China and the Islamic State

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria might seem far removed from China.  But the spread of its sort of Islamic militancy knows few boundaries.  On Monday, Indonesian authorities arrested seven men who had sought to meet Indonesia’s most-wanted Islamic terrorist.  Four of them, travelling on forged Turkish passports, turned out to be Chinese Uighurs.  Jakarta is now investigating whether the men are linked to the Islamic State.  That follows comments made this summer by the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that a number of Chinese fill his ranks, and images that surfaced two weeks ago of a Chinese national who was captured while fighting for the Islamic State.

To be sure, Beijing has long been concerned about Islamic militants, particularly those in its far western province of Xinjiang.  Over the last two decades, there have been periodic episodes of violence by the province’s Muslim Uighur ethnic group against local Han Chinese (often followed by equally violent reprisals by the latter against the former).  Historically, however, those episodes have been mainly driven by specific grievances rather than jihadist fervor.  Most cases of unrest occurred after some perceived injustice, such as the detention of an imam or other local leader.  But in recent years, Uighur attacks have become more frequent and ranged far beyond the borders of Xinjiang.  Three major attacks occurred so far this year.  In March, knife-wielding assailants attacked a train station in Kunming, in central China, leaving 31 dead and 140 wounded.  Then in May and August, two more attacks occurred in Xinjiang.  Those attacks left another 127 dead and scores of wounded.

For years, Chinese authorities have tried to prevent such unrest with a three-pronged approach: boost the economic development of Xinjiang; encourage Han Chinese to migrate there; and tighten security across the province.  They largely succeeded on all three counts, but failed to end the unrest.  The biggest beneficiaries of Xinjiang’s economic growth turned out to be the Han Chinese migrants, not the native Uighurs.  That left the Uighurs feeling not only relatively poorer, but also brushed aside by the influx of Han Chinese.  Meanwhile, tighter security meant that Chinese police and security forces had been set on a hair trigger to react to any suspicion of Uighur unrest.  That led to routine security sweeps which have alienated even more Uighurs.

But whatever the internal situation, Beijing has always been quick to accuse exile Uighur groups for fomenting or supporting acts of terror within Xinjiang, particularly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).  While that may be true in some cases, most exile Uighur organizations were in no position to foment or support much of anything in Xinjiang.  Indeed, the activities of the ETIM have likely been exaggerated by not only Chinese authorities, but also the ETIM to aggrandize itself.  The well-funded Islamic State would be a far bigger danger should it ever reach China’s door.

But even before the Islamic State’s rise, China had begun to seek ways to keep militant Islam as far away as possible.  That was one of the key reasons behind why it, Russia, and four Central Asian countries created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001.  Today, China sees its support for the SCO as a bulwark against the advance of militant Islam towards its borders and the Islamic State should it try to establish itself in Central Asia.  Last Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended this year’s SCO conference in Tajikistan.  There, he urged SCO’s other leaders to do their utmost to prevent Islamic extremism.  He also elevated China’s ties with Tajikistan to that of a “strategic partner” and promoted China’s “New Silk Road” concept.  Earlier this summer, the SCO held its largest military exercise since the early 2000s.  About 7,000 troops participated in the exercise, with China providing the majority of them.

The advent of the Islamic State in areas where China has commercial interests had already endangered Chinese citizens.  Beijing evacuated over a thousand Chinese workers from Iraq in June, when Islamic State forces marched on Baghdad.  That evacuation followed others from Libya and Syria after conflicts consumed those countries.  While China has been so far unwilling to directly confront Islamic militants, China did agree to deploy a 700-man infantry battalion to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan in September.  The battalion will be used to protect oilfields that are operated by China National Petroleum Corporation and threatened by civil strife.

All this may sound like the common concern over the Islamic State might have given China an incentive to work with the West, if only to protect itself and its economic interests in the Middle East.  But that is not quite the case.  Just because they agree on who is a threat does not mean they can agree on what to do about it.  The two sides still hold different visions of how the world should work.  That much was clear in China’s official response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for an international coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.  Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson agreed that “The international community should jointly combat terrorism.”  But, she added, China would want to ensure the respect of the “relevant countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity in the international fight against terrorism.”  So, unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—a leader reviled in the West—approves of American-led air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, China would not support such actions there.  (Russia holds the same position.)

For now, China can afford to walk that fine line.  It can expect that the United States and its allies will do their best to defeat the Islamic State or, at least, prevent its expansion.  But other dangers still lurk.  Already, China is concerned about the ramifications of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Could Afghanistan or Pakistan’s tribal regions produce new Islamic militants who might incite even greater unrest in Xinjiang?  Hence, China continues to bolster its relationships with its Central Asian neighbors, in part, to create a buffer zone between it and whatever dangers lay beyond.  China’s “New Silk Road” fits nicely into that strategy.  Its economic benefits should help to cement the commitment of the elites from Central Asia’s countries as well as enable them to contain Islamic militancy in their countries.  But China should take care that its “New Silk Road” does not benefit those elites too much.  Not doing so could breed resentment against China among the rest of their populations.  Were that to happen, Beijing’s “New Silk Road” might also become a new path for Islamic militants to China.