Jihadist Perceptions of a Rising Superpower: Troubles Along China’s Belt and Road

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. 

Source: https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/jihadist-perceptions-rising-superpower-troubles-along-chinas-belt-and-road


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