NOT too long ago China rarely featured in the news related to international terrorism. But recent years have seen a noticeable rise in threats due to terrorism in the world. At the same time PRC’s influence abroad has increased substantially in view of its presence in all the regions of the world especially in Asia and Africa. It is hardly surprising that China is increasingly facing the threat of terrorism and has been forced to become involved in finding a solution to this problem.
It is well known that the key direction of Chinese foreign policy is promotion and development of the One Belt, One Road Initiative, a world-wide transportation and economic scheme, which, in the future, could unite all the regions and countries of our planet. PRC ties practically all of its economic development plans and desires with OBOR. Many African, Asian, European and, as of recently, Latin American nations are involved in OBOR. Some of the more famous subprojects of OBOR are the Silk Road Economic Belt (SPEB) meant to unite the main land routes (roads and railways) in Eurasia into one, and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR), which covers sea routes along the Eurasian coast and connects some of the most remote regions in Asia with Africa and Europe via the Indian Ocean.
As is the case with MSR, many routes of SPEB as well as its branches traverse turbulent regions threatened by terrorism. For instance, MSR passes via the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen. A civil war has been raging in Yemen since 2014. In Somalia, a civil war started in 1988, the year when this country ceased to exist as a nation and turned into a territory controlled by numerous armed factions fighting against each other. Many of these units are involved in criminal and terrorist activities, in the Gulf of Aden among other places. The region became even more dangerous when a force, capable of coordinating the actions of these Yemeni and Somalian fighters, emerged there. It is public knowledge that in both countries units affiliated with Daesh (or ISIL, banned in Russia) are active. Daesh is a terrorist organisation, established in 2013, that many other terrorist groups joined within a short amount of time. Daesh’s aim is to establish a global caliphate that includes all the countries where Muslims live. It has been reported that after Daesh’s losses in Syria, following Russia’s involvement in the war there, the leadership of this terrorist group decided to move its headquarters to Somalia. Daesh has been actively seeking new recruits there from a pool of local extremists, and may remain in Somalia for a long time unless the international community takes appropriate measures.
Afghanistan is another country where Daesh is active in, where a war has been waging for many years. Daesh’s militants now control substantial territories in Afghanistan, having pushed another terrorist organisation, the Taliban (also banned in the Russian Federation) out of these areas. Daesh is trying to spread its sphere of influence from Afghanistan to neighboring Central Asian nations, which they are planning on including in the caliphate. Important SPEB routes traverse these Central Asian countries. Afghanistan is also been a part of this initiative and has been connected by rail to China since 2016. The Afghan part of SPEB may take on a special significance once the Lapis Lazuli Corridor opens, which traverses Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.
In order for MSR and the Central Asian branch of SPEB to operate successfully in the regions they pass through, it is essential to ensure security and stability in these regions. This is why China has been actively supporting legitimate governments of the countries OBOR’s routes cover, which is causing difficulties for the factions opposing these administrations. For instance, PRC provides substantial financial support to the Afghan leadership, supplies its army with various weapons, and is involved in training the Afghan Border Police.
In the meantime, the OBOR initiative may pose a threat to the terrorists, since developing trade, creating jobs and improving residents’ living standards automatically diminishes the extremist mood and the number of people willing to join illegitimate armed units, and improves government forces’ combat effectiveness. Hence, OBOR itself is reason enough for a confrontation between China and terrorist organisations that wish to retain their grip on the captured territories.
Terrorists would benefit from OBOR’s failure and decreased stability in China, which is probably why they decided to focus on a vulnerable area in PRC, the autonomous territory of Xinjiang. The region includes areas, captured by the Empire of China several centuries ago and populated by the Turkic Uyghur people. Since then the Uyghurs have rebelled against the Chinese leadership on many occasions. Even at present, many locals still wish to rid themselves of PRC that introduced measures to limit birth rates and religious freedom, which many Uyghurs deem unacceptable. In recent years, the situation has become increasingly tense. There have been a number of terrorist attacks in various regions of China with involvement of Xinjiang natives.
It is also well known that Daesh supports Uyghurs who espouse separatist and extremist ideologies. From Daesh’s perspective, Xinjiang ought to be a part of the caliphate because it is populated by Muslims. However, the reason Xinjiang is of interest to the terrorists is most likely because the Chinese railways join the lines from Kazakhstan there, thereby creating one of the main SPEB branches. For a number of years now, Daesh has been actively recruiting Uyghur separatists. It is public knowledge that, at the beginning of 2017, several hundreds of Xinjiang natives were fighting for Daesh.
Having realised that the situation is becoming more volatile, China began to take on a more active role in international initiatives aimed at fighting terrorism. In August 2016, PRC signed an agreement on military cooperation to combat terrorism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. In February 2017, China took part in international consultations on Afghanistan in Moscow.
In March 2017, Daesh representatives aired a video message about their plans to target China and spill rivers of blood there to avenge the downtrodden.
The PRC leadership took this threat seriously. That same month, Chinese forces together with their Afghan counterparts, staged operations against illegitimate armed units in Afghanistan, near the Sino-Afghan mountainous border region, used as a conduit by the Uyghur and Daesh fighters.
Aside from Afghanistan and the neighboring countries, China is increasing its cooperation with the USA on anti-terrorism. Despite disagreements between these two nations, the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan is a task of the highest priority for both of these nations.
Although the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia plays a crucial role in China’s security, Beijing does not forget the more remote regions where PRC citizens and Chinese property may come under threat. In August 2017, China opened its first military base on foreign soil in Djibouti, a nation on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, bordering Somalia. Now the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) will be able to secure maritime routes in this strategically important part of MSR.
In January 2018, a number of media outlets reported that China decided to establish another military base in Afghanistan. By the end of that month China’s ministry of national defence denied the veracity of these reports, but it is possible that this option is being considered. In any case, the situation in Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries will remain the focus of China’s attention.
Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that China has become a key participant in the fight against international terrorism. The Celestial Empire needs to liquidate the internal threat in Xinjiang and safeguard the transport routes of the OBOR initiative, which, as mentioned earlier, its future economic ambitions are tied to. It is conceivable that aiming China’s military might and financial resources against organisations such as Daesh could improve security in Asia, Africa and the rest of the world.
New Eastern Outlook, August 17. Dmitry Bokarev, a political observer, writes exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.
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