On November 18, 2015, the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) executed a Chinese hostage known as Fan Jinhui. A self-professed wanderer, the Islamic State kidnapped him in Syria and offered him up for sale initially before executing him. Fan is the first Chinese hostage to be killed by the Islamic State, although in 2014, ISIS executed three Chinese militants for attempted desertion. Despite Chinese authorities’ rhetoric of strong condemnation and a vow “to bring the culprits to justice,” Beijing has failed to elaborate or provide details on its plan to either prevent terrorist acts from occurring, or explain how it would respond to such attacks.
Given China’s policy of non-interference, it is unlikely China will change their foreign policy stance and participate in any US-led military campaigns against ISIS extremists in Syria or Iraq. While it is significant that a Chinese national was targeted and killed, the Islamic State will remain more of a threat to Chinese interests overseas rather than in Mainland China. ISIS attacks will likely hit Chinese soft rather than hard targets, and will be a nuisance that will not in itself be able to change Chinese domestic policy in a way that benefits Chinese Muslims living in Xinjiang, or lead to China taking a more proactive role in the Middle East.
In December 2015, two weeks after the ISIS execution of the first Chinese national, the terrorist group released a four-minute song in Mandarin Chinese, calling for Muslims to “wake up” and “take up weapons and fight.” Although previously overlooked by many transnational jihadist groups, ISIS has suddenly turned the spotlight on China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, which borders several countries with large Muslim populations, much to Beijing’s discomfort. In July 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accused China of oppressing Muslims and claimed “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized” by Beijing.
Although there is a long history of marginalization and oppression of Chinese Muslims in the Xinxiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the Islamic State also faces an uphill challenge given the very restrictive operating environment created by the Chinese Ministry of State Security. China has been waging its own internal war against terrorism since 2001, calling Uighur separatists “terrorists” and linking any attacks inside the country to transnational jihadists who seek to topple the regime and foment political instability domestically. Beijing claims terrorists are attempting to create an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang, and are being directed by hostile foreign forces aligned with the “three evils:” terrorists, separatists, and religious extremists.
Although ISIS has targeted China as potentially fertile recruitment ground, the groups’ efforts to radicalize will likely not produce the same spectacular results it has among Muslims from more open societies in Western Europe with porous borders. The threat of ISIS-trained Uighurs returning to China to launch attacks is significantly lower than it is with their European-trained counterparts as the security environment in China is much less permissive than it is in Western Europe. State-sponsored paranoia has molded Xinjiang province into a police state where curfews, travel restrictions, and prohibitions on participation in religious activities are strictly enforced. If any such attack were to occur, the modus operandi would be similar to that of ISIS-inspired attacks in Jakarta – unsophisticated and rudimentary in nature.
There is little evidence to support Chinese claims that some ethnic Uighurs who have fought with ISIS in Syria and Iraq have returned to China with intent to launch attacks in the country. According to estimates, there are around 100–300 Chinese citizens currently fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Despite the low threat to Mainland China, Chinese authorities will exaggerate and hype the danger to justify draconian measures that further castigate the Uighurs. Beijing often blames domestic violent attacks on Muslim extremists to drum up support from the international community and to receive assistance from foreign intelligence services to quell domestic discontent.
China’s Rising International Exposure
However, China’s commercial ambitions in the Middle East continue to expand and as it does, Chinese citizens and interests become more vulnerable to attacks in such volatile regions. When it comes to the Middle East, Chinese foreign policy rests on two objectives: promoting economic ties to ensure energy security, and committing to its policy of non-interference. Since 2008, Chinese economic interests in Iraq and Syria have expanded dramatically. From 2005-2016, Chinese investments and contracts in Arab Middle East and North Africa totaled more than $115 billion. Of that, $16 billion is invested in Iraq, and another $4 billion in Syria. In 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $55 billion in investments and loans to the Middle East region.
China has a large economic footprint in the Middle East, but when it comes to political conflicts that require a UN Security Council vote, Beijing prefers to opt out, refusing to participate or comment on what it deems to be another nations’ internal affairs. While Beijing may want to keep Middle East conflicts at arms length, it is now finding that despite having sought to keep a low profile in the region, it might become a target of foreign terrorist organizations. Conflicts in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen have likewise threatened Chinese workers who are engaged in infrastructure, energy, and other projects in the region. In 2011, China was forced to evacuate 35,000 Chinese nationals from Libya when the country dissolved into civil war. In June 2014, when ISIS was advancing in northern Iraq, China evacuated up to 1300 Chinese workers from Samarra with the help of the Iraqi military. Though not specifically targeted in the way that Western interests are, Chinese interests are at risk based on availability and opportunity.
China as a Paper Tiger?
The recent ISIS focus on Chinese interests spotlights the questionable sustainability of China’s non-interference policy, a cornerstone of Beijing’s foreign policy since the 1950s. China’s official position on most disputes around the world is that they should be resolved through peaceful negotiations. At the UN, China often abstains or refrains from voting on resolutions that mandate sanctions or interventions in response to invasions, civil wars, or terrorism. Additionally, China views the Syria-Iraq crisis as a byproduct of U.S. “tyrannical foreign policy” and firmly places the blame squarely on American shoulders. In essence, Middle East insecurities are the fault of the Americans, and China should not have to participate in cleanup efforts.
However, when Beijing has no visible action to follow through on aggressive rhetoric, it loses credibility on the international stage and is made to look like a “paper tiger.” As Middle East complexities continue to draw China into its tentacles, Beijing may be forced to reevaluate its policy of non-interference and realize that although it did not create the problem of ISIS, not doing anything may only make the problem worse.
Jennine Liu has a double MSc in International Affairs from the London School of Economics and Peking University and currently writes for the Asia Pacific desk at Wikistrat.