Within the span of 24 hours, two unexpected events in Central Asia earlier this week may finally have dragged China into the global struggle against terrorism.
Looming instability in the Central Asian, majority Muslim country of Uzbekistan, followed by an attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan, highlight Beijing’s security risks.
During the G20 summit in Hangzhou this weekend, Chinese President Xi Jinping would be wise to seek the advice of leaders who have longer-term experience fighting terrorism – and then move quickly to develop new security measures at home.
For the last 15 years, as the world’s most powerful countries have focused much of their attention on international terrorism, Beijing has largely been able to avoid the issue. It condemned the September 11 attacks, and offered some intelligence cooperation to the George W. Bush administration and the U.S.-led “war on terror.” But for the most part, China initially sat out the thorniest questions of how to deal with terror groups abroad – and handle the fallout of militant violence at home.
This was largely because China didn’t attract the attention of terror groups. In the early 2000s, its international profile was still low, so Beijing had the luxury of not having to take positions on issues that would place it in the sights of al Qaeda and others. Although it was slowly intensifying its suppression of the Muslim minority Uighurs in Xinjiang province, few outside China paid much attention. And China’s presence in the Middle East was small, restricted largely to oil and gas purchases from abroad.
But over the last decade, China’s fast-growing economy has required a deeper and broader presence overseas, often with facilities and citizens on the ground in volatile regions. In the last five years, the Chinese navy has had to rescue its citizens twice, once in Libya in 2011 and again from Yemen in March of this year. Chinese citizens have been killed in terror attacks in Mali, and Chinese peacekeepers have been killed there and in South Sudan.
Attacks have occurred domestically as well. Chinese citizens were the victims of a car bombing in Tiananmen Square in 2013 and a coordinated knife attack in Kunming in 2014, both connected to Uighur attackers. Beijing has so far responded to these domestic and foreign attacks by intensifying its intelligence gathering in Central Asia and starting to build a security presence close to the Middle East with its first overseas base in the northeast African nation of Djibouti. So far, this has all been moving slowly.
The pace may start to quicken. On August 29, Islam Karimov, the 78-year-old president of Uzbekistan, was hospitalized after a serious stroke, and conflicting reports started circulating about whether he is alive or dead. Almost immediately, palace intrigue and the succession struggle in the isolated country became public. As the most powerful Central Asian republic, Uzbekistan’s own stability helps underpin the security of the whole region, an obvious area of concern to China.
If Karimov’s death, now confirmed, results in a prolonged power vacuum, the region could become less stable with each passing day. In this case, Beijing could feel compelled to pick or endorse “their man” in the succession struggle, possibly along with Russia, to help end it. This could very easily turn the losing faction against Beijing, with unpredictable long-term consequences.
China’s vulnerability became even more obvious less than a day after Karimov was hospitalized, when a suicide bomber struck the Chinese embassy in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The bombing was doubly threatening to Beijing. Not only was it a foreign threat to its interests and presence, but Beijing’s belief that the attacker was an Islamic militant relates directly to China’s treatment of its own Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang province, which borders Kyrgyzstan. Beijing sees the Uighurs as a separatist threat, and this attack will only increase that perception.
If history is any guide, China’s reaction in Xinjiang will follow a pattern of state intrusion and minority suppression, either through its increasingly sophisticated internet monitoring technology, its enormous police and paramilitary presence throughout the territory, or both.
And if China does decide on a more aggressive effort to resist terrorism, and finally becomes the last of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to be dragged into this global fight, it will, somewhat perversely, have a greater chance of being treated with the “Great Power” status it has long coveted.
Peter Marino is the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs, a new U.S. foreign policy think tank in New York City. He often writes on intra-Asian diplomatic and political affairs and U.S.- Asia Policy.