Can China Afford to Be Aloof in the Middle East?

As Syria burns, 'non-interference' will only take China so far.

China’s muted response to Russia’s recent military intervention in support of Damascus, however, suggests that its commitment to the principle of “non-intervention” is becoming less absolute. As the Russian military began airstrikes in Syria, an editorial in China Daily opined that Moscow’s intervention was a “sensible strategic move” that could “strengthen its image as a responsible stakeholder” in combatting “IS extremists.” Moscow’s coordination of its strikes with Syrian government forces, it continued, would also make Russia’s efforts “more efficient and precise” than those of the U.S.-led coalition.

Finally, the rise of ISIS brings the regional and international dimensions of China’s struggle against Uyghur separatism and terrorism in Xinjiang into starker focus. In 2013, China’s then Middle East envoy Wu Sike claimed that hundreds of Uyghurs were travelling to Syria, usually via Turkey, to fight with various anti-Assad groups. Claims of links between radicalized Uyghurs and the Syrian chaos have periodically resurfaced since then, including in connection to the Erawan Shrine bombing in Bangkok on August 18 of this year, in which a number of suspects arrested by Thai police were found to be traveling on Chinese and Turkish passports.

Most recently, claims have been made that the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), a group China has blamed for recent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, has a battlefield presence in Syria and is aligned with the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

China has seized on such claims as proof that Uyghur terrorism in Xinjiang is “spiritually supported… [and] commanded by foreign terrorist organizations” and as a means to attack the West for its “double standard” whereby “only terror attacks in their countries are acts of terror, while the killings against civilians in China are resistance with just cause.” This, as James Leibold recently noted, underlines that “terrorism in China, as both a concept and a rhetorical device, is about securing and legitimizing Chinese rule over the troubled regions of Xinjiang and Tibet…rather than any global scourge on humanity as Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials would now have us believe.” Leibold could have added that this instrumentalist use of the “terrorism” label for the pursuit of domestic and foreign policy goals aligns it with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.

Thus, despite Beijing’s current official circumspection on contributing to international efforts to combat ISIS, its interests and recent actions in the Middle East suggest that its “offend no one” and “take no sides” approach will soon be a thing of the past.

Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, ANU and is the author of Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia – A History (Routledge 2011).

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force