The synkinematic strata of the Kuqa foreland basin record a rich history of Cenozoic reactivation of the Palaeozoic Tian Shan mountain belt. Here, we present new constraints on the history of deformation in the southern Tian Shan, based on an analysis of interactions between tectonics and sedimentation in the western Kuqa basin. We constructed six balanced cross-sections of the basin, integrating surface geology, well data and a grid of seismic reflection profiles. These profiles show that the Qiulitage fold belt on the southern edge of the Kuqa basin developed by thin-skinned compression salt tectonics. The structural styles have been influenced by two major factors: the nature of early-formed diapirs and the basinward depositional limit of the Kumugeliemu salt. Several early diapirs developed in the western Kuqa basin, soon after salt deposition, which acted to localize the subsequent shortening. Where diapirs had low relief and a thick overburden they tended to tighten into salt domes 3000–7000 m in height. Conversely, where the original diapirs had higher relief and a thinner overburden they tended to evolve into salt nappes, with the northern flanks of the diapirs thrusting over their southern flanks. Salt was expelled forward, up dip along the mother salt layer, tended to accumulate at the distal pinch-out of Kumugeliemu salt located at the Qiulitage fold belt. Furthermore, the synkinematic strata (6–8 km thick) of the Kuqa basin indicate that during the Cenozoic reactivation of the Tian Shan, shortening of the western Kuqa basin was mainly in the hinterland until the early Miocene. Then, compression spread simultaneously southwards to the Dawanqi anticline, the Qiulitage fold belt and the southernmost blind detachment fold at the end of Miocene. The western Kuqa basin has a shortening of ca. 23 km. We consider that ca. 9 km was consumed from the end of the Miocene (5.2/5.8 Ma) to the early Pleistocene (2.58 Ma) and another ca. 14 km have been absorbed since then. Thus, we obtain a ca. 3.4/2.8 mm year−1 average shortening from 5.2/5.8 to 2.58 Ma, followed by a 60–90% increase in average shortening rate to ca. 5.4 mm year−1 since 2.58 Ma. This suggests that the reactivation of the modern Tian Shan has been accelerating up to the present day.