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ISIS and China’s Free Rider Strategy

Sep 30 , 2014

On Tuesday, September 23rd 2014, the Chinese government sentenced economics professor, Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uyghur and the most outspoken advocate of peaceful Uyghur resistance to Chinese policies, to life in prison on ‘separatism’ charges. According to the New York Times, Tohti was accused of  ‘internationalizing’ the Uyghur separatism struggle by running a website (Uyghur Online) and giving interviews to the foreign press.

The court ruling indicates that Beijing may use the ongoing US-lead counterterrorism campaign to “degrade and destroy” the international terror group ISIS as pretext to step up the suppression of Uyghur extremism in China’s Western province of Xinjiang. At the same time, despite being identified by President Obama as “free riders for the past 30 years” in international affairs, it is unlikely that China will actively support the US-led multilateral campaign against the Islamic terror network ISIS anytime soon.

As recently as June 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized China’s continued commitment to the principles of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. Although Beijing has not always in the past practiced what it preaches the non-interference doctrine does provide the Chinese leadership the political legitimacy to reject policies not deemed to be in China’s national interest: During a recent trip to China, US National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice received no commitment from Beijing to support a military campaign against ISIS.

One of the principal reasons why cooperation between the United States and China is difficult is their divergent interpretation of terrorism, although both countries agree that ISIS is a serious threat.  As the U.S. Department of State Country Report on Terrorism 2013 states: “China’s cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism issues remained marginal, with little reciprocity in information exchanges.” The report states that China has stepped up cooperation with Belarus, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia—not however with the United States: “China has criticized the U.S. response to acts China characterizes as terrorism, alleging that U.S. expressions of concern over the treatment of China’s ethnic minorities and deficiencies in rule of law represent a ‘double standard’ on terrorism.”

The Communist party leadership is especially sensitive to the West’s criticism of its policies in Xinjiang, which the former deems excessively suppressive, counterproductive, and in violation of fundamental human rights. The NGO Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of enforced disappearances of Uyghur men and boys, hundreds of arbitrary detentions, and summary trials without due process over the last few years. China has especially stepped up religious restrictions: Many Uyghur Muslims are prosecuted for petty offenses such as watching religious classes, or searching for religious texts online.

On the contrary, Beijing has repeatedly accused the Europe and the United States of sheltering “Uyghur terrorists”, members of the World Uyghur Congress who are advocating for more religious and cultural freedom in Xinjiang province and reject a violent struggle. China’s broad definition of terrorism and separatism will guarantee that the security issues in Xinjiang province will not go away in the immediate future.  The country has recently witnessed a spike in violent attacks and the threat of terrorism is increasing.

In July this year, China’s then Special Envoy on Middle East Affairs, Wu Sike, stated that so far 100 Uyghur militants have received training in either Syria or Iraq. The communist party funded newspaper, Global Times, cites an anonymous “Chinese anti-terrorism worker” who states that the Uyghur extremists “not only want to get training in terrorist techniques but also to expand their connections in international terrorist organizations through actual combat to gain support for escalation of terrorist activities in China.”Whether this assessment is true cannot be independently confirmed. In July 2014, terrorist leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, put China on top of his list of countries that have “seized Muslim rights” and singled it out for attacks. Iraqi forces have also recently captured what appeared to be a Chinese citizen fighting for ISIS.

Nevertheless, Beijing does not seem to abandon its free rider approach to international security. Take the example of Iraq: Chinese State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) have invested more than $10 billion dollars in the country, most of it going into the Energy sector.  1.5 million barrels of Iraqi oil per day are shipped to China making it Iraq’s principal oil export destination. This constitutes about 60% of Iraq’s total oil production. At the same time Iraq is China’s 5th largest oil supplier.  It follows that China has a legitimate interest in the stability of Iraq. Yet, Beijing’s only noticeable response to the ISIS terror campaign this summer has been to evacuate most of their 10.000 citizens outside the country.

In the last few months, Beijing’s sole “international” counterterrorism strategy appears to be to continue to blame the unrest in Xinjiang primarily on Uyghur separatist groups such as the Turkestan Islamic Party and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.  At the same time China emphasizes the religious radicalism of these Islamic parties, thus linking them to ISIS.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, stated that “the international community should work together to fight terrorism, including giving support to relevant countries as they make efforts to maintain domestic security and stability.” However, merely paying lip service to international efforts, while at the same time pursuing an inflexible counterterrorism campaign at home, is not behavior befitting China’s desire to share global leadership with the most powerful nations.

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