Institute for War & Peace Reporting
Joint training exercises to be conducted by Kazak and Chinese forces this week have the dual aim of curbing ethnic Uighur separatism and ensuring oil pipeline security.
Tien-Shan-1 is the first counter-terrorism exercise these two countries have worked together on, and is intended to improve military coordination within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, SCO, a regional security grouping of which both countries are members. The August 24-26 exercises will take place at two locations, one near Almaty, Kazakstan’s second city, and the other in the Xianjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of in northwestern China.
This is the third in a series of bilateral military exercises China has conducted as part of the SCO. The other two involved Kyrgyzstan in 2002, and Russia in 2005.
The SCO summit that took place in June in Beijing demonstrated a consensus on concerns about combating terrorism, religious extremism and separatism.
Analysts say the choice of venue for the exercises, where ethnic Uighurs are concentrated in the greatest numbers, is a sign Kazakstan is prepared to cooperate militarily with China in the troublesome autonomous region of Xinjiang. The Chinese government has always kept a close eye on this region, which it regards as a hotbed of separatism.
Analysts are uncertain how the Uighur minority in Kazakstan will react. Officially numbering close to 200,000, they are the largest Uighur community outside Xinjiang. Military manoevres designed to showcase the capacity of China and Kazakstan to stamp out separatist activity is likely to provoke a negative reaction among many Uighurs.
Another reason why the two countries are conducting joint exercises, say observers, is that they want to ensure security along the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline, which links oil-producing regions of Kazakstan with the Dushanzi oil refineries in Xinjiang.
Analysts note that it is vitally important for both countries to avoid attacks on the nearly 1,000 kilometre-long pipeline. Kazakstan plans to move up to 3.5 million tons (about 26 million barrels) of oil to China through the pipeline this year, increasing this to an annual 20 million tons of oil in the future.
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a grouping of former Soviet states that includes Kazakstan but not China, is conducting joint military exercises on the Caspian simultaneously with Tien-Shan-1. However, NBCentralAsia analysts attach no particular significance to the coincidental timing.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)