China has begun a multi-billion-pound scheme in the far-Western province of Xinjiang to build roads and railways that will open up Central Asia. By the end of this year, nine railway lines will be under construction, including a railway from China to Pakistan and a rail link through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, at a total cost of over £50 billion.

Lines will also run east from Xinjiang into Mongolia and onto the Qinghai plateau. Currently, the only line linking Xinjiang with central Asia is a 285-mile line to the Alataw Pass which connects to Kazakhstan's rail system.

More than 1,300 miles of track will be laid in the next decade, almost doubling the infrastructure in the area, according to Wu Jian, the deputy head of the railway bureau in Urumqi, the capital of the restive Xinjiang province.

The move will connect Xinjiang to railway lines as far off as Moscow and Tehran and a direct route is also being planned over through the Hindu Kush into Kabul. The move will open up Central Asia to Chinese goods and companies, and will serve as conduits for oil and petrol to be brought back.

Xinjiang, with almost 140 billion barrels of oil reserves and 11 trillion cubic metres of gas, is one of the main sources of Chinese energy. The region is also criss-crossed with pipelines from Russia and Kazakhstan which help to power the eastern capitals of Beijing and Shanghai.

China is also gambling that increased trade with its Muslim neighbours may help to calm disputes and religious unrest within Xinjiang, which has been a political thorn in the side of the leadership.

Xinjiang's native Uighur population are ethnic Muslims who have railed against Chinese rule. Uighur pressure groups have complained that it is Han Chinese, rather than the locals, who have most benefited from the region's trade links and energy wealth.

Although annual natural gas production in the Tarim Basin has increased 20 times between 2000 and 2007, the profits have flowed eastwards. In 2005, Xinjiang's provincial government was only given 240 million yuan (£19 million) out of the 14.8 billion yuan of tax revenue from the oil industry.

Wang Lequan, the hardline politburo member who is governor of Xinjiang, recently vowed to conduct a crackdown against separatist Muslims, and banned the observance of the Ramadan festival.

"We must always maintain a high-pressure, strike-hard posture, adhering to a policy of taking the offensive, striking when they show their heads and making pre-emptive attacks," he said, vowing to spend winter and spring conducting a "concentrated re-education across the whole region".