In a recent The Diplomat article by Mu Chunshan, Beijing-based journalist, he highlighted how Chinese netizens are increasingly supportive of Israel’s fight against terrorism and paying more attention to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“Their comments emphasize their deep disgust for extremism and terrorism,” and increasing fear of China’s terrorist groups in Xinjiang garnering support from international jihadist groups. As such they argue that Israel’s intense attack will help China’s own fight against the three evils of “terrorism, extremism, and splittism”—a core interest for China.
China’s Muslim Xinjiang province is increasingly on the radar of global terror groups, and the government can no longer isolate the local “East Turkestan separatist” problem from “global jihadist” problem. Just this week, a state-backed imam of China’s biggest mosque in Kashgar was assassinated, underscoring an escalation in 18 months of violence as part of a bid by extremists to radicalize Chinese Muslims.
But the first signs of increasing linkage between localized separatist movements with global terrorist network appeared back in 2011.
According to Dr. Pan Guang, China’s leading Middle East scholar from the Shanghai Academy of Social Science, in the July 2011 Xinjiang bombings, for the first time Uyghur separatists planted a Salafist flag (black with Arabic writing) rather than their usual East Turkestan flag (blue with star and crescent similar to Turkey’s flag). He further revealed that the Uyghurs began proclaiming aspirations to join the Middle East jihadi movement. Beijing thus worries Chinese militants fighting in Syria, Iraq, or training in Pakistan’s tribal area, would return home to launch attacks and spread religious extremism.
Jacob Zenn, a counter-terror expert, revealed that already interaction between Uyghur terror groups such as Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and al-Qaeda family are leading to similarities in strategy and technique. The Chinese Communist mouthpiece Global Times also accused Chinese militant groups of “collaborating with al-Qaeda family of threat groups…Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Islamic Jihad Union, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus and since recently the Al-Nusra Front in Syria.”
Moreover, recently TIP leader Abdullah Mansour called China “the enemy of all Muslims”, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leader Abu Zar al-Burmi singled out China as the “next number one enemy.”
This is a direct threat to the survival of the Chinese Communist party. TIP has close ties with al-Qaeda such that Beijing fears increasing Chinese “turkistan-ization” of al-Qaeda. TIP’s former leader, Abdul haq al Turkistani was appointed member of al-Qaeda’s majlis-e-shura, or executive council in 2005, before he was killed in a 2010 drone strike. Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, a Chinese Uyghur known for friendly ties with Taliban groups in Waziristan, succeeded him. A few weeks before the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda appointed him as new commander of its Pakistan forces and training camps.
Given this, China is doubling up its “Strike Hard” campaign to fight terrorism in Xinjiang. While the world focuses on China’s growing military budget and tensions in the East and South China Seas, there’s scant attention to the fact that China’s internal security budget has surpassed its military budget every year since the 2009 Xinjiang uprising.
In 2010, its security budget was $87 billion while defense was $84.6 billion; in 2011 security was $99 billion while defense was $95.6 billion; in 2012 security was $111.4 billion while defense was $106.4 billion; in 2013 security budget was $123.6 billion while defense was $119 billion. In 2014, the Communist government deliberately withheld full disclosure of the security budget due to its sensitive nature, while defense is $131.57 billion. However, based on past trends it is likely higher than the defense budget.
Based on its budget expenditures, this suggests Beijing views terrorism and instability as a greater security threat than military conflict in the Western Pacific. China fears the inability to safeguard security of energy supply lines from increasingly Islamist and unstable countries will harm continued economic growth that underpins the legitimacy and survival of the Communist regime.
More importantly, Beijing fears Muslim jihadists fomenting instability in Xinjiang—a key site of China’s nuclear arsenal. Xinjiang hosts China’s nuclear test site Lop Nur and elements of its strategic missile force, the Second Artillery. China’s extensive underground nuclear tunnels are also located around Urumqi, site of the 2009 Xinjiang riots that killed 200 people and injured almost 2,000 others.
Persistent unrest on a national scale has left China’s Xinjiang-based nuclear warheads vulnerable, especially to potential seizure by Uyghur militant groups. As such, any instability of Xinjiang and potential jihadists access to China’s nuclear arsenal is a red line for Beijing.
While Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan accuses Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians, similar to his accusation against the Chinese of committing “near genocide” against the Uyhgurs in the 2009 Xinjiang uprising, Turkey and Qatar need to understand that their support for terrorist groups such as Hamas or other extremists groups in Syria will have negative knock-on effects that threaten China’s core interest—not just Israel’s. As such, it is important for U.S., China, Israel, PA and the wider international community to work together on a broader regional counter-terror strategy to resolve this conflict, and not just see it through the narrow lens of a Hamas-Israeli conflict.