I know all about that.
This is going to be a relatively short post. I just moved into my new digs for the next few years, so I'm doing a couple hundred other things. And to top it off, this post is a solid month out of the news cycle and relevancy. But I was interested in it, so I figured I'd look up to see some answers and drop them here.
After the July riots in Urumqi, there seemed to be many questions around the thought of, "why should I care about Xinjiang?" And a whole big chunk of journalists went with, "uhh, because there's lots of oil?" Just shy of 34,000 people must have thought so, at least. Which is interesting to me, because I never really thought of that particular chunk of territory being Caspian East. But there must be SOMETHING there, otherwise China wouldn't fight to have it, right?
So Xinjiang alone has 19.2 billion USD worth of exports, mostly to Kazakhstan (h/t: wiki) in '08. Compare this to only ~3 billion worth of imports, and you can see that Xinjiang is an absolute mint for Beijing. This doesn't include intrastate trade: 730 million tons of iron reserves are nothing to sneeze at, to say nothing of saltpetre and all sorts of salts and sulfates I don't know nearly enough about (but are apparently really key for heavy industry). In short, Xinjiang is almost a département d’outre-mer for China, without having to be actually overseas. It's where China gets the resources to keep their Eastern factories humming. So I can understand why they ain't messing around with anything that smells remotely like the FLN.
But how about energy? Something I've noticed a lot of people do is put oil and natural gas together. In the website linked earlier, they mention "30 billion tons of oil and natural gas," but those are two awfully different things. And it is, to this point, hypothetical.
The biggest upstream energy company in Xinjiang appears to be the Xinjiang Oil Field Company, but they're only in the Dzhungar (Junggar? Xungar?) Basin, claiming a capacity of "8.6 billion tons...petroleum and 210 thousand cubic meters...natural gas." So that's not nothing, sure, but again, not Caspian East. Any talks of a Kazakh-Chinese pipeline are kind of key to this...that pipe is bringing oil into China...and not from Xinjiang, but from Kazakhstan. Xinjiang may be able to supplement this, sure, but it don't hold the answer.
Oh, and "38 percent of China's coal reserves" do a hefty chunk towards making this a moot point, anyways. That's the resource that makes more sense for those factories I mentioned earlier, so it's making a far more dramatic impact than oil so far. And in the future? This rose-colored review says that Xinjiang is going to be a primary strategic region for petro-development in the 21st century. Which is nice, but, I mean, it states this by showing that all of these banks are investing into the area, not by saying that anything is actually HAPPENING and MOVING FORWARDS or anything, which is a big difference. Just ask Nabucco.
So yeah, Xinjiang is worth fighting for, certainly. Not necessarily because of oil, sure, but "oil-rich" sounds a lot better than "saltpetre-rich" in headlines, I assume. I just hope it's not some sort of "Uighurs are Muslim, Saudis are Muslim, Saudis have oil, so..." sort of thinking on the part of writers.
The thing is, Imperialism is what all the cool kids did to become superpowers. Russia, United States, Britain, etc. So China is going to want to, too. And it doesn't matter what the G8 says, it will matter if the Uighurs come up with something that the Pechnegs, the Cherokee, or the Marathas didn't. The odds aren't with 'em, for sure, but thats an awful lot of billion of dollars worth fighting over.
And just as an addendum, in my "research" for this I stumbled upon this documentary, which looks moderately fascinating.