How Trump could find common ground with China, thanks to the Islamic State

The Washington Post, 3 March 2017


By Adam Taylor — Since the election of Donald Trump, the relationship between Washington and Beijing has appeared strained. Despite diplomatic efforts to bridge the gap, China and the United States are at loggerheads over a variety of issues, including trade and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

However, there is one subject close to President Trump’s heart that could bring the two powers closer together: the threat of terrorism by Islamist extremists.

The Islamic State, a group which the United States is actively combating in Syria and Iraq, released a propaganda video this week that appears to be its first to specifically threaten China.

Filmed by a division of the extremist group operating in western Iraq, the video showcased the Islamic State’s Uighur fighters in the region. The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority based in western China that have long chafed at Beijing’s control; they are closely tied to an independence movement in the Xinjiang region, which is referred to as East Turkestan by activists.

The Islamic State video showed fighters and their families living in Iraq, training and executing alleged informants. One fighter in the video claims that some members of the group were formerly members of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a militant Uighur organization, and urged other members of the group to defect to the Islamic State. Another fighter specifically says that the Islamic State is coming to China, and the video features shots that appear to have been filmed in China.

At one point in the video, an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping is also shown, before cutting to flames next to a Chinese flag.

Sean Roberts, author of a forthcoming book on Uighur militancy and an associate professor at George Washington University, said that the video didn’t appear to be aimed at recruiting Uighurs, as it was mostly in Arabic with only limited Uighur subtitles. “That made me wonder if it was more intended to send a message to China,” Roberts said.

China has long complained of the threat posed by Uighur groups based in China and abroad, often claiming that there was a “double standard” whereby acts of terrorism in the West received worldwide sympathy but those aimed at China received little international attention.

In particular, Beijing has long claimed that a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was leading a terrorism campaign against China, and that the ETIM group had links to al-Qaeda and other international extremist groups. However, many international security experts have downplayed the risk posed by ETIM and suggested that the issue was largely domestic.

On Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry said that it hoped that the new video could prompt international cooperation for fighting Uighur militants.

“We oppose any form of terrorism and proactively participate in international cooperation to crack down on terrorism,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said after admitting that he had not seen the video, Reuters reports. “We have long said that East Turkestan forces are a serious threat to China’s security and we are willing to work with the international community to jointly crack down on East Turkestan separatist and terrorist forces.”

The comments were not necessarily different from previous Chinese government statements, which have often been greeted with skepticism by U.S. and other Western officials. Roberts notes that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Washington did bow to Chinese pressure to designate  ETIM a terrorist group and held 15 Uighurs captured in Pakistan at Guantanamo Bay. However, these detainees were later released after the U.S. government determined that they posed little threat to America.

In the new U.S. president, China may find a more receptive audience for its concerns about Uighur militancy.

Trump has repeatedly spoken of the threat posed by the Islamic State and other extremists. He and his closest advisers have painted the threat posed by  Islamist militants with a broad brush, downplaying nonreligious motives and using the label “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The shift in U.S. leadership comes as Uighur involvement with international extremist groups is growing. “There’s no denying it,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, who has studied Uighur militancy.

In the past, Chinese state media’s suggestion that as many as 300 Chinese Muslims may have joined the Islamic State were greeted with skepticism. However, a report released last year from the New America think tank has found evidence of at least 118 fighters from China in Islamic State registration documents, suggesting that Beijing’s estimate could be plausible.

Exactly how a Trump administration, with its rhetoric on Islamist terrorism, would view the plight of the Uighurs is unclear. “Will it view Uighurs as potential radical Islamic terrorists, to use President Trump’s term?” Roberts said. “Or will it look at Uighurs as an oppressed minority group within a Chinese state, that the U.S. is increasingly looking at as an adversary?”

Although the president has suggested that he is open to working with onetime rivals such as Russia against terrorism, the Trump White House has not commented on Uighur militancy, and the State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

Pantucci expressed doubts that the two countries would collaborate much more closely than they do. Intelligence sharing in particular may be a problem, he said, adding that there “just isn’t the trust there to have a practical conversation about it,” and that Trump’s harsh rhetoric on Islam may go too far for Beijing, which would worry about the reaction of non-Uighur Chinese Muslims.

Pantucci notes that the TIP has put out videos similar to those that garnered international notoriety for the Islamic State in recent years, and that Uighurs have been linked to other extremist groups — a U.S. airstrike in Syria in January that killed 20 al-Qaeda militants also killed a Uighur  militant known as Abu Omar al-Turkistani, according to Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

But given Trump’s stated desire to rip up the counterterrorism playbook, it is worth asking whether U.S. and Chinese action would have a positive or negative effect on Uighur militancy. Roberts notes that it is unlikely that Uighur extremists  pose much of a concern to the United States, but there is also little evidence that ETIM was a viable organization when Beijing began to complain about it. It was only after years of harsh counterterrorism activity in Xinjiang that a diaspora of alienated Uighurs emerged.

“In some ways the Chinese government has created the threat it long said it has faced from Uighurs,” Roberts said. “If the U.S. started to look at Uighurs as a threat writ large, that could also turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”