China has agreed to help the United States in its new war against terrorism. Analysts say China hopes Washington will now sympathize with Beijing's long-standing battle against what it considers Islamic terrorists in western China.
The Chinese government has long been trying to crush a separatist movement in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang in far western China. Turkic-speaking ethnic Uighur separatists have claimed responsibility for periodic anti-Chinese riots and bomb attacks against public facilities.
Western governments and human rights organizations have generally disputed Beijing's characterization of the groups involved as criminals and terrorists, instead preferring to view them as activists protesting Chinese rule and human rights violations.
China specialist Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York, says both interpretations are probably correct. "There are some incidents in Xinjiang, I think, that are terrorism by anybody's definition - bomb explosions, for example," he said. "There's also though a lot of resistance in Xinjiang to Chinese rule that we would probably not call terrorism." Professor Nathan says whatever terrorism exists in Xinjiang is small compared to the recent attacks in New York and Washington. "But the Chinese will certainly argue that if there's a fight against terrorism, it should include wiping out these separatist organizations and groups that are active in Xinjiang," he said.
Robert Sutter, a China specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, says China feels so strongly about the problem of Muslim separatism that it brought together Russia and several central Asian countries into a new group - the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - with the chief goal of eliminating regional terrorism. "They have a very strong problem inside China and they want to do something about that," said Robert Sutter. "And there are cross border elements to this, including reported linkages to bin Laden. So, we have common ground on that issue. And they had common ground and have common ground with the Russians and the central Asian countries."
The question, Professor Sutter says, is whether the United States has any intention of helping China in its battle against separatists, especially those who may have links to Osama bin Laden's network.
Andrew Nathan says the United States may have to alter its attitude about various groups inside China. He says Washington now faces a sensitive issue in trying to determine which individuals are terrorists and which are human rights activists. "We have a basic standard there that we can apply about violence versus non-violence that should help us quite a bit in trying to tell the difference between whom we want to join the Chinese in opposing and whom we want to view as protected by human rights standards," he said.
Larry Wortzel, the director of Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, notes that previous administrations in Washington have seen China's suppression of Muslims in Xinjiang as a human rights violation. That may have to change, according to Mr. Wortzel. "I think the U.S. is going to have tacitly accept the fact that there really are some folks out in Xinjiang and some of these other areas that are committing genuine terrorist acts," he said. "And the Chinese are going to go after them harder, and the U.S., I think, will have to look the other way a little more."
As part of its anti-terrorism effort, China has increased security along its westernmost frontier in Xinjiang, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. A foreign ministry spokesman said the stepped up military presence is to safeguard peace and stability. In addition, China has tightened visa restrictions for tourists and business people from Middle Eastern countries.