The board is Central Asia. The major players are (in order by length of experience) China, Russia, and the U.S.A. Important supporting roles are filled by Pakistan, Iran, India, and Turkey. Welcome to the Great Game, 21st-century style. Can’t spell “Kyrgyzstan”? Stick around — pretty soon you’ll be murmuring it in your sleep, and the twinning of Bishkek with Washington D.C. will be waved through Congress on a voice vote.
The classic Great Game was played in the middle decades of the 19th century between Russia and Britain, the first seeking to consolidate its control over newly-acquired Central Asian colonies, the second determined that the sphere of that control should stay firmly on the northern side of the Northwest Frontier and not trespass on British India, or infiltrate her buffer states.
The new Great Game, like much else, got under way in earnest last September, when the U.S. realized that it had more enemies, and needed more friends, in Central Asia, than we had previously supposed. It is an unfortunate thing that one of the friends we need is China, the most vigorous big power in the region, and the one with the most experience — around 2,000 years’ worth — of dealing with the racial salad with which that region is, and always has been, populated.
The Chinese will ask a high price for their help. On past evidence, indeed, even if we pay that price, Chinese help will probably amount to many fine, wordy declarations, supported by some occasional and modest restraint in attacking our interests. Be that as it may, some of the line items on the invoice became known last week, following Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s visit to Beijing, August 25-26. China wants the United States to:
- Curtail weapon supplies to Taiwan.
- Seek U.N. support for dealing with Iraq.
- Help China deal with problems of imperial control in her western territories.
Paradoxically, China’s hand is strengthened by an element of uncertainty hanging over the leadership at present. According to current Communist Party protocols, President Jiang Zemin is supposed to step down from all his posts over the next few months, but it is not at all clear that this is going to happen. Some compromise seems to be cooking — permitting him to maintain control of military planning, probably. While these matters work themselves out in the hidden corridors of Beijing, the U.S. must tread carefully, for fear that any sudden movement might precipitate a power grab by one of the more belligerent factions in the Chinese leadership. There are already more than 2,000 U.S. troops and support personnel in Central Asia, in what China considers her back yard. China’s senior military men are surely not happy about this.
The last one of those bullet points above is worth particular notice. “East Turkestan” is the region the Chinese call “Xinjiang.” The majority ethnic group there is the Uighurs, a Turkic people (which is to say, speakers of a language related to Turkish, and perfectly unrelated to Chinese) with a literate culture going back to the 10th century. Like the Tibetans to their south, the Uighurs suffered horribly under the Mao Tse-tung despotism of 1949-76, and have no great love for their Chinese overlords. Also as with Tibet — and Taiwan, and other parts of the old Manchu Empire — the Chinese simply insist that East Turkestan, re-occupied in 1949 after a spell of independence, has “always been a part of China,” and lose their tempers if you try to inquire further. Far from being willing to countenance independence for the region, Beijing will not even consider any real automomy, or any federal compromise of the kind the Dalai Lama has proposed for Tibet. Anyone who speaks of such things is trying to “split the Motherland” — a serious felony. Clocks in Kashgar run on Beijing time, though the cities are three hours of longitude apart.
America’s War on Terror, and the anti-Muslim feeling generated in the U.S. by last September’s attacks, have been a godsend to the Chinese. The Uighurs are Muslims, you see. Very few of them are Muslims of the fundamentalist kind: the Turkish/Turkic peoples seem to carry some cultural gene that immunizes them against religious fanaticism. Islam is their faith, though, and it follows that if the Chinese tag the East Turkestan independence movements as “terrorist,” in the present climate of opinion, nobody will much mind. This the Chinese have done; and that third bullet point in the list above requires the U.S. to go along, as part of the price of Chinese co-operation in Central Asia.
Along we have duly gone. Before leaving Beijing, Deputy Secretary Armitage announced that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, accused — by Beijing — of planning attacks on U.S. embassies in Central Asia, has been added to a State Department list of terrorist groups, and its assets in the U.S. frozen.
Is E.T.I.M. actually a terrorist group? No-one seems to know. Various claims to that effect have been made, but so far they can all be traced back to information from Beijing. Since Beijing considers the Dalai Lama to be a terrorist, the fact that they apply the same label to E.T.I.M. does not tell us very much, except that E.T.I.M. is an irritant to China, which of course we already knew. The generality of Uighurs are strongly pro-American, like most subject peoples in the communist empires; according to the Washington Post, headscarves with a stars-and-stripes motif sell briskly in the bazaars of East Turkestan cities.
However, it would not be very astonishing if the East Turkestan independence movement had a lunatic fringe: most such movements do. And in fact, the situation of people like the Uighurs raises debatable ethical issues for activists. We easily condemn, and rightly so, acts of terrorism carried out against open, liberal societies like ours, Britain’s and Israel’s. What, though, if your people are under the heel of a ruthless fascist despotism, which has murdered tens of thousands of you, which permits you no free voice or representation, which seeks to annihilate your culture and swamp your land with colonists, which lies to a complacent world that you have “always been a part” of their country? Is terrorism then justified? Blowing up a bus full of civilians is a very deplorable thing to do; but it is hard not to feel that it is less deplorable in, say, Nazi-occupied Poland, than in present-day Haifa or New York.
Most of us would still say that terrorism is illegitimate under all circumstances. (I myself would say so.) The Uighurs live right next door to Tibet, though. They have watched these last 43 years as the Dalai Lama has held his people in check, resolutely pursuing the path of reason and legality, laying out the Tibetan case in a calm voice to anyone that will listen. The Chinese have rewarded this restraint by smashing Tibet to splinters and gloating over their achievement; the free world has rewarded it with indifference. If there are extremists among the Uighurs, they can point to the dismal fate of their neighbor as an example of what happens when you confront the Chinese with law, reason, and calm persuasion; and if the Wahabi proselytizers who fanned out across Central Asia in the 1990s found a few willing recruits among the Uighurs, perhaps we should not be too surprised.