Xinjiang militia, China’s anti-TIP asset abroad

With the utter failure of US strategy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, and instead allowing Turkey to “degrade and destroy” Kurdish boot on the ground while replacing them with jihadists “rebels” that funnel US weapons to Al Qaeda groups, the West should not be surprised Eurasian states are stepping up to defend their territories from ISIS and Islamic extremists.

Russia and China tap SCO/CSTO vs. ISIS and Islamic extremists

With news of ISIS making inroads in Afghanistan, Central Asia militants as well as Russia’s Chechens and China’s Uyghurs joining Al Nusra/Al Qaeda groups, Eurasian states in the SCO and CSTO are taking the fight to the enemy.

Recent Russian and Arab press sources mentioned China would now join Russia’s anti-ISIS operation in Syria, with its aircraft carrier Liaoning docked in Syrian port of Tartus awaiting further dispatch of troops and aerial assets. If so, this urgency is likely provoked by Chinese Uyghur terrorist group Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) capturing a Syrian airbase with advanced weaponry, and establishing a base in Jisr al Shughur where TIP and Al Nusrah in Turkey-backed Army of Conquest played leading roles in defeating the Syrian army back in April.

Now TIP has set up training camps for Uyghur “cubs” similar to ISIS “cubs” of the caliphate, with the eventual aim of taking jihad back to China and establish Xinjiang as an independent East Turkestan under Turkey’s influence. As such, China will need to nip this in the bud before a more powerful TIP takes the fight back to Chinese territory.

Last year counter terror experts estimated there were already 1,000 militants and their families in Syria.  With news of additional 3,500 Uyghurs being settled in villages nearby, TIP can recruit more fighters from these villages. TIP has claimed and supported a series of high-profile attacks in China the past years and threatened more attacks.

Thus as Russia is amassing aerial and naval assets in Syria, China is expected to do the same and deploy 1,000 marines. However, in face of the estimated 30,000 ISIS fighters and another 30,000 fighters in al Qaeda groups, it would be difficult to defeat them without additional troops. And how will China transport reinforcements without adequate strategic lift capabilities and the long logistics tail between China and Syria?

Perhaps, in the near term China could leverage prepositioned assets of infrastructure workers/militia in the Middle East and Africa.

XPCC—China’s crouching tiger, hidden dragon

On 24 September, the Chinese government issued a white paper on stability of Muslim Xinjiang province and the important role of its paramilitary force Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (XPCC), known as Bingtuan in Chinese.

XPCC is a vast farming militia that cultivates cotton, lavender, tomatoes, dabbles in textiles and mining—when it is not fighting terrorism.

Established by Mao Zedong in 1954, XPCC had a mandate to stabilize the volatile Xinjiang region, settle Han Chinese, and create outposts in China’s “wild west” by carving farms and cities out of the stretches of desert. Representing 38 nationalities of largely Han followed by Uyghur, Kazak, Hui, Mongolian, Manchu, Russian, Uzbek and Tatar, XPCC is self-sufficient, adept at farming, building infrastructure projects, schools, prisons, hospitals, and essentially operates as a state within a state with a military-style organizational structure.

Today, XPCC numbers 2.7 million with 14 divisions comprised of 176 regiments. While not all XPCC members are militia, its vast size renders it China’s largest reserve counter-terror force, in addition to the national counter-terror brigade (5,000 troops) Falcon Commando Unit and the elite Snow Leopard Commando Unit (China’s equivalent of Seal Team Six) in the People’s Armed Police Force.

XPCC is also business savvy running more than 4,000 companies, 14 of which are listed on the stock exchange, and its GDP in 2013 was $24 billion. They have already established trade relations with 135 countries and looking to expand those ties abroad.

Indeed, in September 2013 XPCC signed a 50-year plan with then Ukrainian president Yanukovych to lease 3 million hectares (roughly size of Belgium or Massachusetts) of farmland for reportedly more than US$2.6 billion. The farming project was an important part of China’s food security program and strategy to outsource food production to farms overseas, and in fact China is already leasing and cultivating lands in Central Asia, Africa, and South America, as well as building infrastructure projects throughout Middle East and Africa. Conservative figures estimate China has about 5 million workers overseas including XPCC.

With decades of experience operating in harsh terrain and conflict zones in Xinjiang, XPCC is adept at conducting operations abroad in similar environments in AfPak and Africa. In 2013 then Chinese President Hu Jintao called these military explorers a “mighty construction army” and praised them for their quelling of the 2009 Xinjiang uprising.

Xinjiang instability has long been a red line for the Chinese Communist Party.  Bordering 8 countries, 1/6 of China’s landmass, the bridgehead of President Xi Jinping’s entire “One belt, one road” Silk Road strategy, it also houses China’s nuclear warheads.  They are stored in tunnels under Urumqi, site of the 2009 riot, and as such any unrest in Xinjiang and potential jihadi access of nuclear warheads is a red line for the Chinese military.


XPCC hence has a long history of counter-terrorism against Uyghur militants. In 2004 it further formed the 224th Regiment in the desert about 45 miles west of Khotan, a hotbed of Uyghur separatism. The regiment now has a permanent population of more than 12,000 and with the uptick of TIP terrorist attacks in Xinjiang the past years, XPCC is expanding.

Thus as TIP branches out overseas, so has XPCC. And even while TIP entrenched itself in Syria, training “cubs” to be the next generation jihadists against China, XPCC is not far away to counter-terror and protect Chinese citizens–in early 2015 China drafted a new law to pave way for counter-terror operations abroad.

Finally, dealing with radical Islamists is not new to China–the Middle Kingdom has had a history of managing inner Asia barbarism, which was administered through their Office of Barbarian Affairs during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The Middle Kingdom also has sufficient capabilities that could be brought to bear in a battle against ISIS and the Army of Conquest jihadists. Should they continue to taunt the Chinese regarding Xinjiang, this king from the east armed with 2.3 million active duty soldiers, 1 million reservists, 15 million militia, and a population of 1.4 billion with potential manpower base of another 200 million, can march across to battle the inner Asian barbarians once more.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) research consultant for Jane's Information Group.
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