Will China Take on ISIS?

Little is known about Fan Jinghui, other than the fact that last week he was executed, along with Norweigan citizen Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad, by the Islamic State. Fan, who is from Beijing, was at one time a high school teacher turned advertising executive, though in 2001 he described himself as a "drifter" to a Chinese radio show. How he ended up in the clutches of the Islamic State is something of a mystery.

What is clear however is that his death has provoked a series of questions about how China will respond to the rise of ISIS. Since 2001 China has been fighting it's own "war on terror" domestically in the far western province of Xinjiang. This region has long been troubled by persistent violence from separatist forces that are vying to create a sovereign East Turkestan. Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, is home to ten million Uighurs, a Chinese ethnic minority who practice a form of moderate Sunni Islam and speak a Turkic based language.

China has claimed for many years that Uighur separatists have been radicalized after travelling to training camps throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and pose a huge threat to China upon their return. This gained some credence in 2002 when the US captured twenty-two Uighurs at a training camp in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan and subsequently held them in Guantanamo Bay.

More recently as ISIS has come to prominence the Chinese government has warned that Uighurs have been travelling to Syria and Iraq and have been joining the Islamic State, receiving training and weapons, and in some cases fighting in the Syrian conflict. Recent ISIS propaganda has affirmed these claims, with a video showing the oldest jihadi currently fighting to be an 80-year-old Uighur called Muhammed Amin. Other videos have shown a number of young Uighur children in a classroom proclaiming that they will one day return to China to "raise the flag" of the Khalifah in Turkestan (Xinjiang). The Global Times, a Chinese state-sponsored newspaper, reported in December that there are currently about 300 Chinese fighting for ISIS, though this figure is widely disputed.

While the execution of Fan Jinghui, the deaths of three Chinese executives in the siege in Mali, and the increasing number of Uighurs travelling to help ISIS would seem to suggest we are close to reaching a tipping point in which China will take serious action against ISIS, to assume such action is imminent would be premature.

To attack ISIS would go against China's long held foreign policy stance that it will never intervene in a sovereign nation's internal affairs. This means that it would be unwilling to land troops or engage in airstrikes in either Iraq or Syria, as this would be a direct contravention of sovereignty. China has long used its veto power as a member of the UN Security Council to prevent intervention in Syria and therefore it is unlikely, despite recent events, to completely change tack.

China's policy of non-intervention is pragmatic. China has its own issues with territorial integrity, particularly in relation to Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet. It therefore does not meddle in the affairs of other nations so as to avoid creating a precedent by which it could be similarly undermined. Moreover the Chinese argue that even limited intervention is just a slippery slope to deeper involvement in conflicts. China points to the 2011 airstrikes against Libya as an example. China voted for airstrikes, and as described by UN Security Council Resolution 1970, these were initially supposed to create a no-fly zone. However, the strikes eventually escalated into targeted attacks against government forces, which presaged the eventual ousting and execution of President Gaddafi. The Chinese government felt burned by the overstepping of the parameters set out in the resolution, and has vetoed similar resolutions for intervention in Syria.

Many within China also believe that ISIS is largely a western creation, the unpleasant result of years of botched interventions across the Middle East and Central Asia. "The chaos in the Middle East has proven the failure of U.S. intervention policy, whether in the form of the Iraq invasion, drone strikes, air strikes, regime change or the arming of rebels" wrote Chen Weihua, a journalist for China Daily, in a response to a question from China File. China does not see much reason to follow the example set by the West and further invoke the wrath of ISIS.

China is responding in its own way to the recent attacks and longer standing issues in Xinjiang. It has clamped down on the free practice of religion throughout Xinjiang and severely impeded Uighur rights, a policy which is likely to prove counter productive. This includes, but is not limited to, banning people with beards and the Hijab from riding public transport, preventing the call to prayer, and forcing students and government officials to eat during the Ramadan fast. These policies are only further inflaming the negative sentiments of the small fraction of the Uighur community already susceptible to ISIS's call. It is creating a Uighur identity in opposition to Beijing where no unified Uighur identity existed before.

More positive is Xi Jinping's central policy of "one belt one road" which, in an attempt to rejuvenate the ancient Silk Road, is pumping investment into Xinjiang and connecting the isolated region with Central Asia and Europe. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund will provide funding towards the project to the tune of between $160bn and $300bn according to some estimates. and Beijing has announced plans to create twenty special industrial zones in Xinjiang alone.

Economic development is not without its problems, and some argue that the gains from "one belt one road" are likely to only further exacerbate ethnic tensions if the profits solely accrue in the hands of Ethnic Han. There is validity to this claim, though there are signs that Beijing is making an effort to address this. A 2014 policy mandated new hiring quotas that state-owned enterprises in Xinjiang employ seventy percent of their new staff locally, including twenty-five percent from ethnic minorities. The Hukou registration system was also weakened in relation to Uighurs, making it easier for them to move from the countryside and into cities, where they are likely to fare better economically.

In the wake of Fan Jinghui's death the Chinese foreign ministry released a statement saying that the government "condemns this inhuman action and will definitely hold the perpetrators accountable". For now it appears that accountability will not be held at the barrel of a gun.