THE BLOG
11/11/2014 10:55 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

Watching From a Distance

Nathan Williams explores how China will confront the Islamic State.

On July 4, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, announced his intention to "liberate" the Muslims of Western China. The ISIS leader even went so far as to include the Chinese province of Xinjiang in a map of planned Islamic State conquests, leading many to wonder whether or not China will become involved with the growing crisis in Iraq.

Unlike the majority of western powers, China has successfully managed to avoid becoming militarily entangled with conflicts in the Middle East, prioritizing economic engagement over political affairs. According to Jon Alterman's Gulf Analysis Paper for the Center for Strategic and International relations, China -- despite its rivalry with the United States -- has allowed the United States to continue to act as the primary peacekeeping force in the region. Not only this, but with American boots on the ground in Iraq for the majority of the last decade, China has also been able to expand its investments in the Iraqi oil industry with little risk to Chinese citizens.

However, due to the rising unpopularity of United States involvement in the Middle East amongst American citizens, the United States government has become cautious when discussing its presence in the region, particularly Iraq. As a result, China may now be forced to use its own military to defend its economic interests from the Islamic State.

Most urgently, the Islamic State endangers Chinese economic interests in the Middle East. China has sent over 10,000 laborers to work in Iraqi oil fields over the past few years. Chinese oil companies -- now the largest source of foreign investment for the Iraqi oil industry - have invested billions of dollars in developing the Kurdish and Rumaila oilfields. So far, though, the Islamic State has yet to break Kurdish resistance in northern Iraq or invade its southeastern region. However, given the lack of an organized Iraqi military ground counterattack, the Islamic State remains free to expand into new territories, which could come to cost the Chinese billions of dollars.

The even more urgent concern for Beijing, beyond securing Iraqi oil interests, is that the Islamic State could soon present a major threat to the Chinese homeland as well. The roots of this danger are found in Xinjiang Province itself, where civil unrest has been on the rise.

Over the last few decades, the relationship in Xinjiang between the Uighur people -- a Turkic ethnic group -- and the Chinese authorities has steadily worsened following an increase in discriminatory initiatives launched against the Uighur community. Government actions in this category range from a ban on Islamic headwear and clothing on public buses to the planned "resettlement" of the Uighur people. The Chinese government has even limited the number of Uighurs allowed to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage and prohibited fasting during Ramadan for government employees.

Many within the Uighur community have begun to organize public demonstrations and even take violent action against the Chinese government in response. Towards the end of July, almost one hundred people were killed in a series of clashes between Chinese government forces and unidentified Uighur groups in Kashgar, a large city in Western Xinjiang. Reacting to banners calling for jihad against the government -- a sign of a dramatic increase in Islamist activity -- Chinese forces were deployed to Kashgar, where they continue to maintain "rule of law."

Given the widespread resentment among Uighur towards the Chinese government, as well as recent civil unrest, the Xinjiang region appears uniquely vulnerable Islamic State advances. With both Iran and Pakistan between China and the Islamic State, though, the possibility of a direct invasion on Chinese soil remains slim.

The geographical separation does not mean China is completely safe; the Islamic State does not have to attack the area in order to bring chaos and conflict to Western China. According to Wu Sike, China's Special Envoy to Middle East, over a hundred Uighur have enlisted with the Islamic State. Should these insurgents return to Xinjiang with weapons and combat experience, the possibility of organized terrorist attacks made against China will increase dramatically.

The economic and security problems that arise with an Islamic State victory in the Middle East are not the only pressures on the Chinese government to involve itself militarily. Despite the modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), its forces remain largely untested. The last confrontation the PLA had with an organized military force was during the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, where Chinese forces were embarrassingly pushed back by the smaller yet more experienced Vietnamese military. In launching an effective campaign against the Islamic State, the PLA could send a message, both to its people and to western military forces.

As of now, China -- although publicly stating its support for U.S. military action against the Islamic State -- has yet to become directly involved militarily itself. According to Harvard Professor and lecturer of Chinese politics, Nara Dillon, China will try its best to continue maintaining neutrality in the region. If the last decade has taught the international community anything, it's that foreign intervention in the Middle East is costly both financially and politically. Until the threat from the Islamic State becomes a direct domestic threat, the Chinese government will try its best to stay out of the Iraqi crisis.

Nevertheless, as the Islamic State continues to advance and the future of the new Iraqi government remains unclear, increased western intervention may arrive too late to undo the damage done in the region. Coupled with rising domestic tensions in Xinjiang province, the uncertain outcome of the predicament presented by the Islamic State may force China to step out of the shadows of neutrality and into the center of Middle Eastern sectarian conflicts.

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Nathan Williams is a freshman at Harvard University. Contact him at nathanwilliams1942@gmail.com.

This article also appears in China Hands.