In East Turkestan, China is trying to consolidate control over key geopolitical knot in Central Asia

Uyghur-majority territory is Beijing's door to Asia's heartland · Kazakhstan is one of fast-growing, nearby markets where China can source oil · Chinese Government insists to link Tiananmen attack to Uyghur extremists

Many questions are still hovering over last month's Tiananmen attack that killed five people in Beijing. Two major versions are proposed: the Chinese government is saying that it was an "organized and premeditated" action by an Uyghur armed separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). According to pro-government China Daily, Beijing authorities suggest that flags "related to religious extremism" were found inside the vehicle used in the alleged terrorist attack.

On the other hand, the president of the World Uyghur Congress ( WUC), Rebiya Kadeer, is insisting that the action can not be understood as a terrorist attack, but as an act of "protest" against policies that "are pushing the Uyghur people into desperation". Even more, Kadeer says: "I don't believe ETIM is existent [...]. China has used this so-called ETIM to justify its oppression of the Uyghur people since 9/11".

The US Government does think that ETIM exists and that, in fact, it is linked to Al Qaeda. But Washington also suggests that the Chinese Government has been "exaggerating" the connections between the two organizations in order to avoid criticism of Chinese actions in East Turkestan (Xinjiang Uyghur, Chinese official name), the Uyghur-majority territory that ETIM would like to be independent from China. Chinese policies in East Turkestan -which are always contested by the Uyghur national movement- are seeking to consolidate Chinese control over this territory, which is located more than 2,000 km from Beijing.

Military chief dismissed

A few days after the attack on Tiananmen Square, it came to be known that Beijing had dismissed his East Turkestan military chief, Peng Yong, from his position as one of the local leaders of the Communist Party. Without further explanation than a single note in a local newspaper , most media understand that Peng is also set to be removed from his post in the army. This decision suggests that Beijing is serious about the Tiananmen incident.

Having been for centuries or even millenia concerned about the security of its borders -especially around its weakly inhabited northern and western areas-, China has been devoting a great deal of attention to the situation in East Turkestan since decades. In addition to the increased presence of the Chinese army in the territory, Beijing has also promoted the colonization of East Turkestan by ethnic Han Chinese. A few decades ago, Uyghurs were the overwhelming majority population in the area, but now they hardly reach 45%, while the Han Chinese are about 40% of the population. In East Turkestan capital city Urumqi, Han are 76% of the population, while the Uyghurs are only 13%.

Stability and control over this vast border territory ("Xinjiang" means "new frontier") is critical for Beijing from a geopolitical standpoint. Not only because East Turkestan holds oil and natural gas reserves (in the Tarim Basin), but also because it opens the door to physical access for China to the Central Asian steppes, and most particularly to the region's largest country, Kazakhstan. Increasingly eager for oil, China sees in Kazakhstan a neighbouring market from which ever larger amounts of oil can be purchased. In 2012, Kazakhstan accounted for approximately 4% of the total oil imported by China, with 240,000 barrels per day (about 10.4 million tonnes per year) . But Kazakhstan eyes a huge increase in its crude oil production in the coming years, a part of which will be directed towards China. Starting from the end of 2014, the Kazakhs expect to send some 20 million tons of crude oil per year to China through the Atyrau-Alashnankou pipeline, which crosses East Turkestan's north.