The list of countries that are bombing the Islamic State or arming the group’s enemies has grown steadily since the beginning of this year, but one major player remains conspicuously absent. China gets 10% of its oil imports from Iraq, and invested heavily in oil fields that are now under the control of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his men. Also, much like many Western countries, China fears the blowback of the conflict in Syria and Iraq, meaning that in China too, the authorities are concerned about the risk that foreign fighters will use the experience and expertise they gained on the battlefield to carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries. But even though it has a clear stake in the stabilization of Iraq, China, to put it mildly, is not very eager to take military action to stop the Islamic State.
For instance, in a telling response to US attempts to garner Chinese support for the campaign against the Islamic State, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stipulated that China “stand[s] for respecting international laws and relevant countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity in the international fight against terrorism.” This is, of course, a polite way of saying that China is happy to stay out of quagmires of the kind that exhausted and nearly bankrupted the US in the last 13 years. All China does to support Western efforts in Iraq and Syria is refrain from its usual protests and vetoes against US-instigated sanctions and military action, a position that is widely believed to have been rewarded by a cessation of US criticism of counterterrorism-related human rights violations in China.
But while China is staying on the sidelines in the fight against the Islamic State, the country is simultaneously abandoning its standoffish attitude on another front. The last months have seen the emergence of another Chinese counterterrorism policy, one in which the Chinese government is decidedly less restrained and aloof, and clearly more willing to engage in international cooperation to repress terrorist groups. The reason for this shift is the increasing aggression of the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that fights for the liberation of the Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic minority in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. The threat that emanates from the group was underscored earlier this year by a series of bombings and mass stabbings that together claimed dozens of lives. Since the ETIM is partially based in Pakistan (a long-time Chinese ally) and is reportedly working together with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Chinese are beginning to recognize the need to fight terrorism abroad.
The notion that Chinese counterterrorism requires action outside of China’s borders has further been driven home by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Last July Al-Baghdadi explicitly mentioned China when he listed countries where the rights of Muslims are being violated, and Al-Qaeda recently described Xinjiang as “occupied Muslim land to be recovered into the shade of the Islamic Caliphate”. Moreover, about 200 Chinese fighters, many of them Uighurs, have joined jihadist militias in Iraq and Syria. Together, these developments have given rise to fears that ETIM-fighters may be moving from Pakistan to Iraq and Syria to receive training from the Islamic State.
It is true that China may deliberately overstate the terrorist threat it is facing. There is, for instance, no evidence that links the ETIM directly to the Islamic State. In fact, many experts and US officials believe that the threat from this rather shady group is blown out of proportion by the Chinese government in order to lend a veneer of legitimacy to the repression of the Uighurs. Furthermore, it is hard to see how the 200 Chinese fighters in Syria and Iraq can pose a serious threat to the security of a country of more than 1.2 billion people.
But be that as it may, Beijing is clearly unnerved. It recently intensified the intelligence exchange with other states in the region and it stepped up the surveillance around its borders to keep Uighur fighters from travelling to Syria and Iraq. Also, last year the People’s Liberation Army resumed its counterterrorism exercises with the Indian army (despite continuing border disputes), and the National People’s Congress is currently examining a new law that will allow the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army in other countries, including Pakistan, for counterterrorism purposes. Another sign of the increasing international orientation of Chinese counterterrorism concerns the recently announced enhancement of the Chinese-Tajikistani cooperation in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.
All this suggests that China is indeed taking the fight against terrorism beyond its own borders, but where will it draw the line? Are the recent developments perhaps the first step on the long road towards a Chinese-Western alliance against Islamist terrorism in the Middle East? Probably not, and there is little chance that Beijing will change its mind as a result of pleas from the US. Rightly calculating that the West will not stand idly by while a terrorist state emerges in the Middle East, Chinese President Xi Jinping is content to let the US and Europe pull the chestnuts out of the fire in Iraq and Syria. The only thing that is keeping him from taking the same approach with regard to the threat of the ETIM is the absence of other powers that are willing and able to curb it. In counterterrorism, China sees itself as a last line of defense, and will only take action if there is no one else around to do the dirty work. This being the case, its international efforts are unlikely to ever include a direct confrontation with the Islamic State, at least for as long as the West is taking the lead in Syria and Iraq.