierLatin1968; Gas Station photo by Otebig


Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012

By Marvin Andrade
Staff Writer

It is well-known that conflicts have a tendency to cluster in the same geographic regions around the same period of time; it is difficult to assess, however, whether conflict contagion is initiated from similar economic, political, social and other relevant country attributes, or if exposure to a neighboring conflict directly influences and spreads to nearby states. For more than a decade, the Middle East has experienced multiple civil conflicts that have stemmed from populations rising up to challenge their governments. These demands have been for increased government transparency, better economic opportunities and improved human dignities. The development of transnational communication networks through the increased use of online media has allowed these ideas to be spread to neighboring groups with similar grievances. It is arguable that civil conflict in Iraq and other Arab nations in the height of the Arab Spring had a direct impact in the incitement of conflict in Syria and that this realization by the global community has resulted in an evolution of how refugee camps are constructed in the neighboring regions today in response to the Islamic State.

How was conflict in Syria Contagious?

In Syria, conflict arose at the height of the Arab Spring. Through social media, the grievances of disempowered masses from Arab nations such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were highlighted. Research into conflict contagion states that violent mobilization in one country may lead to emulation by neighboring groups facing similar conditions. This is in large part due to the fact that transnational groups are made aware of certain grievances that they are facing in their home country and may raise their level of political demands made to their government – which are oftentimes not achieved.

Since the 2003 American invasion, Iraq has succumbed to one of the largest population diasporas in modern time. There has been gradual population dispersal in Iraq stemming from political conflict and instability in the region. Following the escalation of violence in 2006 deriving from heightened sectarian tensions, Iraq witnessed one of the largest waves of population exodus. Due to historical relations with Iraq and lenient border restrictions, approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees of an estimated 4.5 million fled to Syria.

Since 2007 and the arrival of a large refugee population, the Syrian government’s resources were strained as it attempted to accommodate a new segment of its population. With a population of approximately 20 million, the Syrian government struggled to accommodate a sudden six percent increase in population. In 2008, three years before initial violence broke out, Syria witnessed a 30% rise in foodstuffs and basic goods. Property prices rose 40% and rent was estimated to increase 150% in the most extreme cases. Additionally, water consumption increased by 21% and the Syrian government paid $6.8 million to provide drinking water and sanitation to the refugee population. These refugees put a strain on the unemployment rates in Syria, forcing the rate of unemployment to rise to 18% in 2006. The influx of refugees severely crippled the educational system as Iraqi citizens enrolled their children in Syrian schools, forcing drop-out rates to rise.

Overcrowding and an overall reduced standard of living increased the crime rate in Syria by nearly 20%. Syria’s economy and infrastructure was unprepared for the influx of new migrants and its economy began to buckle under the strain of over a million refugees. The Syrian government stated that approximately 80% of registered refugees in Syria had relocated to the capital city of Damascus. Of the population that migrated to Syria, it is estimated that over 60% of the population is Sunni Muslim, The ethnic makeup of the refugees entering Syria is critical in understanding the ensuing conflict in Syria itself.

Large refugee populations exacerbate resource competition between citizens in the host country and the recently arrived refugee population, and alter the ethnic balance through rapid demographic shifts. The influx of refugees provided a demographic shift which was not in favor of the ruling government. Syria, a government primarily held by Alawites, saw a further increase of Sunni Muslims (the majority population) who were already discontent with a government unable to protect their interests. As noted above, conflicts are likely spread through transnational ethnic ties, whereby the group members in one state will change the prospects of mobilization for the same group in another state. As refugees began to arrive in Syria, interaction between the citizens of Iraq and Syria begins to occur; as these populations began to speak to one another, both Sunni Muslim populations grew frustrated by the worsening conditions in both states for their particular ethnic interests. While the protests in Syria were led by Syrian citizens with legitimate grievances against their home government, sufficient evidence exists to say that the presence of Iraqi refugees exacerbated the situation through their utilization of state resources, which could have been used by the Syrian state in other forms to quell the rebellion through economic concessions to protestors.

Why Refugee Camps Matter

Due to the fact that Syrian nationals were suffering low economic standing, certain individuals’ threshold to fight were surpassed due to low opportunity costs, meaning that due to a lack of jobs, sanitation, medical care, and other human necessities, individuals were more willing to fight as they had less to lose.

Currently, more than 2.8 million Syrian refugees are spread across Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and other nearby states. Learning from the failures to provide adequate structures for Iraqi refugees in Syria, the global community has come together to respond more attentively to Syrian refugee needs. Additionally, with the escalation of violence from the Islamic State and the fact that civil conflict has the potential to spread across borders, the international community is preparing many more permanent structures for refugees so that they do not join the conflict. Not all countries can afford permanent structures, however, due to the economic strains that refugees place on their economies. In nations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, the international community is providing more financial assistance in order to prevent an economic breakdown of social structures. Countries that have a vested interest in ensuring that the Islamic State does not further expand, such as the United States, are investing more money this year than it has in the past into order to combat it through more subtle tactics. The United States, with the help of several NGOs are ensuring that states such as Lebanon do not buckle under the tremendous economic burden of supporting refugees totaling 10% of their total population.

Some countries, such as Turkey, have begun to construct more enduring refugee structures. The Kilis refugee camp is constructed with permanence in mind. This camp has containers retrofitted with walls to create 3-room homes with kitchens, televisions, and plumbing, constructed along a grid pattern with working street lights and supermarkets that accept electronic currency. The Turkish government treats this camp as a means to publicize their nation to foreigners, as this treatment may facilitate positive perceptions of the nation when the refugees return to their homes.

The issue of refugee assistance in the Middle East is not fully humanitarian in nature, but rather a matter that is given special attention in order to prevent the future breakout of conflict. The international community learned a lesson from its failure to provide refugee assistance to Syria. Today, the Islamic State is pushing conflict in the region and continues to look for volunteers willing to give themselves to this new cause. This year, the international community has given more aid to help Syrian refugees than in previous years. One can only hope it is enough.


Photo by Syria Freedom


Panmunjom on the Korean Border

By James Kim
Staff Writer

A mother often punishes her child whenever he misbehaves and rewards him if he deserves it. So goes the ideology of Trustpolitik, the new South Korean policy on containing North Korean aggression. Since Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first female president in 2012, Trustpolitik has offered a much more assertive approach to Kim Jong-un’s continuation of his father’s policies of nuclear extortion. If the North tries to provoke the South, President Park will cut off aid to her neighbor. This is a reversal of her predecessor’s Sunshine Policy, which was a more conciliatory approach, usually with no strings attached. Nonetheless, Park promises to help alleviate North Korea’s economic woes and reaffirm existing agreements if they can prove their commitment to the truce. Park’s inauguration address spoke of “a trust-building process, for Koreans [to live] prosperous and freer lives” [1].

On October 23rd, Lee Jong-joo, a representative of the South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, visited UC San Diego to explain what Trustpolitik means for South Korea’s future diplomacy with its northern neighbor. She pointed out in a slideshow that Kim Jong-un uses the nuclear game as a show of force to both the outside world and to inner party dissenters who question the young leader’s ability to rule. For the North Korean leader, nukes are merely a short-term political asset to a long-term economic goal as his nation still endures a devastating famine, not to mention the recession that has ailed the Communist bloc since the fall of the U.S.S.R. [2]. Obtaining nuclear weapons provides him not only with a cheap method for national security (as opposed to feeding and paying a burgeoning military), but also leverage in diplomatic talks with both the Republic of Korea across the 48th Parallel and the United States. Nonetheless, the recent flare-ups this spring show how precarious the double-edged sword of nuclear diplomacy has proven to be for Kim Jong-un, who not only incurred the wrath of the U.S. military, but also increased tensions with his only ally, China, which does not want an unstable nuclear-armed regime on its border [3].

Continuing in her lecture, Lee mentioned how the city of Kaesong represents a critical link between the two Koreas. Located inside North Korea near the Demilitarized Zone, the Kaesong Industrial Region helps stabilize the North Korean economy while providing South Korea with a source of physical labor for its chaebol, or major corporations [4]. The area’s closing during the spring tensions proved to be one of first tests for the Trustpolitik policy, as President Park refused to send back her economic advisors until North Korea could ensure it would not cause another international stir. She even warned “if North Korea launches another strike, then Seoul must respond immediately to ensure Pyongyang understands the costs of military provocation.” Since Kim Jong-un originally closed the economic zone, President Park wanted to see how long North Korea could stomach the loss of a vital part of its economy as well as handle a miscalculation by its leader. It appears that Kaesong was more important to the North then to the South, as the area was reopened in August and the North gave compensation to South Korean businesses that lost profit from its closing.

Trustpolitik survived its first trial, but it has yet to encounter a situation that actually involves loss of life, such as the sinking of the Cheonan that occurred during the administration of Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, a hardliner who refused to escalate the protests against North Korean aggression. It may be that the new policy will face rougher waves as Kim’s nuclear policy does not appear to be slowing down. However, Trustpolitik’s ability to extract concessions in its first major test still shows that this policy has had a fortunate start on its road to détente.

1. Lee, Jong-joo. Trustpolitik: A Way Forward on the Korean Peninsula. IR/PS: UCSD. 23 Oct. 2013. Event.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

Image by Joe Doe