Is China engaging the Arab world to mitigate domestic trouble?

With battles for Mosul and Raqqa on the horizon, Beijing’s policy toward key Arab capitals is to try to arrest the spread of extremism

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Events are moving very quickly regarding Chinese interests in the Arab world. News that Beijing’s military will provide humanitarian training for the Syrian army should not be surprising. China has been steadily building up to this moment where its security requirements demand soft intervention in the Levant.

Moreover, the terrorist attack against the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan is the latest in an evolving wave of violence against Beijing’s interests in Central Asia that will require a mutual Arab-Chinese focus.

China is worried about what is occurring in Arab lands, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda are causing more havoc than ever. Amid Russian actions in Syria and the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS, China is becoming involved against the terrorist group and in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in new ways.

With battles for Mosul and Raqqa on the horizon, Beijing’s policy toward key Arab capitals is to try to arrest the spread of extremism.

What is happening in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is directly relevant. The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has increased its activity dramatically in response to events in Syria. It fights for the establishment of an Islamic State of East Turkestan in Xinjiang. Years of violence between the group and Chinese authorities has led to tensions in China’s far west.

Uighurs, influenced by extremist groups, are the key Chinese concern where Arab security interests intersect with Beijing. In July 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called out Chinese oppression of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang. “Your brothers all over the world are awaiting your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades,” he said.

A few months ago, in a remote town in Idlib province, northern Syria, an unusual foreign militant presence alarmed Syrian locals
A few months ago, in a remote town in Idlib province, northern Syria, an unusual foreign militant presence alarmed Syrian locals

Last year, ISIS taunted China in its online magazine Dabiq, featuring “the sale” of Fan Jinghui, a freelance consultant from Beijing. Reports of ISIS recruiters in Hong Kong approaching Indonesians, and using Malaysia as a hub for gathering potential fighters, force China to be more cautious and calculating in its approach to terrorist incubators in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The plight of the Uighurs is not new. What is new is disenchanted Uighurs who take up the ISIS message of violence. Caliphate Uighurs number perhaps over 1,000, each a ticking time bomb from Beijing’s viewpoint.

That view came into sharp relief a year ago in Bangkok, Thailand, when Uighur terrorists killed almost two-dozen people at the Hindu Erawan Shrine. Although not an outright ISIS attack, the bombing woke up China to the evolving extremist threat around its areas of economic interest.

That Uighurs in ISIS are influencing the TIP is undeniable. On July 22, the latter distributed a video titled “My Desire,” which highlighted photos of Uighur fighters in Syria and their struggle with the Chinese army in the city of Urumqi. In the background, a song states in the Uighur language: “We want to live according to the canons of sharia as true Muslims, and to conduct holy war against infidels on earth.” These type of messages make Beijing nervous.


Chinese policy toward the MENA region is mirroring Russia’s Arab policy. Throughout the Syrian war, Beijing has supported Russian policy in the Levant and the wider Middle East. The Kremlin too has a fear of extremists coming not only to Russia but also Central Asia, which directly abuts Xinjiang.

China has an expanding presence in the Mediterranean and other sea lanes that mirror Russia’s efforts. In addition, the two countries are part of the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) counter-piracy mission, which is set to expire next year. For Arab shipping companies and for supply-chain networks, maritime security is key to stability, and the Chinese and Russians seek to contribute to securing these vital sea lanes.

Furthermore, 700 Chinese soldiers are part of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and China’s navy just opened up its berths in Djibouti. Meanwhile, Russia is now able to use Iran as a potential forward operating base for a number of regional contingencies. Consequently, the Chinese, in concert with the Russians, are becoming more involved than ever in the MENA region in order to protect themselves at home.


China is pushing economics in order to contribute to regional growth. In January, President Xi Jinping made an important speech at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, emphasizing “development” as the key to resolving most Middle Eastern problems, especially terrorism and conflict.

Thus, China’s investments in a number of regional infrastructure projects, including in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are interconnected. China sees that its investments will benefit the region and help Arab partners successfully transition to knowledge-based economies based on Arab strategic plans that are to come to fruition by 2020-2030. Beijing is engaging Arab states out of necessity.

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