Non-State Actors and the Great Game

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There has been some speculation after the Kunming attack in March this year about how terrorism in Central Asia might result in strange bedfellows. The knife attack in the southern Chinese city left 33 dead, including the assailants, and 143 wounded. The attack – pre-meditated, methodical, and outside Xinjiang – does not fit the previous pattern of Uighur violence and China has been quick to place the ultimate blame on Islamic terror from Central Asia. After initial reluctance, the United States also declared the Kunming attack an act of terrorism.

Some observers believe that such unrest in Central Asia will reorient geopolitical alliances in the region. China will move closer to the United States to fight the common enemy, Islamic terrorism, and become warmer towards India. Simultaneously, rifts will appear in China’s relations with Pakistan over the latter’s alleged training of Uighur militants and as well as Beijing’s common cause with Delhi.

It is unlikely, however, that such an alliance will materialise. The complex relations between the countries in the region – their mutual animosity and suspicion – raise the threshold for cooperation above the potential for Islamic terrorism in Central Asia to be a serious threat.

China has long claimed the unrest in Xinjiang province to have an Islamist dimension with ties to cells in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan but there have been few takers for these accusations. Several of the more infamous incidents – the Ürümqi bus bombing in 1997, the Aksu bombing in 2010, and the Hotan and Kashgar attacks in 2011 were all carried out by Uighurs, a persecuted ethnic minority in northwestern China. None of the violence so far has revealed the modus operandi of al Qa’ida or its affiliates and has therefore received no attention from the international community. The United States initially hesitated to declare even the Kunming attacks an act of terrorism and did so only upon chiding from Beijing.

India

To gain sympathy for its fight, China may reach out to its neighbours. India, long a target of Islamic militancy, is a natural partner in the war against Islamism in Central Asia. Furthermore, like Beijing, India has high hopes for energy investments in the region and would not like to see an increase of militancy there. However, any partnership with India is likely to be more on paper than on the ground; India has steadfastly refused to take up a greater role in Afghan security despite its own assets in the country repeatedly coming under attack.

Delhi also has its own problems with Beijing: geopolitical rivalries aside, China invaded India in 1962 and still holds Indian territory in Aksai Chin. Beijing is also laying claim to even more in Arunachal Pradesh. In addition, Beijing has liberally armed Pakistan against India with the exchange of even nuclear weapons designs and missiles (though more of this came from North Korea). China’s stance on terrorism in Kashmir, from Delhi’s perspective, also leaves a lot to be desired. There is little reason for India to want to exert itself in coming to China’s aid in Central Asia if its neighbour can be distracted elsewhere.

Pakistan

China’s strategic and regional partner, Pakistan, cannot offer much assistance either. Islamabad may have little to do with the attacks in China, and the Inter Services Intelligence has less perfect control over all the groups it trains and funds than is commonly thought. If aid is flowing to the Uighurs from the badlands of Pakistan’s northwest, it may be without the approval or even knowledge of Islamabad.

While Beijing can threaten to curtail military and economic aid to Pakistan, China has long used the Islamic republic as a counterweight to India. It is unlikely that this policy will be reconsidered short of a minor revolution in Xinjiang. Pakistan also knows that it remains one of Beijing’s few reliable allies in the region and a reasonably sized market for China’s wares, including weapons and nuclear reactors. The symbiotic relationship that Beijing and Islamabad have nurtured over decades will require much more than a body count in the low two digits to rupture.

The United States

The United States is already embroiled in wars against Islamist forces in several places in the world, and in many others, it is actively giving aid to opposing forces. Unhindered by regional rivalries, Washington would seem an ideal partner for China’s war against the Uighurs. Unfortunately for Beijing, the United States’ present involvements have already strained its treasury and Washington is not trawling for another conflict to get involved in.

Despite the rhetoric of the Global War on Terror, the United States is very flexible in its designation of terrorism. After the attacks of September 2001, Washington declared al Qa’ida and the Taliban as terrorist organisations and US forces flew half way around the world to invade Afghanistan and kill Osama bin Laden. However, despite much evidence that points to Pakistan as a hotbed of terrorist activity, Islamabad remains one of the United States’ closest non-NATO allies. Washington has continually ignored Indian warnings about cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan and maintains its arms sales to the country.

Similarly, while the United States has waged an under-reported drone war in Yemen, it has removed the Iranian Mojahedin-e-Khalq from the list of terrorist organisations and rationalised support to “moderate” Islamists in Syria against Bashar al Assad. To cover its retreat from Afghanistan with some dignity, Washington has come up with some fascinating new vocabulary such as “good Taliban.” Simply put, the United States is interested in fighting only its own terrorists.

There is little awareness, let alone sympathy, for the Uighur cause in the United States; however, if the Uighurs were to limit their violence to Chinese targets alone and avoid flamboyant displays of links with the Taliban, al Qa’ida, or its affiliates, they might find private pockets of sympathy in the United States; neither would it be detrimental to Washington’s interests to have its Great Power rival distracted by domestic security concerns.

There is also this to be considered: for over a decade now, the United States has been opposed to China having a larger role in Afghan security. The Uighur trail will inevitably do exactly that, not just in Afghanistan but also in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. There is no compelling reason for the United States to change that position on China as long as the threat does not grow much beyond China.

Others

China’s overtures to the United States and India are bound to cause concern in Moscow and Tehran. Though both Iran and Russia desire the demise of terror groups in Central Asia, neither would be too keen in seeing renewed US presence in the region. For that matter, neither would Beijing. With ambitious plans in the offing for the revival of the ancient Silk Road and Sino-Russian energy ties, Beijing will have to take regional dissatisfaction over its closer ties to the United States into consideration.

The United States must also take into consideration its allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. With recent friction in the South China Sea between China and its neighbours, Seoul and Tokyo would be looking to the United States for reassurance. Furthermore, a second US rapprochement with China may imperil Washington’s pivot to Asia and validate in Asian capitals their scepticism over US commitments to the region’s security.

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The notion that an arrival of Islamist terrorism in Central Asia will alter regional geopolitics is premised upon two questionable assumptions: 1. that Islamism is a greater threat than mutual rivalries; and 2. that the Islamism is genuine and not a cover for an undercurrent of ethnic grievances indulged only by Islamist groups. This is all, of course, assuming that China’s claims of Islamist links are true. For now, however, no one will play Beijing’s game.


This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on April 13, 2014.