China's People's Liberation Army began one of its largest ever war games exercises yesterday in the country's restive northwest frontier province of Xinjiang.
The province is home to at least 8 million Muslim Uyghurs, many of whom chafe at being ruled by distant Beijing.
Several hundred armoured personnel carriers, tanks and other military vehicles moved into position for the four-day exercises on a desolate, mountain-fringed plateau some 20km north of Kashgar.
Fighter jets and helicopter gunships flew low over hill-sides painted with giant targets. Top brass from the Lanzhou Military Region, which co-ordinates defence in China's vast slice of Central Asia, have organised thousands of troops from the 69210 Brigade and other units to carry out a rare live-fire war game in this westernmost corner of China.
Xinjiang borders eight countries, including three former Soviet republics and Afghanistan, whose militant Islam China is desperate to keep out. Besides the needs of national defence, Beijing's show of strength is also designed to reinforce its capacity to control this sensitive and deceptively sleepy area, rocked by anti-Chinese protest in recent years.
Details of the exercises have yet to be made public to the inhabitants of the oasis city of Kashgar, the heart of Islam in Chinese Central Asia. One old man took off his skullcap in amazement and scratched his shaved pate yesterday while his two grandchildren shrieked as every passing tank and helicopter gunship sent the desert dust billowing. The red flag of an armed Chinese soldier had stopped their donkey cart on the Kashgar road, as the mock war got under way behind him.
But such massive movement of hardware is difficult to conceal. "If the exercises are not aimed against us, then who?" was the bitter response of one Kashgari near the city's mosque. Such sentiments could land a person in prison during Beijing's ongoing "Strike Hard" campaign against crime – in Xinjiang this campaign has become a renewed attack against "separatist" elements seeking independence.Reuse content