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Will China Join The Fight Against ISIS? The Answer Lies In The Xinjiang Question

16/12/2015 8:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A Chinese national was injured in the recent Paris attack. Of the people killed in the militant attack at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, some were executives of the state-owned China Railway Construction Corp. Recently a Chinese captive was executed by the Islamic State.

Quite evidently the Chinese are no longer immune to the threats of Islamist extremism. The policy of non-interference aside, China is now posed with the question of protecting its own nationals abroad. Given this, will China continue to hold on to its position of political resolution for the crisis in the Middle East or will it join hands with the US-led coalition against ISIS?

Logically Beijing, a superpower aspiring for a greater geopolitical share in the world, should grab this opportunity with both hands. After all, these are the moments that shape world public opinion, apart from creating newer channels of political communication and cooperation.

But if this Global Times op-ed is any indicator, Beijing may not join the anti terrorism club led by the West, particularly the US. Geopolitical calculations apart, there is a huge ideological difference between Washington's and Beijing's views on terrorism.

Geopolitical calculations apart, there is a huge ideological difference between Washington's and Beijing's views on terrorism.

Observers in Beijing feel that the US and the EU have treated as international threats only those terrorist organisations that pose a danger to their own nationals. And terror organisations with indigenous origins are excluded from this list.

The West's failure to recognise what China has described as its fight against ISIS on its own soil -- for decades in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) -- is often seen as a manifestation of this perception.

Xinjiang is home to about 20 million people from 13 major ethnic groups. The largest is the Uighur, a predominantly Muslim community with ties to Central Asia. Leaders of separatist movement in the region consider Xinjiang, also termed as East Turkistan, as part of Central Asia, not of China. They equate China's presence in Xinjiang to imperialism. One such group, active since the 1990s, is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM),labeled as a terrorist organization by China and the UN Security Council.

Claiming that the group has links to Al Qaeda, China says ETIM is responsible for the terrorist attacks on the country in late 2013 and 2014: an intentional car crash into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, an attack by knife-wielding assailants at the Kunming railway station, and two separate bomb attacks at the Urumqi railway station and a popular market in Urumqi.

More recently, Chinese officials have been claiming that ISIS is successfully recruiting members of the Uighur ethnic group.

Back in 2014 Wu Sike, China's special envoy to the Middle East, had said up to hundred Chinese citizens may be fighting for ISIS. The same year Iraq's army said it had captured a Chinese national fighting for ISIS.

Speculations were rife after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year named China among 20 countries that had "forcibly seized" Muslim rights and included China's northwestern Xinjiang region on the caliphate map.

This year Malaysia's Home Minister confirmed that 300 Chinese militants had transited from Malaysia to join ISIS.

Condemning terror attacks like the one in Paris, Beijing has been increasingly trying to draw the world's attention towards the threat it is facing from the Xinjiang separatist groups.

After 9/11 China not only strongly condemned the attack but even voted for the UN Resolution 1368 that called on all countries to cooperate in bringing the perpetrators, organisers and sponsors of the attacks to justice.

Some experts suspect Xinjiang is part of an "American game" of undermining China...

However the West believes Beijing is only using the perceived threat as justification to intensify their crackdown on the Uighur population. Such accusations have increased in pitch following Beijing's recent regulations on Muslim practices such as restricting veils and beards, prohibiting fasting during Ramadan etc.

Foreign experts say China used 9/11 to prompt the US Treasury Department to list ETIM as a terrorist organisation, even though many question even the existence of the group or labelling the unrest in Xinjiang as terror attacks.

Although China and the US have established a bilateral counterterrorism dialogue, many feel the West's views on terrorism are twisted. Many of the terrorists and violent separatists in India, China and Russia are described as "freedom fighters."

Ironically in 2014 three Uighur prisoners were released from the American prison camp in Guantanamo and sent to Slovakia. In its coverage the US media said none of the three Uighurs, part of the group of 22 captures by the US forces in 2002 from a Taliban-operated terrorist camp in Afghanistan, have "admitted seeing the United States as an enemy." As per this report they even got the 'No Longer Enemy Combatant (NELC) status.

Rights groups say China's approach towards addressing terrorism is deeply politicised with its judiciary offering no means of challenging charges of terrorism.

The sentencing of Uighur professor Ilham Tohti to a life term in 2014 on charges of "separatism" for running a website on Uighur experiences in the region is cited as a case in point.

The country's counterterrorism law, allowing surveillance of all digital communications and the conducting of counterterrorism operations outside China's borders, has been termed as a wholesale rejection of international human rights protections.

China feels such coverage of terrorism in China only reveals the West's "double standards". This sentiment was echoed by President Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Turkey, when he stressed that there should be "no double standard" in addressing terrorism.

China fears Xinjiang may become the next Afpak, Syria/Iraq region, with local militants attracting Uighur fighters with diplomatic support from Turkey and other powers...

Some experts suspect Xinjiang is part of an "American game" of undermining China in its bid to maintain American hegemony across Asia. All its covert and overt policies along with the vast network of NGOs are part of this objective.

Some believe many Uighur groups receive funds directly from the US State Department through its National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The Chinese media alleges that the NED is funding Xinjiang separatists like Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the World Uyghur Congress.

It is also questioned whether Turkey - which has a size-able Uighur population -- is part of NATO's well known stay-behind networks tactics to destabilise China.

Recently Chinese authorities arrested 10 Turkish nationals on charges of providing false passports to alleged terrorists from Xinjiang. Authorities in Beijing believe such activities are executed with support from the Turkish intelligence.

China fears Xinjiang may become the next Afpak, Syria/Iraq region, with local militants attracting Uighur fighters with diplomatic support from Turkey and other outside powers with shared ideology/interests.

Additionally, for Beijing, the US approach of military intervention in Syria and the Middle East has been a non-starter. Experts say terror acts are proliferating at a larger scale as US-led military strikes intensify.

And rhetoric from Western media and experts suggesting a "rebranding" of terror outfits such as Al Qaeda as a lesser evil vis-a-vis ISIS, isn't helping either.

Perhaps Washington could revisit its approach towards localised terror threats such as the ones in India and China as a first step to win a broader mind-share.

Recent statements, as the one by the US Army General and former CIA Director David Petraeus favouring the use of Al Qaeda to "fight" ISIS, further heighten the distrust.

For China, joining the US in its anti-terror fight in the Middle East, especially in Syria, will be a huge decision. It will mean re-calibration of its foreign policy based on the five principles of Peaceful Existence of which "non-interference" is a key component.

Clearly, as of now, Sino-American relations do not command enough trust for China to incorporate such drastic policy transformation. Perhaps Washington could revisit its approach towards localised terror threats such as the ones in India and China as a first step to win a broader mind-share.

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