Is China’s Uyghur challenge changing its calculus on Syria?

Uighur woman Spiegel Online on Flickr

Image: Spiegel Online on Flickr

By Associate Professor Michael Clarke

China’s approach to the Middle East is often described as an aloof one, defined by the pursuit of narrow self-interest. Wu Bingbing, professor of Arabic studies at Peking University, has argued that China’s approach has been guided by the maxim that it should be “detached generally and involved appropriately.”

A recent news report, however, would suggest a major departure from this posture. The Iranian Fars News Agency reported on November 29 that two Chinese special forces units “will soon arrive in Syria” to assist the Assad regime in countering “extremists,” including Uyghur militants from the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP).

The first reports in fact emerged as the Obama administration weighed the possibility of military strikes against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons in September 2013, with some construing patrols by the Chinese warship Jinggangshan in the eastern Mediterranean as a precursor to overt intervention. Similar speculation occurred as Russia began its military intervention in support of Damascus in September 2015.

While the provenance of some of these sources may raise questions about the credibility of their claims, they nonetheless highlight the dilemma the ongoing Syrian conflict poses for China’s narrow interest in combating Uyghur militancy and its broader foreign policy posture in the Middle East. Is the threat of a Uyghur militant presence in Syria enough to overturn Beijing’s decades-long posture of avoiding entanglement in Middle Eastern conflicts?

With respect to Uyghur militancy, Beijing has consistently blamed two externally-based Uyghur militant groups – the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and TIP – for incidents of terrorism and violence in or connected to Xinjiang since 9/11. ETIM had established a marginal presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan but was dealt a major blow when its leader, Hasan Mahsum, was killed by the Pakistani military in Waziristan in October 2003. TIP emerged as a successor organization in 2005 closely aligned with al-Qaeda and based in the Pakistani tribal areas.

However, there is little open-source evidence that either group has successfully carried out attacks in Xinjiang. In fact, it has only been since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011-2012 that the threat posed by TIP has grown. As al-Qaeda itself developed a presence in Syria from 2012 so too did TIP, with the group establishing a well-documented battlefield presence alongside al-Qaeda’s affiliates Jabhat al Nusrah and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

While the role of TIP in fomenting terrorist attacks within Xinjiang remains unclear, there has been evidence linking the group to terrorist attacks beyond the Syrian context such as the suicide attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on August 30, 2016 and the 2016 New Year’s Eve Istanbul nightclub attack.

The Islamic State has also recruited a small number of Uyghurs to its cause and explicitly targeted China as an “oppressor” of Muslims on par with Israel, India, and the United States. In February this year the group also released a propaganda video detailing “scenes from the life of immigrants from East Turkestan [Xinjiang] in the land of the Caliphate” in which Uyghur militants promise to “shed blood like rivers” to avenge Beijing’s “oppression” in Xinjiang.

China’s anxieties regarding such threats has played a major role in the development of what James Leibold and Adrian Zenz have termed a “security state” in Xinjiang over the past decade, whereby the region’s society is increasingly penetrated by the state’s various apparatuses of political and social control.

This has however also provided a “push” factor to a significant number of Uyghurs to leave China (often for Turkey) that has intersected with the “pull” factor of Syrian crisis to result in the radicalization of a proportion of those fleeing.

Evidence for this linkage can be found in Southeast Asia, where Uyghurs have been detained by Vietnamese, Malay, Indonesian, and Thai authorities traveling on forged Turkish passports or claiming Turkish citizenship, while others have also been recruited into local militant groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliate Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) in Indonesia.

As far as Beijing is concerned, such links provide proof that, as the Global Times put it, “violent and terror forces in Xinjiang are spiritually supported, and to some extent commanded and manipulated by foreign terrorist organizations. TIP’s presence in Syria, from the perspective of Beijing’s narrow interest in combating Uyghur militancy, then, thus seemingly provides it with a pretext for greater activism.

However, TIP’s presence in Syria has not solely spurred change in China’s approach. Rather, it has intersected with what Mordechai Chaziza has characterized as China’s “strategic understanding” with Russia to “constrain and balance the United States and minimize its ability to impose solutions on Middle East problems.”

Central to this has been Beijing and Moscow’s belief that they were “hoodwinked” by the United States and NATO in the lead up to their intervention in Libya in 2011. Then, Beijing and Moscow charge, Washington and NATO used the “responsibility to protect” doctrine as a smokescreen to obtain Russian and Chinese abstention from UN Security Council Resolution 1973 – which authorized the imposition of a “no-fly zone” to protect civilians – to undertake “regime change.”

As a result, both Russia and China have steadfastly opposed similar intervention in Syria. This was amply demonstrated by Beijing and Moscow’s joint vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions in October 2011 and February 2012 that sought to condemn the Assad regime and Beijing’s vocal opposition to any U.S.-led airstrike on Damascus in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons in August 2013.

Yet China’s position of “non-intervention” on Syria shifted considerably in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to begin direct military action in support of Damascus in September 2015.

Thus as Russian airstrikes began an editorial in China Daily asserted that not only was Russian intervention a “sensible strategic move” to combat “extremists” but also Moscow’s coordination of its strikes with Syrian government forces would make them “more efficient and precise” than those of the U.S.-led coalition.

Diplomatically, Beijing subsequently stepped up its efforts to play a mediating role in the crisis, appointing a special envoy, Xiao Xieyuan, and hosting several rounds of talks in Beijing with both Syrian government and opposition representatives.

It has also provided, albeit limited, military assistance to Damascus. The most notable sign of this has been the August 14, 2016 visit of Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of the Office of International Military Cooperation of the Central Military Commission (CMC), to Damascus. There, Guan met with senior military officials and Russian officers and pledged Chinese military assistance in the training of personnel.

At the core of Beijing’s approach here, as Raffaello Pantucci has noted, is “that it is ultimately the [Assad] regime (supported by Russia and Iran) that will bring stability and security back to the country.”

This suggests that Beijing may now have arrived at the conclusion that provision of such support serves not only its narrow interest in combating the TIP but is also a low-cost, low-risk means of contributing to its broader strategic goal of keeping the United States off-balance.

This article first appeared in The Diplomat.

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Is China’s Uyghur challenge changing its calculus on Syria?

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