Sino-Pakistan Relations and the Uyghurs Conundrum

Sino-Pakistan Relations:

“Sino-Pakistan Relations and the Uyghurs Condurum”!

Pakistan’s policy towards “China and Uyghurs” is Realpolitik. In the words of Assad Durrani:

“In the field of International politics and security, morality takes a back seat.”

Thus we will start our dissertation keeping in view that “Pakistan is prioritizing its national interest over its religious ideology” in this case study. And according to statesmanship, this is the right way forward. Politics indeed, is janus-faced.


A system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideology considerations.

Realism emphasizes the constraints on politics imposed by human selfishness and the absence of international government which require the primacy in all political life of power and security.


It is to be noted that as compared to the Eastern part of China where Shanghai is located, the Western part is underdeveloped and replete with the elements of civil unrest, social insecurity, unemployment and conflict of ethnicities.

The primary region to be concerned with is ‘Xinjiang Province‘ that was populated with majority of Uyghur Muslims who are Turk in origin and don’t share the Han lineage with their Chinese fellows. The CCP has actively encouraged Han settlement in Xinjiang as part of the Production and Construction Corps (PCC), paramilitary farms consisting primarily of demobilized troops.

As a result of the increase in Han settlers in Xinjiang employed by the PCC or otherwise, the region has gone from 90% Uighur in 1949 to 45%-50% Uyghur today. In the Go West policy, China seeks to develop the western regions and facilitate greater economic growth, also holds clear benefits and will provide jobs for local Uighurs. Still, the Go West policy is viewed with considerable suspicion as continued development of the region attracts more Than settlers.

The policy is seen by some Uighurs as one that not only facilitates China’s attempt to make the Uighurs second class citizens in their own homeland but also destroys Uighur cultural identity.


Xinjiang is one of the largest industrial sectors of China and is bordered by many countries. China cannot afford the instability in the region that is being perpetuated by the extremist Islamist militant elements. It all started when China allowed Uyghurs to recruit themselves in Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war and then during the ‘war on terror’ in 2001.

China increasingly became afraid of the import of religious fundamentalism and weaponry through the karakoram highway into Kashgar which would then incite the already simmering elements of separatism in the province given the force of Islam. Tensions arose upon the publication of the Chinese book “Xing Fengsu (sexual customs) that denigrated Islam and became a rallying point for Uyghurs to protest against the state.

The cause of contention was also socioeconomic inequality, there was an income gap between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Furthermore, English was made mandatory in Uyghur schools to make it hard for them to get a job inside the country and once a person left the state, it was impossible to return because he might come back with ideas of liberalism or Islamic militancy from KSA and Egypt.

There have been bombings around the region and Urumqi for which the ‘United National Revolutionary Front’ and ‘Organisation of East Turkestan Freedom’ have taken responsibility. Both the groups were operating from bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Dubai, 2 ethnic Uyghurs guilty of planning to explode the Dragon Mart (largest Chinese mall) were caught. They were affiliated with the latter group. Both of them were instilled with militancy during their visit to mecca.

Formed in 1967, the East Turkestan People’s Revolutionary Party was composed of young Uyghurs and former officials from the short lived East Turkestan Republic. It was backed by the KGB which provided weapons, funds and radio transmitters and advocated an ‘independent, secular and communist East Turkestan oriented towards Soviet Union’, thus it is no surprise that Peking gave in to the idea of Jihad against these forces.


After several bombings, China launched this campaign. In 2014, a group of 8 assailants attacked a crowd at random with knives and cleavers in Yunnan Province. The suspects were Uyghurs. The uprising in 1990 in Baren, Kashgar created a lot of pressure for the state. Hundreds of men marched on government’s offices protesting against everything from Chinese exploitation of Xinjiang’s resources, chanting Shahada and in some instances Jihadi slogans.

A series of bus bombings in Urumqi on the day of Deng Xiaoping’s funeral took place. East Turkestan National Unity Alliance took the responsibility. Thus, China launched a Strike Hard Campaign to clamp down on 3 evils: terrorism, separatism and religious Extremism. China banned religious observance, wearing the veils of women, long beards on men and fasting by civil servants, teachers and students during Ramadan. China called it its own “war on terror”.


The Pakistani government has maintained a sympathetic, yet never openly friendly, posture toward the Uighurs from the earliest stages of Pakistan’s relationship with China. No Pakistani government official has ever met publicly with Uighur leaders or promoted their cause. Through the 1990s, as the Chinese government cracked down on the region, Islamabad scrambled to show Beijing that although it tolerated the Uighurs’ presence on its soil, it was by no means supportive of their cause and placed a greater premium on Pakistan’s strategic ties with China than on its religious ties with the Uighurs.

On the ground, Uighur settlements and markets in Pakistani cities have been closed, although some have reopened. In December 2000, the Pakistan Army closed two Uighur community centers called Kashgarabad and Hotanabad that had provided shelter for Uighur immigrants in Pakistan for decades.

In May 2002, Chinese authorities announced that Pakistan had detained Ismail Kader, a major Uighur separatist leader, at a secret meeting in Kashmir.Islamabad has also put pressure on religious leaders running madrassas not to accept any Uighurs. Although this has caused some tension between these mullahs and the government, the former have largely yielded.

Pakistan China

Their willingness to do so may have emerged from a shared desire to preserve Sino-Pakistan ties in the face of perennial hostilities with India and to win China’s support for the Kashmir issue. And also to be a part of SCO.

ETIP leader, Hassan Mahsum was imprisoned for several months as a result of his role in the Baren uprising and following a subsequent arrest in 1993 on terrorism charges, he was sentenced to 3 years of re education through labor. His travels to KSA, Turkey and Pakistan found him sympathizers. The Taliban granted Mahsum an Afghan passport and allowed him to set up training camps as well as running the operations of the group now known as ETIM. ETIM had the backing of IMU.

They recruited Uyghurs that then went back to China and carried out blasts. The IMU hosted ETIM first in Afghanistan and then in Pakistan.

ETIM leader, Hassan Mahsum was killed by the Pakistani army during a raid in South Waziristan on the behest of Chinese officials. Pakistan deported, arrested and tortured Uyghurs settled in Pakistan to China where they were summarily executed. Pakistan, acted as an intermediary, and brought China and Taliban on the negotiation table.

China promised to give perks to the Taliban in exchange for them not giving support or hideouts to Uyghur militants and extradite them and keep the IMU linked with Al Qaeda away from Chinese territory.

The Sino-Pakistan extradition treaty makes Pakistan’s current zero tolerance for Uighur militancy abundantly clear, but it unfortunately also holds negative implications for moderate, peaceful Uighurs in Pakistan who may face repression stemming from Chinese pressure on Pakistan.

Aside from bowing to Chinese demands, Pakistan’s crackdown on the Uighurs and warming relations with China have also been an attempt to alleviate China’s growing concerns over strengthened U.S-Pakistan ties following the events of September 11, 2001.

China is wary of the speed with which Pakistan, shunned after its 1998 nuclear tests by the U.S., has become a staunch American ally. Along with that Pakistan had economical interests with China in the form of “CPEC” that it could not let jeopardize.


The operation conducted by President General Pervaiz Musharraf in Lal Masjid was at the behest of Chinese pressure as they had kept some Chinese hostage. Out of 13 non Afghan foreigners killed, 12 were Uyghurs. It was enough for China to be cautious of terrorist activities in Pakistan that could be deported to China and that Uyghurs were using Pakistan as a base to create instability in China.

China had plans for military bases in FATA, Pakistan had intentions to lease China a tenth of its territory and the purported presence of 11000 Chinese troops in Pakistan’s North.

Due to economic meltdown, Pakistan’s sovereignty is further diluting and as Pakistan becomes indebted to China, it is forced to give China military and intelligence presence on its territory. That’s the setback of losing sovereignty over your own state.


Pakistan’s national interest in preserving ties with China is evident. It places greater value in its strategic ties with China than religious ties with Uyghurs.

Both China and Pakistan face the same rival: India. Thus, the concept of “interoperability” comes in and both need to be aligned in order to keep the region balanced. Pakistan cannot rely on the USA fully due to past history where the US has not stayed committed to its promises and also has sanctioned Pakistan.

Taiwan Strait

In these times, Pakistan finds China an alternative. Furthermore, in CPEC, Pakistan has a great stake. During Khan’s tenure, Pakistan voted in favor of the war in Yemen during the UNGA session as it was in its strategic favor to support the KSA that provides Pakistan with debts and oil facilities. Yemenis like Uyghurs, are Muslims too. But in strategic studies, interest of the nation and security interest takes precedence over religious ties.

Pakistan does not sympathize with Kashmiris solely based on religion but also the security dimension of securing the piece of land crucial to passing into Indian territory. It sympathizes with Palestinians but has just begun trade with Israel.

Giving support to Palestinians lends some credibility to Pakistan’s forged ‘Islamic Ideology’ and keeps it connected to the Arab world but we see, as the Arab world is relaxing its stances towards Israel, Pakistan too, finds a way out and a way towards its own strategic interests.


The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) consolidation of its rule in Xinjiang has been “an attempt to turn the region into an internal colony” for three reasons: to reduce the historic vulnerability of its borderlands, to avert emboldening the separatist movements in Tibet and Taiwan by agreeing to Uighur demands for greater autonomy, and to monopolize Xinjiang’s rich natural resources.

Furthermore, the region holds China’s most substantial deposits of oil, coal and natural gas as well as sensitive military installations such as the Lop Nor nuclear weapons testing facility. It borders with CA making it vulnerable to spillover of terrorism from these unstable countries. Thus the security and stability of the region is crucial to China.

This article is authored by Dr. Hiba Imran who is interested in Foreign Affairs, Global Politics, Conflict Resolution and Global Collaboration. The views expressed belong solely to the author and The Youth Diplomacy Forum is not liable for their accuracy or credibility.

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