Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage arrived in Beijing with a highly desirable present for China’s communist government. He announced that the State Department was putting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the principal separatist organization in China’s restless Xinjiang province, on its list of terrorist organizations. Washington has thus embraced Beijing’s dubious, self-serving view that the secessionist campaign in Xinjiang is nothing more than a manifestation of international terrorism.
It is likely that Armitage’s gesture is part of a move based on realpolitik calculations to repair U.S.-China relations that have been under some strain ever since the Bush administration took office. The tensions over the April 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter plane and a U.S. spy plane and Beijing’s adverse reaction to President Bush’s firm pledge to defend Taiwan are only the most prominent examples. The one area in which there has been close cooperation between the two countries is on the issue of terrorism since Sept. 11. It would, therefore, hardly be surprising that Washington would seek ways to consolidate that cooperation.
Nevertheless, backing Beijing’s position regarding Xinjiang reflects neither moral courage nor intelligent policy on the part of the administration. Even worse, this is not the first time that Washington has uncritically accepted the position of another government that its political adversaries are nothing more than odious terrorists. Since Sept. 11, regimes around the world have tried to secure U.S. backing by packaging their problems with insurgents as part of the global terrorist menace. Russia portrays the conflict in Chechnya in that light. The Philippines contends that not only is the motley gang of kidnappers, Abu-Sayef, an al-Qaeda clone but that a long-standing Islamic secessionist movement, the Moro National Liberation Front, is linked to al-Qaeda. India insists the insurgents in Kashmir are part of a terrorist international, and New Delhi argues that its suppression of Kashmiri separatism is the moral equivalent of America’s actions taken since Sept. 11. The government of Colombia contends that left-wing rebels in that country are “narco-terrorists,” and is lobbying hard for more U.S. military aid.
U.S. policymakers ought to be wary of such efforts to entangle the United States in parochial quarrels. It is difficult to determine which allegations have merit, which are exaggerations of the truth, and which are simply convenient fictions propagated by regimes facing intense political pressure. America has enough real enemies without blindly lining up against the adversaries of other governments.
Moreover, it is a worrisome sign that Washington is forging cozy relationships with a variety of repressive regimes, such as those in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Georgia, which routinely suppress political opposition. During the Cold War, the United States all too often accepted the self-serving rationales of repressive allies that their opponents were merely stooges of Moscow. America’s gullibility on that score led to entanglement in murky civil wars throughout the Third World — -from Vietnam to Nicaragua to Angola. Washington must take care not to make the same blunder in the name of the war against terrorism.
In particular, the United States should be cautious about backing Beijing with regard to the simmering secessionist campaign in Xinjiang. Although the ETIM appears to have had some contact with al-Qaeda and has used terrorist tactics on occasion, the underlying issues in Xinjiang are complex. It is a grotesque oversimplification to portray that struggle as an effort by the Beijing regime to suppress terrorism. The Uighur population in Xinjiang has legitimate grievances against China’s communist rulers.
The Bush administration would be wise to stay out of that quarrel. If Washington is not careful, it will be seen throughout the Islamic world as having given a moral blessing to Beijing’s harsh crackdown on Uighur separatists. It is not in America’s best interest to have that reputation.