SINKIANG has traditionally acted as a transit zone between East and West and at the same time has been deeply isolated in the Central Asian heartland. From 1940 until the Battle of Midway in 1942, Sinkiang supply routes were of greater significance to Nationalist China than the more publicized Burma Road. Today, transportation development in this vast border region of the Chinese People's Republic is currently influencing the international politics of half of Asia.

Many Western observers suggest that the long-term interests of the Soviet Union and Communist China are bound to clash in this ancient area of tension. However, the placement and development of new industries in Sinkiang do not appear to be bearing out these predictions. For example, at a time when the Chinese economy is in desperate need of industrial fuels, the first oil pipeline built in Sinkiang does not run eastward but extends 200 kilometers west of Urumchi, the regional capital. As early as 1950, planning experts recognized the abnormal concentration of industry along the China coast as irrational both from an economic and from a national defense point of view. Might it not be just as irrational to develop primary industrial bases close to the Soviet border? For clearly, the growth of new industrial sites along this border involves a good deal more in this instance than merely building up population in a frontier zone.

The placement of industries in Sinkiang is predicated upon the simultaneous development of national and local industries and must be in line with national planning requirements. Prior to "liberation" there were only 14 factories in the entire province. At the end of the first decade of Chinese Communist rule it contained 1,166 large modern factories, and if medium and small industrial and mining enterprises at the hsien and commune level are included, the figure is 18,643. Corrected statistics up to September 22, 1958, during the period of the first Five Year Plan, give the following picture for the five main industrial areas:


Area Planned Factories Percent of
  Figure Built Fulfillment
Kashgar 9,600 4,727 49.24
  (Ili District) 5,000 3,033 60.66
Urumchi 1,800 841 46.72
  (Altai District) 720 176 24.44
Hami 600 300 50.00

It is noteworthy that Kashgar, Ili and the Altai sectors are all located within the frontier zone of Sinkiang. From 1958 through the last quarter of 1959 the pace of industrialization in Sinkiang has markedly increased. It seems unlikely that during a period of capital scarcity the central government would continue to build basic industrial complexes close by the Russian border if Sino-Soviet tensions were considered to be assuming serious proportions.

The industrial decentralization which is taking place in China and the Soviet Union is a basic requirement in the nuclear age and accords with expert American military thought. The Chinese are in the process of erecting a series of industrial islands as far away from any sea approach as possible.[i] Atomic-powered Polaris submarines would find it very difficult to reach targets in Sinkiang, located as it is midway between the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Indian oceans. The Kazakh Republic adjoining Sinkiang to the northwest is well supplied with power bases. The city of Karaganda is the second largest coal-producing area in the Asiatic part of the Soviet Union. Chinese and Soviet industrial complexes appear to be slowly shifting closer together--not further apart--a fact which suggests that such mutual fears and antagonisms as may exist are being kept within bounds.

Since 1947 there has been persistent talk of the discovery of uranium deposits in Sinkiang. Indeed, the province is believed to be the major source of uranium for both China and the Soviet Union. It is believed that an atomic explosion occurred in the wastelands of Sinkiang as early as 1955 and, according to testimony by Dr. Carl Romney, an Air Force seismologist, the United States detected an 8 kiloton blast "in China" during 1958. While Soviet and American diplomats and technicians were carrying on a series of talks at Geneva on the detection of underground nuclear explosions, the Indian Government completed and put into operation in 1959 one of the finest seismological observations in Asia. The Soviet Government has established a "Physicists Town" in the Pamirs region which borders southwestern Sinkiang and northeastern Afghanistan. Special cosmic radiation observatories and laboratories are a part of this complex. All these facts suggest Sino-Soviet coöperation in this area of traditional conflict.

By virtue of its isolation, elevation and distance from United States bases, Sinkiang and its environs provide ideal sites for intercontinental missiles. The first Soviet Sputnik was launched from a "Rocket City" believed to be located somewhere in the Barsuki desert, northwest of the Aral Sea. The illfated U-2 flight, "downed" over the Sverdlovsk industrial island, is known to have crossed over the Aral Sea area. During Mr. Khrushchev's series of denunciatory statements regarding the U-2 flight, he referred to an earlier flight of April 9 by an unidentified aircraft and specifically mentioned the Pamirs region adjoining Sinkiang. It is logical to assume that flights have been carried out over Sinkiang as well as other selected portions of the Chinese mainland.


It is a truism that a developed transportation system is basic to any serious economic, scientific and military exploitation of a region. In the case of Sinkiang, this development began in 1952 when the Chinese People's Republic announced its decision to launch construction of a railway starting from Lanchow and terminating in Urumchi. Actual work was begun during the month of October, hardly the best time of the year. The second objective was to extend this line from Urumchi to Hoerhkwosze on the Sino-Soviet frontier. After Mr. Khrushchev's visit to Peking in October 1954, the terminus of this railway was shifted to the Kazakhstan city of Alma Ata where it would link up with the Soviet Transiberian line. Then, directly after Mr. Mikoyan's visit to Peking in April 1956, the western terminus was changed for a second time. The plan adopted was to cross the border at the Alashan Pass and connect with the Russian system at Aktogai--considerably north of the original route.[ii] The geological structure of this region definitely indicates the probability that large deposits of pitchblende, the richest form of uranium ore, are to be found along this route.

Shortly after the Mikoyan visit, it was announced that "8,400 youths" would be sent to eastern Kazakhstan of whom "2,000 will build the railway to connect with the Lanchow-Sinkiang" line; what the socialist task of the other 6,400 persons might be was not defined, but they were probably sent to help create another industrial island east of Karaganda. By mid-1958 the Soviet section of the railroad was completed. This trans-Sinkiang railroad will eventually be connected with Hanoi, the capital of Northern Viet Nam.

During the first Five Year Plan a third of all new railway construction in China was laid down in Sinkiang. New Chinese plans call for the development of north-south lines within Sinkiang. In mid-1958 surveying began for the Turfan-Kashgar route to link both sides of the Tien Shan (mountains). This projected 1,000-mile line will run through Kuche, from which rail links will be built to Khotan (south) and to Ining (north), the capital of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Chou.[iii] When Sinkiang and Tibet are eventually linked by rail, the defense of India will be immeasurably more difficult.

Kashgar and Urumchi seem to be centers in the over-all development of Sinkiang. The Kashgar administrative district has been expanded to cover all of southwestern Sinkiang up to the Endere river, more than 200 miles east of Khotan. It contains a population of about 3,000,000. Since 1955 about 1,250,000 Chinese have "migrated" to Northwest China. Hami has increased its population in recent years from 10,000 to 100,000. The "pre-liberation" population of Urumchi was 69,275; it is now nearly 200,000. As of June 30, 1953, the total population of Sinkiang was officially recorded at 4,873,608. An informed guess would place the present population at well over 6,000,000. A central Government directive issued early in 1959 suggests that this growth will continue and that during the second Five Year Plan many Chinese of young and middle age will "come to take part in Sinkiang's socialist construction."

Water, like transportation, is one of the bottlenecks in the further populating of Sinkiang. Water mains are being laid into Urumchi from seven miles to the north. A reservoir is being built to store 70,000,000 cubic meters of water. In the south, detailed general surveys of the desert regions are being carried out. Already completed is the survey of the southwestern part of the Takla Makan, a desert region whose name means in the Uighur language "once in, difficult to get out." In many places underground water was found and at some places good drinking water was discovered. Large scientific parties are undertaking hydrological surveys and are carrying out ice-melting experiments on the Tien Shan. Mountain ice and snow in seven areas lying between 13,000 and 20,000 feet above sea level are being utilized to expand the acreage of irrigated farmlands. The Chinese are elaborating on an idea that has had practical application in Western Tibet for many years: the creation of artificial glaciers to form sources for seasonal irrigation schemes.

In southern Sinkiang the communes are coördinating their efforts in building new channels and paved beds for the Yarkand and other rivers. This is done during the winter and spring when the water flow is small. Studies indicate that only 30 to 40 percent of the water reaches areas in which it can be used before it seeps underground. In the summer, rapidly melting ice and snow create torrents of water--much of which has been wasted in the past. The Chinese are now attempting to devise ways of melting ice and snow during the winter so that run-off may be better controlled during the summer months.


As railroads are extended westward, a network of motor highways is also being developed. The old caravan routes running across Sinkiang between China, Russia and India are being adapted to modern truck travel. Repairs and reconstruction are being pushed on nearly 2,000 miles of what is known as the "dry line" from Urumchi via Kashgar to Khotan. At the same time, secondary roads are being surveyed and constructed to service the newly industrialized regions. The Chinese use the slogan "walking on two legs" to signify the construction of local roads simultaneously with major modern highways. A road has been constructed through the Tien Shan from Urumchi to Kuerhlei, and, in 1958, 3,500 miles of roads were built to provide communication with various modern and primitive iron-smelting plants. For the trucks to use these roads, the Government leans heavily on imports from Czechoslovakia, in spite of the expanding production in China. The Chinese have gone in for large-scale construction of trailers which they hitch up in series to increase the pay load of each motor unit.

In 1956 only "sixteen Skoda buses" were in use in Urumchi. It is now possible to take a bus from Urumchi to Kashgar--a trip that takes about a week. By the beginning of 1959 all streets in Urumchi were paved, and there are asphalt highways leading out of the city in at least three directions. There are also asphalt roads leading out of Kashgar toward Khotan and beyond.

From a strategic standpoint, the most important of the new roads are those pushing into western Tibet and toward the frontiers of India and Pakistan. The Aksai Chin road which crosses into the Ladakh region of Indian Kashmir has recently been much in the news. But another road in southwestern Sinkiang, started in March 1957, carries much graver implications and deserves attention. It links Kashgar with Puli, capital of the Tashkurgan region --a distance of nearly 200 miles--and for two-thirds of its length it runs along the edge of the Little Pamirs. This is a key road which can have great influence upon the international politics of central Asia; it almost certainly involves SEATO members, and therefore the world. Unfortunately, the significance of this road has been pushed into the background by India's border disputes with China. Whatever else may be said about the Aksai Chin road, it fits comfortably into the logic of the developing Sinkiang road net. Such cannot be said for the Pamir road. At the national transportation conference held at Peking on January 27, 1959, Lien Pai-shen, Chief of the Highway Bureau in the Ministry of Communications, stated that there would be continued emphasis on the construction of highways in the frontier regions to meet "national defense needs." Is this Pamir road being extended southwestward beyond Puli? Tashkurgan boasts a population of about 10,000 persons of whom 78 percent are Sarikoli Tadzhiks. The Hunza Valley of Western Pakistan has been sealed off from trade with these Sarikolis for about the past eight years.

One may reasonably wonder why the Central People's Government is going through all this bother to construct a very difficult road in such a remote region. Conceivably the relationship between religion and "local bourgeois nationalism" might account for it--but only to a degree. The Muslim peoples of Sinkiang are known for their "parochial nationalism." When the first announcement of railway construction was made by Peking, there was an intensification of this local nationalism throughout Sinkiang. Uprisings and sabotage have been reported. The Muslim people of southwestern Sinkiang look for succor to their co-religionists in Pakistan. The Sarikolis, who inhabit the frontier zone between Tashkurgan and Pakistan, are a caucasoid people belonging to the Ismaeli sect of Islam and their spiritual leader is the Agha Khan. During December 1959, Zamin Shah, a representative of the Sarikolis, managed to elude Chinese checkposts along the frontier and reached Baltit, the capital of Hunza. He asked the Mir of Hunza, who is the head of the Ismaeli community in Central Asia, to apprise the Agha Khan of the plight of his people in Sinkiang. On October 3, 1960, the Agha Khan left Karachi for a northward inspection trip that would take him to the frontier of Sinkiang. It is doubtful that the Ismaeli leader could undertake such a trip without the approval of the Pakistan Government.


Sooner or later the border between Pakistan and China is bound to come into dispute, unless the matter can first be negotiated successfully. Chinese maps show the Gilgit Agency, which includes a portion of Hunza, within the territorial limits of the Chinese People's Republic. The Chinese boundary line begins just below the point where the Soviet, Afghani, Chinese and Pakistani frontiers meet. This line includes Kilik, Mintaka, Khunjerab and Shimshal--all major passes between Sinkiang and Pakistan. Thus the Chinese claim affects the whole northern frontier of the pre-1947 state of Jammu and Kashmir. In contrast, the most recent official Pakistani maps designate this area with a green wash capped with a red "Frontier Undefined."

The Pakistani Foreign Office has managed to divorce any future Chinese claim against Pakistan from the current Chinese claim against India in Ladakh--which is also a part of the old state of Jammu and Kashmir. This was accomplished by stipulating that the Gilgit Agency is not a part of Azad Kashmir, but a part of Pakistan proper. In designating the Gilgit Agency an integral part of Pakistan, the Government has also involved SEATO, whose members might have preferred to interpret their commitments as excluding territories not an integral part of a member state. From an Indian point of view, Pakistan has manœuvred itself into a bargaining position somewhere between the respective contentions of India and China. Pakistani diplomacy has been forced into this position by the failure of India and Pakistan to reach a settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

President Ayub Khan, immediately before the opening of the 1959 session of the Central Treaty Organization in Tehran, suggested that Pakistan would soon ask the Chinese Government to define the Pakistan-Sinkiang border. "Pakistan," he said, "is anxious to prevent a dispute similar to that which led to a border clash between China and India." The Indian press reported that preliminary negotiations were even then under way in Peking, although this was denied by the Pakistani Foreign Minister. In any event, through its treaty obligations, the United States is involved in the issue.

The Defense Ministry of Pakistan has announced that violations of its airspace have occurred over the Gilgit Agency--the first on July 12, 1959. This was ten months prior to the more famous U-2 overflight. Other jet penetrations into Pakistani airspace occurred on September 21, 22, 23, 27 and 28, 1959. President Ayub interpreted these flights as undoubted reconnaissance missions "because the Russians and the Chinese have some strange notion that we have United State bases in West Pakistan and they want to pinpoint them." The Pakistani President has stated that the Chinese are maintaining infantry forces along the Sinkiang frontier.

Of all the nations along the whole rimland of China, Pakistan is the only nation to have been directly threatened by both the Soviet Union and China. In the light of this, it is significant that the final communiqué closing the sixth annual SEATO conference in Washington did not mention the potentially precarious position of Pakistan while it did mention the Kingdom of Laos. Yet it would appear that a serious international incident may be building up somewhere along the Tashkurgan road leading to the Hunza valley of Pakistan.

[i] Colonel Shelton, an Air Force expert tactician in I.C.B.M. defense, has discussed "island" strategic concepts with regard to the United States. He suggested that "we could conceivably decide to defend only a number of 'islands' of comparatively modest area rather than such large parts of the country as a broad east-west band extending across the northern border." ("The United States Air Force Report on the Ballistic Missile." Garden City: Doubleday, 1958, p. 144.)

[ii] Dr. Lawrence Krader, an American academician who travelled through this region in 1960, reported that Westerners are not permitted within 100 miles of Aktogai.

[iii] The Chinese are effectively using "a radio elevation indicator" as part of a new technique developed in the Soviet Union to build up models of difficult terrain without the necessity of actual land surveying.

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  • A. R. FIELD, Graduate Student at the American University, Washington, D.C.; contributor to Geopolitik, Orbis and other periodicals.
  • More By A. R. Field