There has been much media coverage on how ISIS threatens western interests in the Mideast, but a new report in IDC Herzliya’s Middle East Review of International Affairs, “ISIS Caliphate Meets China’s Silk Road Economic Belt”, examines the clashing ambitions between ISIS and China.
While the Western U.S.-led coalition continues to be hamstrung by a lack of ground forces, the coveted “boots on the ground” could eventually come from the East–as China asserts its military power to protect its energy supply and stem ISIS-inspired insurgency in its strategic Xinjiang province.
On July 4, 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for jihad against countries that “seized Muslim rights,” citing 20 countries around the world. That he named China first in the list is not lost on Beijing. In the video, al-Baghdadi referenced Xinjiang numerous times and asked Chinese Muslims to plead allegiance to him. He even threatened to occupy parts of Xinjiang, which appeared on ISIS’s caliphate map.
Map 1: ISIS Caliphate
Although the idea of occupying Chinese territory currently seems farfetched, the Chinese have a legitimate reason to defend against what amounted to a declaration of war from this Islamist extremist organization.
With ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate that encompasses China’s Muslim Xinjiang, Chinese strategists will now have to consider how ISIS’s eastward pivot will impact China’s own “march west” to create a Silk Road Economic Belt across Eurasia–the centerpiece of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy.
Map 2: China’s Silk Road Economic belt
China’s oil interests in Iraq
China is currently debating sending troops to Iraq to fight ISIS and protect its interests, and has already offered air support to the Iraqi military. It would likely cooperate with its ally and Shanghai Cooperation Organization partner Iran, that is already conducting airstrikes in Iraq.
Observing bitter lessons learned from its $20 billion Libyan investment losses and evacuation of 36,000 Chinese nationals, Chinese pundits argue how a military presence in Iraq would provide solid security for Chinese investments, especially since Chinese stakes in Iraq are much bigger than in Libya.
According to Erica Downs of the Brookings Institution, Beijing expects Baghdad to figure heavily into its Middle East energy strategy, with its most productive upstream activities in the Mideast located in Iraq. The Iraqi fields are among the world’s largest, with China’s oil giant CNPC holding substantial stakes in al-Ahdab, Rumayla, Halfaya and West Qurna 1 in the south, and Sinopec also holding stakes in an oil field in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In 2013 Beijing purchased nearly half the oil Iraq produced and had planned to purchase 70 percent of Iraqi oil exports in 2014 at 850,000 barrels per day (bpd), narrowing the gap between Iraq and China’s top supplier Saudi Arabia at 1.1 million bpd in 2013.
However, ISIS also has its eyes on the Iraqi oil prize, as illicit oil sales finance most of ISIS activities. Given this, ISIS poses a looming threat to China’s energy security strategy, and it is likely a matter of time before China deploys troops to maintain stability and safeguard its energy interests in Iraq.
Terrorism in Xinjiang, China
China also had been facing its worst terrorist attacks since the early 2000s in Xinjiang and an uptick of violence spanning a period of 22 months. China estimates there are about 300 Chinese jihadists fighting for ISIS, with additional fighters in Syria that have crossed over from Turkey, where more than 20,000 Uighur diaspora reside.
Fears of homegrown radicalization of China’s 20 million Sunni Muslims have been exacerbated by the capture of a Chinese national fighting with ISIS in Iraq in September 2014, and a December 2014 Global Times article further highlighted this threat, revealing Chinese militant groups ETIM and TIP have added “IS” to the name of their organizations to signal their allegiance as a new sub-division under the Islamic State.
With over 100 people killed in July 2014, President Xi Jinping vowed to cast a wide net “from the earth to the sky” to capture terrorists in a “strike hard” counter-terror campaign. Jacob Zenn, an analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said terrorism might come to dominate Xi’s leadership in much the same way it did for President George W. Bush.
Military Rail Transport to the Mideast
Thus the Chinese military is preparing for non-war operations via its railways in the Silk Road Economic Belt. Military requirements are part of China’s rail development, and the People’s Liberation army (PLA) has actively participated in the design and planning of China’s high-speed rail. The Hong Kong-based Jing Bao argued in a January 2010 article that railways–-and their military significance-–needed to be infused into Chinese leaders’ strategic lenses when exporting railway technology as they enhanced military power projection.
Additionally, a China Youth Daily article stated, “A lightly equipped division could be moved on the Wuhan-to-Guangzhou line about 600 miles (965 km) in five hours.” A typical military train includes 16 high-speed rail cars that can carry 1,100 lightly armed soldiers, and the report continued that “with the daily improvement in China’s high-speed rail network, transferring a 100,000 strong army might be possible within half a day in the future.”
While CIA estimates ISIS has 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, China has 2.3 million active duty soldiers, with approximately 1 million reservists and some 15 million militia. With 1.3 billion people, China also has a potential manpower base of another 200 million males fit for military service available at any time.
As China’s economic and energy portfolio continues to rise in the Mideast, it is increasingly likely there may be future scenarios for the PLA to deploy troops via China’s “Orient Express” to protect its interests. Should ISIS continue to taunt the Chinese regarding territorial integrity in Xinjiang and threaten Chinese oil interests in Iraq, Chinese troops may eventually “march west” across the Silk Road to battle ISIS.