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Why China Has Not Sent Troops to Strike the Islamic State

Mar 15 , 2016
  • Wang Zhen

    Director of Security Studies Program, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

As the Islamic State forces grew more frenzied last year to wreak havoc in the Middle East, major global powers intensified their military strikes on the terrorist group. China, however, is the only one among the permanent members of the UN Security Council that has not taken military action against IS. That caused a plenitude of whispers among critics on the international scene. Some Western media and scholars drew on the fact to support their accusation that China had been “hitchhiking” in the Middle East.

Then why did the Chinese Government not try any military means against the IS forces in the region? In this writer’s opinion, at least three factors have affected Beijing in its decision.

First, China lacks capacity in terms of its military machine to launch direct strikes on IS targets. It’s common sense for any military analyst that one needs at least two capabilities to take military action against IS. One is the ability to collect sufficient intelligence on the tactical level, otherwise it is impossible to locate the targets precisely or assess the attack results or exercise emergency rescue; the other is the ability of long-distance delivery of military force.

For long, China’s military development has centered on the Taiwan Straits. It has never had any military presence in the Middle East. Although it has made rapid progress in recent years in developing a long-distance delivery ability, China still finds it too difficult to send its troops to the Syrian battlefield.

China does not have any military base or security ally in its true sense in the Middle East. The Liaoning, its only aircraft carrier, doesn’t have any experience in battle, and none of its warships currently cruising near Aden is large enough to allow a fighter aircraft to land. Should the case of the Russian fighter being shot down by Turkey happen to a Chinese aircraft, what means does China have to deal with the matter?

These questions need to be answered before China takes any military action in the region.

Second, China doesn’t have a clear and definite target in Syria. Countries currently engaged in strikes against the IS forces all have their own national and political interests behind their moves, whatever excuses they cite to justify them. Some of the motives can be announced overtly, such as fighting international terrorism and safeguarding peace in the region; some are not to be divulged, for instance, bolstering friendly forces in the region and winning political support at home.

If China were to take military action in Syria, the main target most probably would be the Uyghur jihadists. Since the civil war broke out in Syria, more and more Uyghur militants have been entering Syria via Turkey. Even their colleagues who had traditionally been active in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region began to shift to Syria, although this situation is unknown to most people. Media put the number of Uyghur militants in Syria at somewhere between several hundreds and several thousands. These armed personnel joined the IS forces and even participated in military acts of some opposition forces such as Liwa al-Islam (Islamic Army). Therefore, striking at IS only is not enough to settle China’s concern about the Uyghur terrorist forces. But if China extends its strikes to a wider range, it will incur accusations from the West that it is a “scoundrel of the same ilk” as Russia.

Third, whether China should involve itself in the war against IS is a controversial question within the country, with common people, academicians and decision-makers “widely divided” in their understanding of the issue. Basically there are two opposite opinions.

People of the first opinion insist that IS is a grave threat to China in the future, for the organization has targeted China several times in its statements. Therefore, China should participate in the international community’s military action against IS. By doing so, they argue, China can both prove its commitment to “international responsibility” as a rising global power and avoid “lagging behind others” in the global anti-terrorist war.

The other group claim that IS is not a “terrorist force” in traditional sense but rather a result of the intensified conflicts among political and religious sects in the region. China, they say, would be “courting disaster” if it took military actions blindly, for that would draw vindictive attacks from international terrorist forces and even leave China’s relations with the Islamic world in a predicament. What is more, many scholars argued, the global anti-terrorist practices after 9/11 has proven that military actions cannot lead to ultimate victory. It seems that more people hold the second point of view, which is also particularly welcomed by China’s Muslims.

It is thus clear that China is neither militarily strong enough nor well prepared in political will and social support for a strike on the IS forces. In the foreseeable future, China will not take direct military action in Syria as some Western countries have done. However, this does not mean that China will not expedite the building of its ability in this regard. Certain Western countries accused China of playing “hitchhiking” in the Middle East. But that stance is ridiculous if they continue making irresponsible remarks on China’s military building and refuse to share intelligence and power resources in the Middle East.

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