Jihadist Perceptions of a Rising Superpower
Troubles Along China’s Belt and Road
By Lucas Webber
China’s domestic security policy and its growing international influence are fuelling jihadist animosity throughout Asia and beyond. Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang is the most commonly cited China-related grievance within global jihadist discourse and has gained traction in recent years, but there are additional narratives emerging about China’s foreign policy and its increasing presence in the Islamic world. Beijing is becoming markedly more assertive in pursuing its geopolitical ambitions and in securing its growing international interests. This has not gone unnoticed and the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and others have explicitly declared China an enemy. These groups perceive China as an imperial or colonial power that is actively expanding its political, economic, and military footprint abroad, supporting repressive governments, and exploiting natural resources. If China’s influence continues to grow and these perceptions continue to spread, the Asian giant could conceivably become a higher priority enemy for a broader range of elements within the global jihadist movement over time.
Chinese Policies and Militant Hostilities
The rise of China is a momentous force in global politics that will, in all likelihood, continue to fundamentally alter the international landscape and, consequently, impact the dynamics of jihadism. China is territorially plugged into the Islamic world and is bolstering ties to numerous Muslim nations across the globe.
Beijing’s policies are exacerbating anti-China sentiment amongst a global array of militant groups while simultaneously increasing its exposure to attack. In recent years, a number of jihadist organizations have become notably more explicit in criticizing Chinese policies and more aggressive in threatening China. The developing narratives about Chinese foreign policy seem to reflect a broader transitional awareness of the evolving multipolar international system. This emerging political consciousness is not entirely seamless, however, as Elliot Stewart points out in his findings on the Islamic State’s apparent rhetorical de-emphasis of China and Uyghur-related issues as of late. Jihadist approaches to China are largely dependent upon strategic priorities, contextual conditions, and timing.
When thinking about potential future threats to China, its citizens, and its interests, it is worthwhile to assess the motivations of jihadists, how they view China’s growing global influence, and how they frame this phenomenon in their propaganda. Historically, jihadist narratives about their adversaries’ foreign policy tends to focus on how their interference and influence in Islamic countries harm the lives of Muslims and the lands and religion of Islam.
The nascent, emerging, and established narratives about China’s international activities are familiar ones; they are purveyed by militant groups around the world and particularized to frame designated enemy nations such as the United States, Russia, France, and others. The narratives focus on foreign occupation, interference, and military presence, malign and corrupting influence, acts of violence and oppression, support for governments viewed as illegitimate, hostile, and repressive, as well as the exploitation of resources and environmental degradation.
China is emerging as a very powerful country and appears to be the only potential peer competitor to the United States on the horizon. China is growing its economic, military, and technological might and is almost bound to create greater friction as it maneuvers throughout the globe. This is especially likely given the global security context, which saw tremendous geographical expansion and numerical growth in jihadism over recent decades. One study found the number of “Sunni Islamic militants” worldwide to be around four times higher than on September 11, 2001.
It should be noted, however, that this is not necessarily inevitable and may depend, in part, upon China’s policy decisions. Contemporary China has, for instance, tended towards a foreign policy doctrine of non-interference and has so far avoided inflammatory external military intervention in Muslim lands. Andrew Small explains how “Beijing’s approach to counter-terrorism outside its borders has traditionally been limited, and risk averse”. He characterizes this approach as “Uyghur-centric, unwilling to address broader dynamics of militancy, and focused on ensuring that China remains a low-priority target for transnational jihadi groups.” In some cases, as with the Afghan Taliban, Beijing has even pursued formal relations and has brokered security agreements. China has been very cognizant about the dangers associated with interventionism and the kind of jihadist animosity that direct military action attracts.
However, the militant threat is likely to become more difficult to manage as China rises, draws more attention, and its international influence and footprint increases. There are additional questions about the sustainability of China’s non-interventionist approach to international affairs as the country becomes more powerful and its foreign interests deepen and diversify. The non-interference principle appears to be under strain and Chinese foreign policy has already diverged from this guiding heuristic in several ways over recent years.
The trend towards greater international involvement is reflected in the expanded scope of China’s counter-terrorism policy. Small notes that it “now involves far greater geographical reach; a wider and more complicated list of partners; a more broad-based approach to addressing the conditions for militancy; and a more direct economic, diplomatic and security role for China, with all the risks that implies.”
The Threat to Chinese Nationals and Interests Abroad
Jihadists have threatened China for its domestic policy in Xinjiang as well as its foreign policy and rollout of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There is real intent behind the rhetoric; militants have targeted Chinese nationals and interests in an expanding number of countries. One researcher wrote, “When you become a big power, you become a big target” and that “China’s southern and western borders are increasingly marked by countries where angry minorities are focusing their rage on Beijing” adding the “most dramatic cases are in Pakistan and Indonesia.”
The Turkistan Islamic Party, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic State, and others have explicitly declared China an enemy and have conducted operations against Chinese nationals. In Pakistan, there is a lengthy record of jihadist groups as well as Sindhi and Baloch militants attacking Chinese citizens. Chinese nationals have also been killed in neighboring Afghanistan.
There were reports of at least two separate plots against Chinese foreign interests in 2010. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), there was a plot targeting the Dragon Mart mall in Dubai and in Norway there was a plot to bomb the Chinese embassy in Oslo.
The 2015 bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand killed 20 people and injured 125 others. Thai police believe the location was selected to target Chinese tourists. Reuters reported “many analysts, diplomats and even Thai officials say the Aug. 17 bombing was likely an act of revenge for Thailand’s deportation to China of more than 100 Uighur Muslims”. The exact motive behind the attack is difficult to verify but Beijing’s pressure on foreign governments to extradite Uyghurs and avoid commenting upon China’s domestic security policy in Xinjiang are issues to observe. The now-deceased Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi once asked “where is the relief of the rulers of Mecca and Medina for the Muslims in China?” Jihadists have explicitly threatened reprisal against governments that imprison or deport Uyghurs.
Investigators linked the 2016 suicide vehicle bombing at the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to a militant network operating in Syria. This was not the first time a Chinese embassy had been on the receiving end of an attack. In 2013, a Chinese embassy in Syria was struck by mortar fire and in 2015 a Chinese embassy in Somalia was damaged in an explosion.
In 2015, the Islamic State executed a Chinese hostage in Syria and in 2017 IS operatives killed two Chinese nationals in Pakistan. The Counter Extremism Group reported that a “plot was disrupted in January 2020 when seven terror suspects were arrested in Brest, northwest France, having allegedly targeted a French military installation and Chinese New Year celebrations taking place in Brest” adding that “the cell had allegedly recorded pledges of allegiance to ISIS”.
In Indonesia, hostile attitudes towards China have sometimes manifested in tangible threats to ethnic Chinese communities and Chinese nationals. The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) detected an uptick in militant anti-Chinese sentiment on social media during the coronavirus pandemic and has warned the government of future attacks. Indonesian Islamic State supporters have frequently threatened China and the IS-linked perpetrator who stabbed former chief security minister Wiranto in 2019 had allegedly discussed attacking Chinese workers. More recently in August of 2020, police arrested a group of Jemaah Islamiah members who were reportedly plotting to attack Chinese shop owners. The suspects are said to have selected the target over fears about communism spreading in the country.
China has political and economic interests in Africa but insurgency and terrorist activity pose an operational risk. In 2009, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) threatened to attack Chinese workers in North Africa. In 2019, suspected al-Shabaab militants opened fire on Chinese construction facilities and in 2020 the group reportedly attempted multiple attacks on Chinese commercial assets in Kenya.
Economic Influence and the Belt and Road Initiative
China’s dramatic rise has been driven by decades of rapid economic and demographic growth. It is now the world’s second largest economy, has a population of 1.4 billion people, and is aptly translating its wealth into military power.
China’s colossal Belt and Road Initiative signifies Beijing’s ambition to expand its power and influence. It is a macro-scale push to enhance connectivity between China and the rest of the globe. The initiative is China’s vision of a New Silk Road for the 21st Century and consists of a vast network of roads, railroads, energy pipelines, ports, airports, power plants, telecommunication networks, and much more. The BRI is comprised of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, which span the lands and coasts of the Islamic world.
Attitudes towards Chinese investment and the Belt and Road vary as some welcome the prospective economic benefits and infrastructure development, while others view the initiative as expansionist and predatory. Segments of BRI participant nations have expressed anger over a number of issues including untenable debt, corruption, lack of transparency, waste, poor working conditions, failed projects, resource exploitation, environmental damage, and more. This has at times fuelled protests, violent confrontations with Chinese workers, and militant attacks. This kind of negative sentiment provides fertile conditions for jihadists to tap into, a trend which can already be observed.
The Belt and Road Initiative has been explicitly named by jihadist organizations including Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party, and the Islamic State. China is accused of being an aggressor, having imperialist ambitions, and supporting what jihadists perceive as repressive governments in countries such as Pakistan, Myanmar, and Syria.
Islamists have portrayed China as a colonizer due to its heavy commercial activity abroad. Abu Zar al-Burmi, a luminary of anti-China rhetoric, drew a comparison to the British East India Company and claimed the Chinese have “conquered” Pakistan. In a 2013 sermon, al-Burmi criticized Islamabad for dealing Gwadar Port to China and exhorted Muslims to attack Chinese nationals and commercial interests inside Pakistan. “We should be aware of the fact that while the United States is the father of the Pakistani system and government,” he said, “China is the mother of the Pakistani government” and “the Pakistani government drinks its milk from the Chinese government.”
In 2019, the Islamic State published a full-page article in its weekly newsletter al-Naba that discussed China’s expanding influence and the Belt and Road Initiative. The organization claimed China is using “the method of investment” in order to “strengthen its ties with tyrannical governments”. IS called upon Muslims to prepare for a long war against China and urged attacks on Chinese nationals, interests, and diplomatic targets. The directive implored readers “to wage war against the idolators of China everywhere” urging “killing and capture … seizure and sabotage.”
This position has been similarly purported by the Turkistan Islamic Party, which recently accused China of debt trap diplomacy and highlighted the various negative experiences of BRI participants. China is framed as nefariously using its influence to subjugate populations, take control of resources, and obtain strategically valuable infrastructure and sites including ports. The TIP contextualized Xinjiang’s value to China as a resource-rich and geographically vital region, describing it as a BRI gateway and international crossroads.
Common Themes in Non-Jihadist Militant Rhetoric
This sense of encroachment anxiety is not exclusive to the jihadist realm and has been repeatedly expressed by Baloch and Sindhi separatists as well as Philippine communists. Very different groups have declared China an enemy for very similar reasons. These militant organizations view Chinese economic and military activity as intertwined and part of an expansionist grand strategy.
An umbrella coalition of armed Baloch and Sindhi factions published a statement that claimed, “Through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan and China aim to subjugate Sindh and Balochistan to acquire their illegitimate political, economic and militaristic interests and want to occupy the coasts and resources from Badin to Gwadar.” A senior commander in the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) said in an interview, “It needs to be understood that China, under the patronage of Pakistan and its army, has been plundering the natural resources of Balochistan for many years. Not only this, China has now joined hands with the Pakistan Army, which has been perpetrating brutality on the common people of the region for the last six decades.”
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) proclaimed, “Over the past several years, Philippine sovereignty has been greatly eroded as a result of the sustained and systematic economic encroachment and military intrusion by superpower China. Since 2016, China has heightened efforts to strengthen its position and foothold in the country. It is accelerating its plunder of Philippine marine and mineral resources and is rapidly increasing its military presence within the country’s maritime territory.” The CPP asserted, “The Party must rouse the Filipino people to fight as a single-minded patriotic force against China’s drive to dominate the Philippines.”
The New People’s Army (NPA), which is the militant wing of the CPP, declared that the organization must “intensify armed resistance against the expansion of anti-people mining, logging, plantation, energy and tourism operations which dispossess and displace the peasant and minority masses” and the “revolutionary movement must take effort to frustrate plans of the Duterte regime to allow the further expansion of Chinese companies, especially those involved in the construction of seven Chinese military bases and in the plunder and destruction of Philippine marine resources in the West Philippine Sea in violation of Philippine sovereignty.” An associated social media account stated, “The PH is now surrounded by US and Chinese military forces” and called for their student activists to “remain among the stalwarts of Filipino patriotism and continue to be at the center of the country’s fight for genuine freedom, especially amid China’s economic and military intrusions and the regime’s treachery and sell-out.”
Great Power Status
As China grows in stature it is being mentioned in the company of the United States and Russia on the shortlist of great power enemies of Islam. The Jordanian professor Akram Hijazi, who has been described as “a major intellectual figure for jihadi strategists”, warned in 2007 of China potentially supplanting American primacy to become the new “head of the snake.” Hijazi referred to China as a “brutal and colonizing power … [that] drained the resources of the weak countries.” In 2013, al-Qaeda and TTP-linked ideologue and former top mufti for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) Abu Zar al-Burmi declared China the “new superpower” and predicted it would replace the United States as “number one enemy”. Al-Burmi placed China in the pantheon of heavyweight adversaries, saying, “Our war is against the Russians, Chinese and Americans”. The Islamic State and aligned propagandists have disseminated images linking these three nations.
In a 2015 issue of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s (AQIS) Resurgence magazine, Adam Gadahn, the American convert to Islam and prominent media operative, took a similar line in a posthumously published interview. He included China amongst the “major global enemies of the Ummah” alongside the US, Israel, and India. Gadahn also accused Beijing of being part of a “new regional alignment against Islam and Muslims.”
The February 2021 issue of the pro-Islamic State Voice of Hind magazine provides a similar grouping. The publication includes an article reminding Muslims of their “obligation” to fight the “disbelievers” and “terrorize the enemy of Allah” explaining that it “does not matter if the people of disbelief are represented by Europe, America, Russia, China or India”. Likewise, in 2018 a Filipino member of the Islamic State issued a threat against China, America, India, and Australia.
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has published a comparatively large amount of commentary on China’s growing influence in regional and international politics. In 2013, the TTP listed China together with the US, UK, France, and Russia as a prominent member of the United Nations (UN) and a leader of the “international order” which it declares hostile to Muslims and Islam. In 2016, the TTP remarked, “Due to its military, ethical and economic decline, the US has lost the political clout it once had … The unipolar world order is giving way to a multipolar one in which regional powers have a bigger say in the affairs of their respective regions, such as China in South East Asia, Turkey and Iran in the Middle East, Russia in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.”
Military and Security Posture
The presence of foreign, particularly non-Muslim, military forces in Islamic countries has traditionally been a potent motivator for jihadist violence and although China has not conducted kinetic campaigns abroad comparable to those of the United States or Russia, it has nonetheless expanded its international security footprint in recent years.
The Chinese government is working to modernize the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and develop greater power projection capabilities. In 2017, China formally established its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa’s littoral and PLAN personnel have garnered experience through real world activity such as anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. China’s overseas crisis management capacity was demonstrated during the rescue of Chinese citizens from Libya in 2011 and the evacuation of foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015.
China’s increased assertiveness is exemplified by its naval and island building activities in the South China Sea. It is conceivable that this behaviour could stoke Islamist resentments in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.
China’s efforts to build a blue water navy, secure sea lines of communication, and protect vital shipping routes and supply chains have fuelled speculation about plans for additional maritime bases abroad. One rumoured location is Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, which is commonly referred to as the crown jewel of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. Some analysts have theorized about a “String of Pearls” encompassing a dotted network of Chinese naval facilities and dual-use infrastructure stretching from the Chinese mainland to the Horn of Africa.
Contemporary China has generally refrained from military engagement outside of its own borders, but there has been some indication of divergent behaviour over recent years. China has expanded its international security presence and has enacted a law allowing for the deployment of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces on counterterrorism missions abroad.
China has reportedly stationed troops in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan province, proximate to the Tajik-China border and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. China and Tajikistan have held joint military exercises and have conducted joint border patrols in the region. In 2016, Reuters published a story about Chinese plans to finance and build 11 outposts and a training facility for border personnel while the Wall Street journal detailed bilateral security agreements signed in 2015 or 2016 that “gave Beijing rights to refurbish or build up to 30 to 40 guard posts on the Tajik side of the country’s border with Afghanistan”.
Violent spill over from Afghanistan is a real concern for Beijing and there is talk of Chinese designs for a base in the Wakhan Corridor. There have also been reports of Chinese security forces operating on Afghan soil. Both governments have denied this but announced that Beijing is involved in efforts to “set up a mountain brigade in the country’s north to boost counterterrorism efforts.”
Stephen Blank argues the “newly discovered base” in Tajikistan “along with the base in Djibouti and the possible base in Afghanistan, reflects the pressures building from within the PRC and PLA to project military power beyond China’s borders, e.g. in the South China Sea.” The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress speculated that China “has likely considered locations for PLA military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.”
The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) described how the BRI “is a long-term project, it has a global scope, and it is not limited to economic goals, but also has a growing security component … In view of China’s ballooning investments and growing Chinese expat communities in risk-prone countries, Beijing has become convinced that it has to take security concerns along the BRI routes in its own hands.” MERICS situates the recent counterterrorism law and naval presence in Djibouti within this greater context. They mention how a “new industry of Chinese private security companies is rapidly developing, providing protection to BRI projects”.
Jihadists are conscious of China’s growing offensive capabilities and anticipate future military intervention. The Islamic State surmised “it will not be long before [the Chinese] intervene [in the Muslim world] directly through war with soldiers, aircraft, missiles, and warships.” Abu Zar al-Burmi similarly warned, “Mujahidin should know that the coming enemy of the Ummah is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims”. While Akram Hijazi explained how “China is about to sit on the throne of the world power” and “will have the upper hand when it comes to hegemony, and global interventions currently dominated by America and partially by Europe.”
Chinese Foreign Relations
The rising jihadist awareness of China’s growing international influence involves a number of nation-specific grievances. China’s foreign policy and its relations with other governments are subjects of increased focus for militant propagandists. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Turkistan Islamic Party, and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan have fiercely criticized China’s support for governments they deem hostile.
Accordingly, jihadists are taking stock of the evolving international geostrategic landscape. As China rises and great power competition with the United States intensifies, militant strategists are thinking about the shifting balance of power and assessing the implications for their respective organizations.
The public positions of militant groups regarding China’s domestic and foreign policy have shifted quite dramatically over the past decade or two. This can be largely attributed to China’s rapid ascent and growing influence, the end of unipolarity, developments on the ground in Xinjiang, greater public awareness of Uyghur issues, as well as generational trends within the broader Islamist movement.
The jihadist organizations of the 1990s and early 2000s paid limited attention to China’s international activities. Although Osama bin Laden made a series of striking comments in the 1990s where he seemed to intimate the possibility of a strategic alignment with China against America. In a 1997 interview he claimed, “The United States wants to incite conflict between China and the Muslims … If Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and China get united, the United States and India will become ineffective.” Bin Laden cautioned, “The Chinese government is not fully aware of the intentions of the United States and Israel. These two countries also want to usurp the resources of China ... So I suggest the Chinese government be more careful of the U.S. and the West. China must use its force against the United States and Israel and should be friendly towards Muslims.” Abu Mus'ab al-Suri had also explored the theoretical possibility of an alignment but concluded China would “conspire against us at the appropriate time and circumstances.”
The close historical relationship between China and Pakistan, the “Iron Brothers”, has earned Pakistan the title of China’s “all weather friend”. There is a sizable Chinese footprint in Pakistan and an extensive record of Chinese nationals being targeted by militants in the country. Pakistan is host to one of the Belt and Road Initiative’s signature components, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. CPEC’s infrastructure and economic arteries run the length of Pakistan, from its northmost border region down to the port city of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. Threats to Chinese interests have prompted Islamabad to raise an armed division specifically designed to protect CPEC projects. A controversial security fence is also being constructed around Gwadar to mitigate threats to Chinese investments.
This relationship has been the subject of scorn for jihadists in the region. Abu Zar al-Burmi chided Pakistani leadership saying, the “president visits China every four months and goes and bows, kneels and prostrates before those atheists, who do not believe in God, and in return he comes back with aid ... We should all be aware of the fact that there is no border between Pakistan and China … the border that is along the Gilgit-Baltistan region is actually a border with East Turkestan.”
The TTP has condemned Pakistan’s seemingly hypocritical relationship with Beijing. In a 2013 issue of Azan magazine, they discussed Pakistan’s “self-created creed of alliance and disavowal which sees it seemingly take Hindu India as an enemy but atheist China and America as wonderful allies”. This very sentiment was reiterated in a subsequent publication, “The Pakistani state is a supposed “arch-rival” of the Indian state while a firm ally of an equally Kafir communist China.”
This militant hostility predates the formal conception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The 2007 siege of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, stands out as a particularly inflammatory event wherein China received backlash for its alleged role in the operation. In the wake of the incident, Islamist groups responded by targeting Chinese nationals and in one instance, a Taliban spokesman justified a kidnapping as retaliation for “Chinese pressure to launch Operation Silence” against the Red Mosque. These events are still occasionally lamented about in jihadist media productions. In 2013, the TTP blamed the Pakistani government and China for the events, recounting, “scores and scores of Muslim women, pious, honorable were slaughtered inside a mosque of Allah”.
Jihadist discourse on Myanmar is remindful of the proverb that reads, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. In this sense Islamists have expressed concern over Muslim lands being site to great power competition between the United States and China. Jihadists have accused both nations of being partially responsible for the suffering inflicted upon Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim population.
Abd Allah bin Muhammad claimed in a 2013 statement that the “Buddhist regime in Burma” received “cover” from “regional and international powers like Buddhist China and America” in “persecuting, eradicating and displacing the Muslim Rohingya.” He emphasized how great powers vie for political influence in the region and said America “seeks to drag the Burmese regime to an alliance at the expense of China”. The statement referenced America’s “Pivot to Asia” and lobbied for the formation of an autonomous Islamic state to better position the region’s Muslim population for the intensifying “conflict of the great powers like America and China”.
Abu Zar al-Burmi has also deemed China complicit in the suffering of Rohingya Muslims. “We are heartbroken by the massacre…committed by a pagan Buddhist enemy which is the infidel, aggressive, oppressive, licentious state of Burma with support of China” he said and directed militants to “target the most important installations of Burma, China and Germany, and their interests and the interests of the United Nations, which supports these massacres and this genocide in Arakan.”
China has sought to maintain a low profile in Syria but jihadists have nonetheless made it a point to highlight Beijing’s relations with Bashar al-Assad’s government. The Turkistan Islamic Party has been a particularly vocal critic and in one instance declared, “If China has the right to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria, we have the full right to support our proud Muslim Syrian people”. The Islamic State linked China to its enemies in Syria and said, “Russia – Iran’s biggest ally as well as an ally of China … continues to arm the Assad regime against the Muslims of Shām.” IS has published photos and graphics illustrating these ties.
In a 2013 video titled “A message of victory to the people of China from the Mujahidin Brigade Front” a man claiming to be an Islamic convert levied a direct threat against Beijing: “I am representing all of the Muslims in warning the Chinese government to immediately stop all forms of aid to Bashar, including selling arms to them, including economic aid.” He postulated that if Assad’s government is defeated in Syria “all Islamic countries will join together to implement economic sanctions on China”.
In 2014, al-Qaeda’s Adam Gadahn wrote “The success of the Ummah’s Jihad in Syria will inshallah prove to be no less significant a landmark in the contemporary history of Islam than the defeat of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. With the permission of Allah, the victory of the Ummah there will not merely be a deathblow for the rising tide of Safavid expansionism in the Muslim world, but also a bitter defeat for America, Iran, Russia, China and all those who have fought this war by proxy against Muslims.”
Messaging on Afghanistan varies quite significantly depending upon the organization. The Afghan Taliban has been generally consistent in seeking to avoid unnecessary conflict with China while pursuing relations with Beijing. The Islamic State has criticized the Afghan Taliban’s approach to China and has berated militants perceived as being hesitant to take Beijing on as an enemy.
Abu Zar al-Burmi referred to plans of US withdrawal from Afghanistan as “a victory for the Taliban movement in the region” and said the “next target will be China”. He called for attacks on Chinese embassies, commercial interests, and nationals in the area.
Middle East and Persian Gulf
China’s growing clout in the Middle East and the increasing strategic importance of the Persian Gulf to Beijing’s energy security policy are vital trends to observe in this context. Beijing is bolstering ties to prominent historical enemy governments of jihadism including those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, which may fuel greater militant resentment towards China in the future. In fact, there are already emerging indications of this in Islamist discourse and jihadist propaganda. Akram Hijazi, for instance, raised the possibility of a future “alliance between the Jews and the Chinese” and the Islamic State has published imagery emphasizing ties between China and Iran.
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) found “China has significantly increased its economic, political, and – to a lesser extent – security footprint in the Middle East in the past decade, becoming the biggest trade partner and external investor for many countries in the region”. China is the world’s largest oil importer and exports to China account for a growing portion of Middle Eastern sales. Brian Fishman wrote, “To jihadi enemies of various Arab and Muslim autocracies, economic investment and political support for a leading clique constitutes meddling and may provoke a violent backlash.” This rings true of the American experience in the region and may ultimately prove to be the case for China in the future.
Implications for Chinese Security
The rise of China is a defining trend of international politics in the 21st Century. It is an unavoidable force that is commanding the attention of nation states and non-state actors alike. China’s growing footprint in the Islamic world is fuelling militant animosity while simultaneously increasing its exposure to attack.
Chinese policies have drawn the ire of transnational militant organizations and China-related issues have found rhetorical traction within global jihadist discourse. Militants have become notably more explicit in criticizing China and bellicose in their threats. The future jihadist threat to China will be determined by international security conditions, militant strategy, and perhaps most importantly, China’s own actions.
Jihadists have expressed anger over specific Chinese policies such as the crackdown in Xinjiang, China’s expanding international security posture, the Belt and Road Initiative, and support for repressive governments in countries such as Pakistan, Syria, and Myanmar. There are a host of other issues that have the potential to become topics of greater interest for jihadist organizations including Chinese relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. It is also possible that unforeseen events could exacerbate anti-China sentiment or draw China into direct military conflict with jihadists outside of its borders.
China is not a top tier target for most non-Uyghur jihadist organizations at this time but has received an increased level of attention from an array of militant groups in recent years. If China continues to become more powerful, assertive, and interventionist it may very well become a higher priority enemy for a number of jihadist groups around the world.