As is well known, international terrorism is a threat to the whole world. But this problem is particularly acute today in Asia, and China is no exception. In spite of being one of the most successful Asian States, PRC also has internal conflicts which are a breeding ground for terrorism.
China consists of many regions inhabited by peoples of different cultures and traditions, and separatist sentiment periodically intensifies in some of these regions. Currently first of all it is the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in Northwest China, or East Turkistan as it is also called by local advocates for separation from China. It is the largest Chinese region by area with a relatively small (by Chinese standards) population of about 22 million people. About 50% of the population in Xinjiang are Uygurs, a Turkic nation who practise Sunni Islam. Many of them dislike the Chinese, who are actively settling in the region as the result of a Beijing initiative.
Xinjiang has an ancient and complex history. At various times, independent states came into being in the region, and these states later joined larger entities, including the Chinese Empire at various periods of its history. Throughout the XVIII-XX centuries, the Uygurs revolted against Chinese rule about four hundred times. The current Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China was formed in 1955.
In 1993, radical Uygur Islamists created the armed group, the “Turkistan Islamic Movement” (TIM), which aims for the establishment of Xinjiang as an independent state governed by Sharia law as well as the spread of Islam in China. TIM has begun to cooperate with terrorist organizations from other countries, such as the Taliban operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan” and others.
Since 2001 TIM is headquartered in Waziristan, an unrecognized state in Pakistan. Since the mid-2000s TIM has been known as the “Turkistan Islamic Party” (TIP) and has established contacts with al-Qaeda, one of the most powerful international terrorist organizations. Over the years, TIM/TIP has assumed responsibility for over 200 acts of terrorism.
Actions of the TIP are supported by the Uygur population of Xinjiang since amongst Uygurs, it is widely believed that Muslims should not be ruled by anyone who do not believe in Islam. Chinese laws restricting the birth rate are an additional strain on local society as Uygurs believe that these laws contradict Muslim traditions.
The Chinese leadership in turn considers these traditions to be the basis for separatist beliefs and a hindrance to domestic policy and to the harmonious coexistence of the peoples of China and the state system. As a result, the authorities seek to control its citizens’ religious life. It is now forbidden to go to mosques in Xinjiang if you are under 18 or a civil servant. University students outwardly displaying their religion can also encounter problems. The holding of religious ceremonies, nomination of the clergy and the content of sermons should all be consistent with state religious committees.
As a result, a tense situation has existed for a long time in the Xinjiang region, control of which requires considerable effort on the part of PRC authorities. It should be noted that not only repressive measures are applied. Beijing is making large investments in the development of this region. Residents are benefitting financially from the active development of tourism in the XUAR. An extensive network of high-quality roads has been built. In addition, the Chinese global infrastructure project “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) should constitute an additional contribution to the prosperity of the region. One of the “Eurasian land bridges” (the most important rail routes connecting Europe and Asia) goes through the XUAR, which should gain from the transit of goods, infrastructure development and the emergence of new jobs as the implementation of the OBOR continues.
However, despite economic development, the situation in the region escalates. Experts attribute increased terrorist activity to the war in Syria. As mentioned, Uygur terrorists have links with other groups in South Asia and the Middle East, including those currently fighting in Syria, where Uygurs are fighting among the ranks of Daesh. It is likely that participation in the war on the side of Islamist groups has allowed Uygur militants to count on their support in Xinjiang.
The greatest concern of the Chinese authorities is Uygur links with Daesh, an expansive organisation with vast ambitions covering the whole world. Islamist groups across the globe, including Africa, Europe and South-East Asia swear allegiance to the last. Daesh shows a great interest in the countries of South and Central Asia, including Xinjiang. They plan to include these lands in a caliphate, uniting Muslims around the world. Despite the fact that Daesh has been defeated in Syria, the terrorist organization is looking for a new place to focus on.
In August 2016, there was an attack on the Chinese Embassy in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. The perpetrator of the attack was an ethnic Uygur who, it turned out, had links with Syrian terrorists. Another Uygur who shot customers atReina night club in Istanbul on 1 January 2017 had the same ties to Syria. Daesh took responsibility for the attack.
In February 2017, a video appeared on the internet in which Daesh militants of Uygur origin promise to return home and “take revenge on China for its oppression”.
One can therefore conclude that some Uygur terrorists have established strong relationships with the Daesh, one of the most violent terrorist groups in the world. This brings the terrorist threat in China to a new level.
The Uygurs’ desire to receive help from international terrorists in the struggle for the independence of Xinjiang is understandable. However, the question remains: why should Daesh need to go to Xinjiang? It is unlikely that the participation of hundreds of Uygurs in the Syrian conflict is worthy of such gratitude. Of course, Daesh have their own goals in Xinjiang, but the creation of a “united caliphate” that includes the whole of Central Asia currently seems impossible even to them. Daesh’s current aim, or rather the aim of those standing in the shadows of this organization, the Western and Islamist “puppet masters”, may well be the failure of the OBOR project or at least the part that is associated with the Middle East and Central Asia.
It is self-evident that construction of transport infrastructure and transport of large volumes of freight require peace and tranquillity. This is why China cooperates with all the countries involved in OBOR on security, and supports legitimate governments in the fight against illegal armed groups. Among these countries are Afghanistan (which the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Daesh consider “their” territory), Pakistan (where the Taliban also feels at home), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (which is also in Daesh’s sphere of interest). In accordance with the demands of the OBOR project, all participating countries should be united by a network of railways, which shall connect to Chinese network in Xinjiang. Construction of railway infrastructure, an increase in regional trade, the emergence of new jobs and the welfare of the population all contribute to the weakening of terrorists in all these countries.
We can therefore conclude that the Chinese OBOR project, created with the purpose of uniting the transport and economic systems of all the countries of Europe, Asia and Africa, was perceived by international terrorist groups and certain anti-China forces as a threat, and to combat OBOR they decided to use the radical feelings of Xinjian’s population.
Without a doubt, their understanding that OBOR is making China a target for terrorists, has forced China to take a more active part in ensuring international security. In August 2016, the first foreign military base of China in Djibouti (an African state on the shores of Bab-El-Mandeb Strait, a strategically important maritime link between Europe and Asia) was opened. War-torn Somalia and Yemen, where Daesh are also based, are now within range of the Chinese military in Djibouti.
At the end of November 2017 China decided to send troops to Syria to fight Uygur militants fighting for Daesh. This decision, uncharacteristic of China’s normal policy, could indicate serious concerns related to the terrorist threat.
It is difficult to predict how the involvement of China in the Syrian conflict will affect the situation in Xinjiang and the future of the OBOR project. It can only be hoped that, as before, China will be able to maintain a reasonable balance between coercive and economic methods, and that the situation in the region does not worsen still.
Dmitry Bokarev, political commentator, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.