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ISIS and Uighurs: The Persisting Headache for China By Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami

C3S  Fortnightly Column No. F004 /2015


The recent candid admissions by top officials of the Chinese Communist Party that Uighur Muslim extremists are increasingly finding their way to Syria to become involved with the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in their crusade throws up challenges and opportunities to the leadership in Beijing on the war on terror. The fact that scores of Uighur Muslims are in Syria (or Iraq) and fighting alongside those trying to destabilize the existing regimes there is nothing new. In fact since the middle of 2014 there have been reports in media that as many as 300 Chinese nationals may have found their way to the troubled areas.

Now what has added a grizzly element are reports that a handful of Uighur Muslims may have been executed by the ISIS as they had tried to leave the fighting zones disillusioned with what they have been exposed to. But to the leadership in Beijing the far western province of Xinjiang that straddles Pakistan and Afghanistan is a persisting headache that cannot be taken lightly, with or without the ISIS angle.

Chinese authorities have long been maintaining that the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)  is seeking to set up a separate state in Xinjiang and sees extremist Uighurs an integral part of this scheme. The United States has deemed the ETIM a foreign terrorist organization but has been unwilling to go the full distance in seeing the designs the way Beijing sees it in Xinjiang. While the Uighurs maintain they are protesting repressive Chinese rule, Beijing has accused foreign forces of fomenting trouble in the troubled province. And Official China has seen many a Uighur hand in acts of violence in parts of the country.

There is no question of Uighurs trying to leave China to be a part of the ISIS and have used places in South East Asia to reach their destination. And Beijing in the recent past has had to deal with Uighurs trying to procure forged passports from Turkey to facilitate their travel out of the country. But the ISIS problem does not end with Uighurs travelling to Syria or Iraq or getting executed trying to return for one reason or another.

The time has perhaps come for Beijing to take a critical look at its anti-terror policy, especially in a global context and come up with policies in which it is going to be a part of the measures taken by the international community to come to terms with this problem and not just confined to the ISIS. Some scholars have said that it is too premature to expect China to send troops to fight the ISIS extremists; but Beijing must come to terms with what else that could be done to join the concerted effort in this global war on terror.

To say that China has a “soft” policy on terrorism is wrong as the country is also at the receiving end. But Beijing has to come up with tangible policies to project a policy that is consistent on the anti-terrorism front. Perhaps the time has come for China to join hands with Europe, the United States and Japan for a meaningful partnership in dealing with the ISIS and other fringe radical groups jockeying for publicity with their varied horrific acts.

But as has been written in this column before, China should also come away clean on its association with nations that harbor or are prime motivators of terrorism. And heading this list is Pakistan that is generally seen in the world over as the epi-centre of the dreaded disease that has taken a very toll to that hapless country itself. And now with an increasingly shaky Afghanistan in the aftermath of the full withdrawal of foreign forces, China has no option but watch apprehensively the full and free movement of terrorists between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Politically standing firm with its client state Pakistan is one thing; but unable to extract anything substantial in the form of a proper accounting in the war on terror does not bode well for China. But China is not alone in dealing with Pakistan on the war on terror. The bigger benefactor of Islamabad is the United States which willingly doles out huge sums of money knowing full well that a log of this gets diverted to full time terror activities against India. The whole world knows where Osama bin Laden was—under the very nose of Pakistan’s ISI but only to be stoutly denied all along.

(Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami has been a senior journalist with The Hindu in Chennai, Singapore and Washington and currently Heads the Departments of Journalism and Mass Communications and International Relations at SRM University, Chennai and can be reached at sridhar54k@gmail.com. Views expressed here are personal.)

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