Islamic militant threat in China is real, not just propaganda

If the United States is to succeed in countering violent extremism, it needs to recognize China’s legitimate concerns about violent extremist activity in, and directed toward, China. Without changing policy, China’s cooperation will continue to lag in the world’s fight against Islamic extremism. But making such a change would not only raise expectations for greater cooperation, it may also put the United States in a stronger position to affect China’s treatment of its Uighur population.

With the recent resettlement of the three remaining Uighurs from Guantanamo, the United States no longer holds any Uighur prisoners. While reports in the press generally downplay the Uighur connection to organized extremist groups, the U.S. action is notably out of step with Afghanistan’s recent repatriation of several Uighur combatants to China. It also flies in the face of statements by Uighur extremist leaders, and confirmed by Pakistan, that they are organized and have a substantial number of fighters assembled in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. Waziristan has also given shelter to both al Qaeda and the Taliban.

While there is no denying that China has often used the extremist threat as an excuse to suppress the expression of legitimate Uighur grievances over human rights, cultural integrity and economic opportunity, it does not negate the fact that organized Uighur extremist groups have plotted and carried out attacks within China.

As Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign relations so clearly stated, “Beijing’s inability or unwillingness to address adequately the well-founded political and economic grievances of the Uighurs does not minimize the actual terror threat that China might face from Uighur separatists, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.” The United States would be well-served to recognize China’s legitimate concerns that fighters trained in the conflict zones of Central Asia and the Middle East might return to China to carry out attacks on Chinese targets.

Doing so would allow for greater Chinese cooperation in countering violent extremism, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. China has a large business and related security presence in Afghanistan, and its cooperation there will become vital as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is reduced. Moreover, China’s close relationship with Pakistan places it in a unique position to demand results in closing extremist training camps in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The goodwill and trust developed working together against extremists would boost the United States’ standing as it seeks to get China to deal fairly with its Uighur population. Increased intelligence sharing would enable the United States to more readily determine which events in China are truly the result of coordinated violent extremist efforts, and which are simply China’s Uighur population seeking redress for genuine grievances. Making it plain to China that continued U.S. cooperation in dealing with violent extremists groups is conditioned on China making good-faith efforts to recognize the rights of the Uighur population would put the United States in a much stronger position to make a real difference. The current policy of minimal cooperation and maximum criticism virtually assures the United States that its efforts will come to naught.

The recent past indicates a marked increase in extremist attacks carried out within China. While the attacks themselves are regrettable, they present an opportunity for the United States to recalibrate its approach to China. Among the potential Chinese contributions to battling extremism would be disrupting supplies of technology that can be used in constructing improvised explosive devices. In addition, China’s close relationships with Central Asian countries via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization put it in a powerful position to prevent the spread of extremism to Central Asian republics that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.

There is little doubt that the United States is aware of the problems faced by China. The U.S. designation of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement  as a terror group and the designation by the U.S. Treasury of now deceased leader Abdul Haq (killed by a U.S. drone strike) as a global terrorist provide ample evidence. Assertions that all Uighurs at Guantanamo were found innocent are contradicted by documents posted by Wikileaks. Recent reports also indicate Uighur participation in Islamic State’s activities in Syria and Iraq.

A dual-track policy of cooperation on extremist issues and human rights is common practice for the United States, as evidenced by U.S. efforts in Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, to cite a few examples. The hesitation to take such an approach with China is simply wrong-headed and counterproductive. If the United States is to lead the global effort to counter violent extremism, it must counter it everywhere, including China.

Bill Johnson is a retired U.S. Air Force Officer, and a retired Foreign Service Officer. Bill was a philosophy professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy for 5 years. He served as the Senior Political Advisor for U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific from 2009-2011. Since his retirement, he has done consulting for the Naval Post-graduate School on China policy issues.

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