How Terrorism Could Derail China's 'One Belt, One Road'

Policeman in Tiananmen Square. Flickr/Creative Commons/Johnathan Nightingale.

Will the wave of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang prompt China to tweak its national security priorities?

Chinese authorities conducted mass parades of thousands of security personnel and military equipment in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on February 16 and 17.

The parades, conducted in the major southern cities of Kashgar and Khotan, as well as the provincial capital, Ürümqi, were described by state media as anti-terrorism “oath-taking rallies.” Chinese Communist Party deputy secretary Zhu Halian asserted that the rallies demonstrate China’s resolve to use “thunderous power” with “guns by our bodies, knives unsheathed, fists out and hands extended” to “strike hard” at Uyghur terrorists throughout the region.

The rallies follow a wave of terrorist attacks in the region over the past year and mounting evidence of Uyghur militant involvement, not only in historical hotspots such as Afghanistan and Central Asia, but also Syria and Iraq.

Illustrative of the extent of this latter dynamic have been three developments over the past year.

First, on August 30, 2016, a Uyghur suicide bomber with links to Syria drove a Mitsubishi Delica multi-purpose van packed with explosives into the security gates of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Second, the gunman responsible for the New Year’s Eve 2016 Istanbul nightclub attack was identified by Turkish authorities as an ethnic Uyghur with links to jihadist groups in Syria. Finally, on February 27, Islamic State militants released a slickly produced propaganda video detailing for the first time “scenes from the life of immigrants from East Turkistan [Xinjiang] in the land of the Caliphate.”

These events suggest that China’s long-standing problem with Uyghur terrorism is metastasizing beyond the confines of its restive far northwestern province of Xinjiang.

Some see this as an inevitable byproduct of China’s growing presence in regions long beset by terrorism. A Global Times editorial following the embassy attack in Kyrgyzstan simply noted that as “China has become a major power” it is increasingly likely that “China will get dragged into international disputes” and become a terrorist target.

Yet this ignores the role that China’s own policies—both within Xinjiang and in Central Asia and the Middle East—have played in stimulating the threat of terrorism to China’s interests.

Within Xinjiang, China has pursued a muscular strategy of integration defined by tight political, social and cultural control, which includes Han Chinese domination of the regional government, regulation of religion and outright suppression of dissent, and encouragement of Han Chinese settlement. This agenda has been underpinned over the past two decades by a state-led economic modernization program aimed at making Xinjiang a major hub of trans-Eurasian economic connectivity.

Although yielding economic development, this strategy has also stimulated sometimes violent opposition from the Uyghur population who bridle against demographic dilution, political marginalization and continued state interference in the practice of religion. These factors have also played a role in motivating large numbers of Uyghurs to migrate in recent times, either legally or illegally, from China.

Externally, the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-led “war on terror” also enabled Beijing to link incidents of Uyghur opposition and antistate violence to the Al Qaeda jihadism.

This tactic was successful with the United Nations recognizing the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM)—a group Beijing claimed was “supported and funded” by Osama bin Laden—as an “international terrorist organization” in 2002. While ETIM did have a presence in Afghanistan from the late 1990s onward, its connection with Al Qaeda until the events of 9/11 was limited.

After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, however, the group shifted its base operations into Waziristan where its leader, Hasan Mahsum, was killed during a Pakistani military operation. And it was in this post-9/11 “Af-Pak” context that links with Al Qaeda and its fellow travellers were consolidated. Here, the “Turkestan Islamic Party” (TIP) emerged as a successor organization to ETIM in 2005, aligned with Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Taliban.