What Do Asian-Oceanic Nations Think about ISIS?
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to a number of key Asian-Oceanic nations and allies of the United States to discuss issues related to Iraq, Syria, the Islamic State (IS) and foreign fighters. While much of the focus in Washington has been on the role of Western European and Arab partners in the fight, Asian-Oceanic countries also have their own interests related to this issue. In particular, I spoke with governmental officials, academic scholars and others in Singapore, Japan, China, New Zealand and Australia. While each country looks at the problem-set through a different lens and/or interests, as well as has varying degrees of threat-levels, it is clear that all are concerned and want to take an active role in combatting it.
Although few Singaporean citizens have gone to Syria, the government takes very seriously the potential that more could go. Therefore, one of the most pressing concerns for Singapore is developing a better countering violent extremism (CVE) and community relations strategy. Officials there are attempting to craft a better understanding of the varieties of paths to radicalization to help provide the resources and contacts on the ground to find early signs for those at mosques and schools, as well as interfacing with parents, teachers, imams and others. Another concern is the use of its territory for other foreign fighters in eastern and south Asia to use it as a transiting point on individuals' way to Turkey to get to the Syrian battlefield.
Even less so than Singapore, there are scant numbers of Japanese that have gone to fight in Syria/Iraq. That said, Japan wants to use this global coalition effort as another way to maintain its close relations with the United States. It is possible that Japan hopes to later be paid back if it encounters any problems with China in the future. In addition to this, Japan has major economic and oil interests in Iraq, as well as other areas that the Islamic State has been attempting to expand, most specifically in Algeria (Jund al-Khilafa fi Ardh al-Jiza'ir) and Libya (Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam). Japanese officials keenly remember not only the death of many of their citizens during the In Amenas attacks in southern Algeria two years ago, but also their citizens that were killed in the 9/11 attacks. These incidents help frame the worries that they now have since one of their citizens that fought with the Salafi Islamic Front rebel group is now captured by IS. Further, the recent arrest of a college graduate that converted to Islam and attempted to go to Syria also makes officials think twice about the future potential radicalization of the refugee Uyghur community, as well as migrant workers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Pakistan. For now, they do not worry about this type of threat.
Of all these countries, China is most bothered by these trends, in part because it has seen a spate of violence already from its community that has been involved in the global jihadi world in the past with the Turkistan Islamic Party in Xinjiang and Pakistan's tribal areas. They fear that Syria will provide a new avenue for recruitment, training and returning home for domestic terrorist attacks. It is believed that at least 100 have gone, mainly Uyghurs, though there has been a presence of a few Han Chinese, too. Beyond a group of about forty individuals fighting with TIP's branch in Syria (TIP in Bilad al-Sham), it is difficult to ascertain the membership of citizens with other groups. Beyond the foreign-fighter issue, Chinese academics believe that the recent resurgence in violence in Iraq will hurt current or future economic projects, whether in the oil sector or more infrastructure-related, including building highways. With the increasing incursions by jihadis into Lebanon, scholars also warn about the safety of Chinese military personnel that are assisting the UN peacekeeping force on the Lebanese-Israeli border—though a senior government official did suggest China could be willing to help with training missions for the Iraqi security forces. Lastly, while the consensus is unlikely, China will join Western and Arab countries in conducting military operations, it is believed that Beijing is willing to support more of the humanitarian aspects of the fall out monetarily—though its track record over the last three-years in Syria puts this claim into question.