Xinjiang: A Chinese National Security Issue

Xinjiang in China
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in the People’s Republic of China (Credits: TUBS, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 40 Issue 5
Author: Riccardo Rossi

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, launched by Xi Jinping in 2013, identified the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) as a vital component in expanding China’s political and economic reach in Central Asia and addressing the Malacca dilemma. Taking into consideration geography, economics, and the complicated Uyghur situation, the analysis seeks to understand Beijing’s interests in XUAR.

The Geophysical factor of Xinjiang

China has placed significant political and strategic importance on the XUAR since its establishment in 1955. Three major factors contribute to the unique geography of Xinjiang.

  • The contiguity to former Soviet countries (rich in fossil resources), Muslim states (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the autonomous region of Tibet.
  • Xinjiang has a fairly arid climate, which, combined with the extensive Taklamakan Desert (270 000 km²), makes a part of the territory inhospitable, prompting the inhabitants (21.6 million) to retreat to certain areas.
  • XUAR is rich in mineral (730 million tonnes of iron) and fossil resources, which are essential for the functioning of Chinese industry. Approximately 38% of the total coal reserves in the PRC are located in Xinjiang, while its oil and natural gas reserves, estimated at 30 billion tonnes, account for 25% of the national total.

During his presentation on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi Jinping highlighted the significance of Xinjiang’s geophysical factor in determining internal security priorities such as economic development and territorial integrity. He emphasised the role of Xinjiang in fostering stronger economic and diplomatic ties with Central Asian countries.

Xinjian and the BRI: The Economic Factor

In order to support the national industry, the People’s Republic of China has prioritised the development of Xinjiang’s fossil resources. Since the 12th Five-Year Development Plan (2011-2015), the government has implemented a comprehensive policy for the XUAR aimed at improving infrastructure, boosting production, and enhancing the standard of living for its residents.

Xi Jinping, referring to fossil energy, urged the major flagship energy companies to increase investment in the region, setting himself a twofold goal.

  1. Increase oil and gas extraction to 32,701 million tonnes of crude oil  and 41,730,000 cubic metres of natural gas in 2023. Besides these two figures, we can mention the production of iron which, in 2023, reached 2,419,800 tonnes.
  2. Investing in land drilling initiatives to explore potential gas or oil reserves. Thanks to this policy, PetroChina could discover a reserve of nearly 5.72 billion barrels of oil in the Taklamakan desert area in 2021, significantly boosting Xinjiang’s oil extraction capabilities.

In the past decade, China has strategically leveraged Xinjiang’s proximity to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, which are known for their abundant fossil resources. This has enabled the People’s Republic of China to successfully implement significant infrastructure and energy projects, including the Kazakhstan-China Oil Pipeline and the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline.

The Kazakhstan China Oil Pipeline (2.798km long and costing $3 billion) connects the Kazakh shore of the Caspian Sea with the XUAR. Beijing and Astana built the pipeline in three segments divided into two phases: the first (completed in 2003), includes a 448 km section, starting in Atyrau, near the Caspian Sea and ending in Kenkiyak (Kazakhstan). The second phase includes sections from Atasu (Kazakhstan) to Alashankou (Xinjiang) and Kenkiyak (Kazakhstan)-Kumkol (Kazakhstan).

Beijing’s official name for the project is ‘the first pipeline of the new Silk Road’. This is because of its remarkable ability to pump 130,000 barrels per day, which will cater to approximately 15% of the country’s domestic oil needs.

The Chinese government considers the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline, the second critical infrastructure of the XUAR, connecting China with the major gas producers in Central Asia. The pipeline is 1,833 km long and composed of four lines: A, B, C, D. Beijing and Ashgabat completed lines A and B in 2012, while they opened section C the following year. They planned to work on section D, but the Covid-19 pandemic led to its cancellation. Beijing imports 60 billion cubic meters of gas per year, thanks to the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline, which covers approximately 15% of domestic demand, mostly from energy-intensive companies.

In order to promote industrial development, the People’s Republic of China recognises the importance of strengthening Economic and Technological Development Zones (ETDZ) in Xinjiang, alongside infrastructure efforts. Among these, we can mention Urumqi ETDZ (established in 1994 and close to the capital of XUAR), which has become an important hub for industries operating in the sectors of machinery, power transmission equipment, biopharmaceutical, chemicals and plastics.

Read also | The People’s Republic of China and the ‘Third Pole’ Water Resources Management

Xinjian, China and the Cultural Factor

Since the establishment of the XUAR, the People’s Republic of China has faced the Uyghur Muslim minority, which today makes up about 45.5% of the resident population.

Beijing has always maintained a repressive posture towards this ethnic group, favouring in 1989, the establishment of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an extremist group linked to several terrorist organisations of instance in Afghanistan or Pakistan, one among them Al-Qaeda.

In response to the rising number of terrorist attacks in the XUAR, Xi Jinping reinstated and reinforced measures to combat the “three evil forces” – separatism, religious separatism, and terrorism. The 2015 Counter-Terrorism Law (CTL) defines these forces in Article 3.

The People’s Republic of China has developed a strategy called ‘Strike Hard’ to combat the ‘three evil forces’, which involves implementing control and repressive measures against the Uyghur population.

As far as control measures are concerned, they include the facilitation of Han immigration into Xinjiang (to promote Chinese culture), the reduction of places of worship for Uyghurs and imposing Mandarin as the sole language in public institutions and in the workplace.

Beijing’s repressive policies include the partial deprivation of freedom of movement within the XUAR, the use of electronic surveillance, the repression of any Uyghur demonstration, detention without just cause, the installation of checkpoints in the main cities and the adoption of re-education camps. The People’s Armed Police manage this last measure, criticised by the international community.

The Chinese government has allocated additional funds to the Western Theatre Command, which includes the Xinjiang Military District and Tibet Military District. This allocation is part of their efforts to implement the ‘Strike Hard’ doctrine and accounts for nearly 88% of the budget dedicated to internal security in 2017. With this policy line, Beijing identifies the Uyghur ethnic group, like the Tibetan population, as a potential security threat to the People’s Republic of China.

Read also | Xinjiang’s Role in Promoting Kazakhstan-China’s Trade and Economic Cooperation


To safeguard its geopolitical interests, China may exercise strict control over Xinjiang, viewing it as an integral region, in order to prevent any potential uprising by the Uyghur population that could escalate into a civil war.

Beijing views this situation as the beginning of a string of uprisings among the primary ethnic minority groups living in the People’s Republic of China (including Tibetans, Mongols, and Hui), potentially resulting in a downfall of the nation from within and the subsequent dominance of the Han population.

When considering this context, it is necessary to include the potential geostrategic consequences in the Asia-Pacific region, paying special attention to the ongoing Taiwan issue. The eventual internal destabilisation of China could have significant repercussions for Beijing’s foreign policy. This, in turn, may cause a decrease in Chinese influence in the region, thereby providing an opportunity for Taiwan to strengthen its independent stance.

For those with an interest in acquiring comprehensive insights into China’s geopolitical dynamics and Xinjiang’s security issues, we encourage you to reach out to SpecialEurasia by emailing We are ready to assist you in evaluating the possibility of acquiring a carefully crafted and customised report to meet your intelligence requirements.

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