As ISIS’s influence in Iraq and Syria continues to spread, international commentators have begun to look towards China. As the most significant foreign investor in Iraq’s oil and a beneficiary of stability in the Middle East, many have argued that China should be playing a more active role in maintaining the stability of the region.
China’s interests in the Middle East are not only economic. Chinese officials frequently emphasize that China itself is the victim of terrorism. Following a string of terrorist attacks beginning last year, President Xi Jinping labeled Xinjiang China’s “frontline of terror.” In May 2014, Xi announced a year-long campaign against terrorism in Xinjiang, and Xinjiang Party Chief Zhang Chunxian declared a “people’s war on terror.” The government’s controversial strategies include offering substantial monetary rewards to informants, deploying drones, and cracking down on outward displays of Islamic beliefs and practices. In the three months following the knife attack at Kunming Railway Station in March, Xi Jinping publicly raised the issue of counterterrorism 22 times.
While China supported UNSC Resolution 2170, which strongly condemned extremist groups in Syria and Iraq and promoted sanctions against ISIS and its affiliates, China’s non-intervention policy and lack of military capabilities have prevented it from taking decisive action against ISIS.
In an interview with the New York Times earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama openly criticized China for being a “free rider,” saying he had joked with his colleagues: “can’t we [the U.S.] be a little bit more like China? Nobody ever seems to expect them to do anything when this stuff comes up.”
China’s domestic media responded by highlighting the country’s positive impact on Iraq’s post-war development, citing delivery of humanitarian aid and investment in infrastructure. The Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily labeled the U.S. “invaders” and “abandoners,” while calling China a “cooperator” and “constructor.” In an op-ed for Caixin, one commentator argued that China should not be forced to enhance its presence in the Middle East at the “exhortations of other countries,” and should continue to “advance its influence [in Iraq and the Middle East] through the area of trade and economic ties.”
While its economic might has served it well thus far, China may not be able to rely on it for much longer. The fact is, China has also found itself a target of ISIS. In July, ISIS claimed that it would seek to rule over Xinjiang in response to China’s “seizing [of] Muslim rights.” There have been reports that Uyghur women and girls have received phone calls from ISIS operatives encouraging them to become their sex slaves. Wu Sike, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, has claimed that as many as 100 extremists from Xinjiang are currently receiving training in Syria and Iraq.
Ultimately, unless China invests in counterterrorism operations internationally, it will face the consequences domestically. As disunity within its own borders begins to pose a greater security threat, the government will need to initiate a serious discussion of ways in which it can make a contribution to global anti-terror efforts. China’s handling of this current crisis will become a test case for its future as a responsible stakeholder.
Simone van Nieuwenhuizen recently graduated from Peking University with a Master of International Relations (Diplomacy), completed in Mandarin Chinese. She can be found on Twitter @simoneyvan.