Why the advent of the Islamic State can be advantageous for China

The looming crisis of the Islamic State (IS) has propelled numerous countries into panic. Others, meanwhile, calmly stand their ground, even if their interests appear somewhat threatened by the advent of this transnational Islamist organisation.

China is one such nation. 10 % of its oil is drawn from Iraq, where IS is most prominent. China was identified in comments by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, as one of the countries where Muslims had their rights infringed. He warned that China therefore warrants assault from IS. Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority from the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang, and the movement defending their liberation, the East Turkmenistan Islamic movement (ETIM), have in fact had tensions with Chinese authority. The ethnic group has moreover been blamed for the rising number of terrorist attacks in the province since the emergence of IS. For many of its members have been reported to make up the 200 Chinese nationals spotted amongst IS’s ranks. With domestic and international interests at stake, we would expect China to also descend on to the battlefield rather than watch as the likes of the US do the “dirty work”.

And yet, we would be wrong. Beijing’s approach, so far, has largely been to spectate as the US, in particular, has become gradually entangled in the Middle East. Just in terms of military resources, the US has used armed unmanned aerial vehicles, combat aircraft, and sea-launched cruise missiles to carry out several hundred strikes in Iraq since August 8th and in Syria since September 22nd. Ground forces haven’t been completely ruled out either; they could be introduced, indicated some US officials, if necessary to achieve US aims. For a sample of these aims, it may be worth glancing at the website of the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter Is. “ambitious” barely covers some of them: such as “Addressing humanitarian crises in the region” and revealing IS’s “true nature”. Administration officials may have clarified that reaching these goals could take years, but it’s still unclear how we measure this achievement when and if it occurs. What’s clear, however, is that these vague ambitions and military strategy are enough to prolong US presence in the Middle East.

That can only mean good news for Beijing. By concentrating its military and diplomatic strengths in the Middle East, the US is diluting its influence in Asia and potentially undermining its new “pivot” / “rebalancing” policy. This policy has been fostered to refocus the US’s military, political, and financial resources in Asia: the new focal point of the world’s economy. China, the rising hegemon in this region, has, until the birth of IS, felt its growth constrained by the US’s attempts to “pivot”. Until the birth of IS, the US has found the time and the means to ensure its presence was felt: whether it be in territorial disputes- South China Seas- or on the Asia-Pacific- with 60 % of its sub fleet. These beginning footprints in Asia have not been smudged out by US’s reinvigorated ventures in the Middle East; they have merely been forced to halt.

Beijing can therefore breathe and quietly expand its diplomatic and military dominance in Asia. It has already, for instance, furthered participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO): a collaborative effort with Russia and four other central Asian countries initiated in 2001. Since the arrival of IS, SCO held its largest military exercise earlier this summer since 2000s; roughly 70 thousand troops took part in the exercise, with China providing most of them. Recently, these strategic collaborations have appeared in the shape of increased intelligence exchanges for counter-terrorism purposes. Chinese President, Xi Jinping, whilst attending this year’s SCO conference in Tajikistan, promoted a new “silk road” concept as a means to reinforcing relations between the participating countries in the fight against Islamic extremism.

So Beijing can still afford to be calm; even somewhat grateful for IS. Its hegemony in Asia seems to be, for the moment, good enough compensation for its threatened interests in the Middle East.

By Harshadha Balasubramanian

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Asia, Middle East, North America

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