by Cathy Zhu
This week, the United States started airstrikes against ISIS in Syria as part of what may be a long battle to dismantle the rapidly growing organization before the threat escalates further. So far, several countries across Europe and the Middle East have pledged some sort of support in the fight against ISIS. But on the other side of the world, could the U.S. find an unlikely ally?
China and Russia have traditionally been walls for U.S. foreign policy on the international stage, using anything from disparaging public statements to veto power in the UN Security Council. Most recently, China and Russia both vetoed Security Council resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on the Syrian government for its continued crackdown on protestors.
Chinese stubbornness is often attributed to the struggle against the U.S. for the position of world superpower, but aspects of Chinese foreign policy have just as much to do with its internal issues as it does with external ones. While China’s large, urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai present a model of economic development and growth, the government struggles with maintaining political stability and central Communist Party rule in many areas, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet.
In the northwestern province of Xinjiang, the Chinese government has long clashed with the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group that speaks a different language and is culturally and ethnically closer to Central Asia. Beijing has often accused the Uighurs of separatist threats and terrorism movements, while the Uighurs protest repression from the government and limits on their cultural and religious rights. The area itself is not only a large tract of land in China’s western region, but also rich in the natural resources China so desperately needs for development. ISIS is particularly worrying for China in the case of Xinjiang because of its expansionist agenda and its goal to build a fundamentalist Islamic State. Already on ISIS’s list of targets, China has every reason to be concerned that the growth of ISIS may lead to increased instability and the growth of violent separatism.
China’s opposition towards intervention in foreign conflicts—especially a civil war, as in the recent case of Syria—stems from its desire to follow a policy of strict non-intervention in a sovereign state’s internal affairs. By choosing not to intervene in Syria, China effectively communicates that other states have no business getting involved in issues of independence or political rights in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Tibet. ISIS, however, differs in that it is a non-state entity; China could be justified in taking action against ISIS without violating its longstanding principles.
On Monday, Chinese state media reported that Islamic militants from Xinjiang had been involved with ISIS and had received terrorist training. Foreign nationals from various countries have already been reported and filmed fighting for ISIS, and while numbers vary, it is likely that there are Chinese nationals among them. China has proclaimed a general anti-terrorism stance, but has thus far remained silent on concrete commitments against ISIS, such as funding, training, or troop pledges. With the U.S. now moving forward with training opposition forces in Syria and looking for support from the international community, China has an opportunity to break from its traditional non-interventionist stance.
Despite arguments in favor of Chinese involvement, it is unlikely that we will see any major action from China. So far, U.S. interest in international conflicts has given China a free ride—it benefits from the results of an intervention, without the cost and reputation damage. Furthermore, concrete action against ISIS would require cooperation and power sharing with the U.S. in a coordinated movement, which neither state may be ready to handle. And in the end, China may not even have the resources to make a bold statement of military support on the international stage.
Outwardly, China may prefer to save face and avoid explicitly aligning itself under the United States in an anti-ISIS coalition. But there’s no doubt that, in this case, China has a vested interest in containing ISIS’ expansion, preserving a favorable stability in the Middle East and most importantly, preventing the movement from spreading into its shaky western borders.