Last summer, as fighters from the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra swept across the Orontes river into the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur, a strange caravan followed in their wake: Thousands of women and children, marching across the border from refugee camps inside Turkey, to occupy the farms and homes of local residents who had fled. This was their promised land: An Islamic state to rival the Islamic State (IS). For some 3,500 families, though, their new home amidst the lush green slopes of the village of Zanbaq was just a stepping stone to a homeland more than 4,500 kilometres away — a great sprawl of ice, rock and prairie, perched on the roof of the world. They spoke languages no one around them understood: Uyghur and Chinese.
Ever since China’s decision to block UN sanctions against Masood Azhar, many Indians have concluded their superpower neighbour’s policies are driven by moral blindness, even malice. For a serious understanding, it’s important to see the world through China’s eyes — eyes that wear lenses coloured by the emergence of many enclaves like Zanbaq. The IS has its own Chinese forces, whose families have been granted lands in Abyad province. Chinese nationals make up the largest cohort, by far, of foreign jihadists from Asia. Although the world sees China as a fire-breathing dragon, its leaders know their power rests on pillars of the most fragile porcelain. The armies massing in West Asia, Beijing fears, could bring the roof down on their half-century-long effort to build a great power.
Facing a serious transnational terrorism threat, China’s security establishment finds itself under-resourced and ill-prepared. Its intelligence services don’t have the global reach of the US. Beijing, moreover, is sceptical of America’s expensive way of war. Instead, Beijing seeks to use regional clients like Pakistan to contain the threat. For Beijing, the emerging terror threat from West Asia is redolent with history. In 1864-76, the Central Asian adventurer Yakub Beg launched a rebellion against Beijing, backed by the Ottoman sultan. Through the second half of the last century, Istanbul was a refuge for Xinjiang exiles like Isa Yusuf Alptekin. Xinjiang saw the emergence of jihadist tendencies in the wake of the anti-Soviet jihad, a war in which hundreds of ethnic Uyghurs participated. In 1993, jihadist leaders Hasan Mahsum and Abdukadir Yapuquam founded the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), hoping to defeat another superpower.
Like other regions in China, the modernising impact saw enormous cultural and political dislocations after the revolution. The tensions helped Xinjiang’s jihadists mobilise. In February 1997, nine Uyghurs were killed when police fired on violent mobs protesting the execution of secessionist activists. TIP, by now operating from Kabul, carried out its first major terrorist operation in retaliation, bombing three buses in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, killing nine people, including three children.
Beijing, characteristically, tried to do a deal. In December 2000, China’s ambassador to Pakistan was promised the Taliban wouldn’t “allow any group to use its territory”. In return, Mullah Omar asked for Chinese help against Western sanctions. The deal wasn’t quite sealed, though, when 9/11 changed the scenario, forcing the TIP into North Waziristan.
In the build-up to the Beijing Olympics, evidence emerged of the lethality of these new Pakistan-trained groups. In March 2008, the crew on a Beijing-bound China Southern flight foiled a mid-air suicide bombing by 19-year-old Guzalinur Turdi — trained in Pakistan. In August that year, terrorists killed 16 police officers in Kashgar.
Largescale communal riots broke out in Xinjiang in 2009, claiming 197 lives — and demonstrating just how high the costs of terrorism could be for social order in China. China has since sought to stamp out the problem by crushing Xinjiang’s ethnic-religious identity, proscribing long beards and veils, imposing restrictions on mosque attendance, and even on Ramzan observance. It’s also experimented with social engineering, pumping in funds for development that draw in immigrants. The measures have, however, hardened ethnic-religious tensions. Last year, over 50 people were reported killed in clashes between workers and police at the Aksu coal mines, while Xinjiang separatists killed 29 people in a knife attack at Kunming in 2014.
Islamabad’s help has proved key to making sure the problem isn’t worse. Although Xinjiang jihadists are operating to China’s south, the real concerns are in the anarchic states to China’s north-west. Entropic Afghanistan could provide Xinjiang jihadists renewed sanctuary. Then, large numbers of jihadists from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are known to be fighting with the IS in Syria and Iraq. Thus, China sees the Pakistan army as a critical ally in keeping weapons and trained fighters from crossing the Karakoram mountains — and bringing home the war from Zanbaq.
Is Beijing’s bid to outsource its war on terror likely to succeed? Experience holds out some cautionary lessons. For decades, the US followed counter-terrorism policies identical to those Beijing now seeks to adopt. The support Washington provided to repressive regimes in West Asia ended up legitimising the violent Islamism it was meant to curb. The Pakistan army’s use of jihadi proxies led to the creation of infrastructure used against the West. The lesson is simple: Policies guided by tactical needs, with no strategic framework, lead inexorably towards defeat.
India’s move to host Xinjiang dissidents shows this maxim needs to be understood by China-hawks in New Delhi. The move would have fuelled China’s fears, with potentially grave consequences. In spite of its tactical alliance with Pakistan, China has been a force for regional stability. The country has ended its earlier support for insurgents in India’s Northeast, kept a studied distance from Kashmiri secessionists, and refused to bail out Islamabad during the Kargil war, or after 26/11.
Frustrations sparked by Beijing’s counter-terrorism relationship with Pakistan will test China-India relations for years to come. Kicking the dragon in the shin, satisfying as it might seem, is a profoundly risky business — and, more important, it won’t even the score.