Xinjiang's Governor's Visit to India: Significance for India-China Relations

29 Oct, 2004    ·   1546

Dr Abanti Bhattacharya analyses the significance of the low profile visit of Xinjiang's governor, Ismail Tiliwaldi, to India

In October this year a six-member delegation led by Xinjiang's governor, Ismail Tiliwaldi, visited India. This is a significant visit for Sino-Indian relations and most analysts have hailed it as deepening relations between the two countries. However, the media gave scant coverage to the visit, which raises questions on its significance.

The visit was significant first because of the history of the region from which Ismail Tiliwaldi hails. Xinjiang was incorporated into Chinese territory in 1884 under the Qing dynasty and became an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China only in 1955. This region from the late 18th century saw several attempts at carving out independent statehood by the region's dominant ethnic group - the Uyghurs. The region remains turbulent to this day owing to its strong Islamic and Turkic identity, possible Taliban links and historical aspirations for establishing an independent state. To assimilate this restive province the Chinese government followed repressive policies including flooding the region with Han Chinese to alter the demographic complexion. India had trade links with the region since ancient times. There used to be an Indian trading mission at Kashgar till the early 1950s which however was cut short by the 1962 India-China War.

However, in the post-Cold War era, geo-economic considerations have caused China to link Xinjiang's economy with the neighbouring countries. Second, in the post 9/11 world order, China sought to link the crackdown on the Uyghur movement with the global war on terrorism. The factor of terrorism and China's need for greater economic integration of the region brought Xinjiang to prominence. China adopted the strategy of multilateral mechanism by establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and introduced the Great Western Development Programme (Xibu da Kai Fang) to curb separatist tendencies in the region.

In this background, the visit of Xinjiang's governor to India for the first time is significant. The economic agenda, thus, centered the Xinjiang-India talks. The Xinjiang governor said that Xinjiang and India could work together on areas like agriculture and food processing, traditional medicine and herbs, energy and oil production as well as tourism. The talks are significant due to the geographical location of Xinjiang. It has border links with India's Ladakh. The eastern part of Ladakh is the disputed Aksai Chin area that China occupied in the 1962 war and through which it had built a road in the early 1950s to logistically connect Tibet. The other disputed area of Jammu and Kashmir is the Shaksgam Valley which was ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963.

The talks between India and Xinjiang demonstrate the deepening rapprochement in China-India relations. It must be remembered that China's domestic compulsions on Xinjiang's growing separatism brought a change in China's Kashmir policy and China has increasingly emphasized a balanced foreign policy approach towards India and Pakistan. This has diluted Pakistan's strategy of counter balancing China against India and brought about perceptible shift in China's policy toward South Asia. 9/11 also heightened the importance of Xinjiang in China-Central Asian relations and this has in some ways caused redefinition of China's ties with Pakistan. In this redefinition the space for India-China rapprochement has increased. For India the need to explore the Central Asian region and to participate in the exploitation of much needed energy resources prompted to shed its long reluctance to engage with Xinjiang.

The six-member Chinese delegation had two proposals. One, to open air routes between India and Xinjiang. Second, to explore the possibilities of laying natural gas pipeline from Xinjiang to India through Ladakh. For India the pipeline proposal with Xinjiang will open new connectivity between India and Central Asia. For China it will enhance the scope of Western Development Programme in the region and promote export of the rich natural gas resource. However, such enthusiasm for India-Xinjiang economic links, particularly the pipeline proposal will not have much impact on India's political establishment.

First, the proposal for laying natural gas pipeline reflects China's long term plan and does not seem to be a sudden decision spurred by only economic interests. India should be careful about China's intentions behind pipeline proposal as this proposal legitimises China's claims on Aksai China area. While pipeline links between Xinjiang and India carry significant economic opportunities, politically it is not a viable proposal. Laying of the Xinjiang-India natural gas pipeline is unlikely to take off unless there is a resolution of the border dispute along the Western sector involving the Aksai Chin area. Quite contrary, it needs to be seen if the energy factor and the general economic incentives of Xinjiang can facilitate early solution of China-India border dispute.