China’s foreign policy has traditionally revolved around a belief of non-intervention. Their so-called Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence was codified in 1953 and later added to the Preamble of the Chinese Constitution. China’s primary objective is stability, and from their perspective, the surest way to destabilize a region is by intervening militarily.
However, despite its best efforts to do otherwise, China will soon find itself entangled in the messy international struggle against Islamic-fundamentalist movements.
The rise of ISIS and its ongoing conquest of huge swaths of Syria and Iraq poses a significant threat to the political and economic stability of the Middle East. Because of its economic interests in the region, China has deviated slightly from its non-interventionist policies by expressing support for anti-ISIS military activities. However, threats to its economic interests should be the least of China’s concerns. This is because ISIS is currently the greatest actual security threat China faces in the world. Chinese Muslim Uighur separatists have been joining ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Eventually (if not already) these battle-hardened Uighur separatists will begin to make their way back into China and begin a campaign of terrorism on a scale previously unimaginable in China. In order to stem the flow of training, support, and weaponry coming back over its borders via the ISIS-trained Uighurs, China will have to take unprecedented military action in the Middle East. As a result, China’s largely untested military will gain needed combat experience and China as a whole may begin to feel more comfortable with the idea of military confrontations.
China has tens of billions of dollars of oil investments at stake in Iraq. Like any good investor, there is no doubt that the Chinese will work to protect their investments. Despite the threat ISIS poses to its investments, it is still believed that China will stay true to its non-interventionist roots, sit back, and allow the UN to take on the militarily active role. However, China is already showing uncharacteristic support for foreign military actions against ISIS. In July, a Chinese special envoy met with then Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki to make an anti-terror support pledge. Perhaps even more unusual is China’s open support for US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. These demonstrations of support represent a slight shift away from China’s traditionally strict adherence of non-interventionism. In spite of this unprecedented support, some still wrongly doubt that China will move beyond financial and political backing.
This predicted “sit back” approach seems to be increasingly unrealistic, especially as it is becoming apparent that Uighur separatists are joining ISIS in the Middle East. The Uighurs come from a Western region of China called Xinjiang. Many of the Uighurs do not identify as Chinese and have long been resentful of China’s heavy-handed policies. It is known that there have been violent riots, clashes with police, and a surge of terrorist attacks in the past year including a car bombing in Tiananmen Square and deadly knife attacks. China has responded to what it sees as a domestic issue by starting a “year long campaign against terror.” This “campaign” includes increasing its police and military presence in Xinjiang, and implementing controversial policies aimed at restricting Muslim Uighur cultural practices.
The Chinese government may need to rethink the timeframe and scope of its “year long campaign”. Over the last few months, several Uighurs have been arrested in Iraq fighting alongside ISIS. Four militants have also been arrested in Indonesia trying to join ISIS branches. One West Asian scholar claims there may be hundreds of Chinese nationals who have joined ISIS. The Muslim Uighurs who have joined IS are receiving an elite education in terrorism and combat. They are building a valuable network of different Muslim extremist groups who can supply them with weapons, as well as logistical and ideological support. Perhaps the most significant lessons being taught to the Uighur extremists is in organization. So far the effectiveness of Uighur attacks in China have been limited because the separatist groups are largely unorganized and fractured. But as ISIS-trained Uighur extremists begin to trickle back into China, the Chinese government will find itself battling an entirely different animal, one that is more experienced, unified, and more dangerous than ever.
When this happens, the world can expect to see a China that is much more willing to involve itself in military intervention. Not only will there be more UN Security Council voting support on the part of China for actions against these extremist groups, but there will also be more active military support. This military support will probably take the form of supplying and funding groups that are actively fighting against ISIS.
Another perhaps more extreme (but still plausible) scenario is an actual fighting role for the Chinese. If the Chinese government begins to recognize the true extent of the threat posed by Uighur Muslims who are joining ISIS, it is possible we will see the Chinese military joining Western and Arab forces in their bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria. If so, this would set a new and historic precedent for China. It would result in a China that may be more comfortable with the idea of deploying it’s military against its perceived foes. This willingness to use force will have profound implications on China’s ongoing territorial disputes with surrounding Asian nations. China has already been flexing its military might in this context, but these military actions have amounted to little more than empty posturing. However, the world can expect a new military superpower as China expands its military action.