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China’s Foreign Fighters Problem

LBJ School - The University of Texas at Austin

China has a overseas fighters drawback. Like many different states, it’s coping with the complicated safety and authorized implications of its residents leaving the nation to hitch jihadist teams. In Beijing’s case, the issue just isn’t restricted to Chinese language nationals who’ve joined jihadist organizations in Syria. Some combatants are certainly ethnic Uyghurs of Chinese language nationality and some Han Chinese language. However different combatants are ethnic Uyghurs who’ve by no means been residents of the Individuals’s Republic however might, in a worst-case state of affairs, goal Chinese language pursuits to retaliate towards China’s Xinjiang insurance policies or to advertise independence for the northwestern province. As well as, non-Uyghur overseas fighters can turn into delicate to the reason for Islam in China: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made this clear in his speech saying the creation of the Islamic State’s Caliphate, during which he pointed to China as a rustic the place “Muslim rights are forcibly seized.” China’s overseas fighters drawback thus encompasses dangers to the nation’s home safety but in addition to its abroad pursuits, and highlights the interaction between inner and exterior danger administration.

The Syrian warfare is a central aspect of China’s overseas fighters drawback due to the presence of the Turkestan Islamic Celebration, a Uyghur jihadist group with a foothold in Idlib province close to the border with Turkey, on Syrian soil. Some fighters have traveled to Syria by means of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, as strict border controls have made emigration by means of China’s borders with Higher Central Asia extraordinarily troublesome, a migration route has developed from China to Syria via Southeast Asia and Turkey. This has put police cooperation and extradition points excessive on the agenda in China’s relations with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Turkey. The existence of the migration route was tragically illustrated by the August 2015 assault on the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. Courtroom proceedings are nonetheless unfolding, however a number of the principal suspects are from Xinjiang. Because of this, China’s important response has been to hunt deepened cooperation with states that may present intelligence and law-enforcement help, particularly these situated on the emigration routes between Xinjiang and Syria.

The push to construction China’s worldwide law-enforcement cooperation has been happening for a while. However now, it takes place within the extraordinary context of the huge internment marketing campaign of Xinjiang’s Muslim inhabitants, which is more and more receiving worldwide consideration. This context doesn’t serve China’s plan to deepen law-enforcement cooperation with key states. The truth is, nations aside from Russia and the Central Asian states seem more likely to proceed to refuse to endorse China’s “three evils” terminology, which seeks to place terrorism, extremism, and separatism in the identical basket to justify numerous insurance policies together with the strategy to Xinjiang. Such opposition will probably weaken China’s worldwide law-enforcement cooperation.

On this means, the interaction between home and worldwide counter-terrorism is enjoying out each inside and out of doors China — actions taken by China domestically have an effect on the worldwide safety surroundings for Chinese language nationals, in addition to the worldwide group’s willingness to simply accept China’s phrases for cooperation. China’s want for worldwide companions might result in some rethinking in Beijing relating to the worldwide penalties of large internment in Xinjiang, particularly if the nation suffers further setbacks on law-enforcement cooperation or if abroad dangers proceed to rise.

Who Are the Chinese language Overseas Fighters in Syria?

The conflict in Afghanistan revealed to a broader public the presence of Uyghur people in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas, particularly when america jailed 22 within the Guantanamo detention camp. Many died in U.S. and Pakistani operations, together with the chief of the East Turkestan Islamic Motion (a predecessor of the Turkestan Islamic Get together), Hasan Mahsum, who was killed in 2003. The Uyghurs’ presence led China to extend safety cooperation with Afghanistan and Pakistan, which included paying extra consideration to frame safety and  exercising warning about investing within the two nations.

However the Syrian Struggle and the emergence of Islamic State gave a worldwide dimension to an issue as soon as confined to the Afghan-Pakistan border. The hyperlinks between the Af-Pak and Syrian theaters are illustrated by the biography of Abu Omar al-Turkistani, a senior Turkestan Islamic Get together determine and jihadist born in Xinjiang who fought the Tora Bora battle towards U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan earlier than spending a decade in jail in Pakistan. He then returned to Afghanistan, joined a gaggle linked to the Islamic Motion of Uzbekistan and al-Qaeda, and moved to Syria the place he fought in Aleppo and Latakia earlier than he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2017.

The precise variety of Chinese language nationals who’ve joined the Syrian warfare (中国籍武装人员) is topic to hypothesis. Estimates range from a couple of tons of to some hundreds. China’s particular envoy for the Syrian challenge, Ambassador Xie Xiaoyan, stated in July 2018: “I’ve seen all types of figures — some say 1,000 or 2,000, 2,000 or three,000, four,000 or 5,000, and a few say much more.” Final yr, Syrian ambassador to China Imad Moustapha recommended that as much as 5,000 Uyghurs have been preventing in numerous militant teams in Syria, including that China must be “extraordinarily involved.”

Most Chinese language overseas fighters have joined the al-Qaeda community, due to historic ties developed in Afghanistan and Pakistan between the East Turkestan Islamic Motion/Turkestan Islamic Celebration and Osama bin Laden’s group. In response to interviews I’ve carried out in Beijing, Uyghurs affiliated with al-Qaeda’s community are stated to be within the hundreds, however this consists of their wives and youngsters. An unbiased media useful resource, The Levant, estimates 2000 to 2500 Uyghurs preventing underneath the al-Nusra Entrance.

Numbers are decrease for the Islamic State. Chinese language media often cites a determine of 300 Uyghurs affiliated with the Islamic State, whereas a leaked inner listing of Islamic State fighters included 200. Different sources have numbers as little as about 100. General, they characterize a tiny minority of the 40,000 foreigners from greater than 100 nations who’ve fought for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. As well as, a few of the Uyghurs preventing in Syria are Turkish or Central Asian, and there are a number of Han Chinese language as properly. The Malhama Tactical Group, a for-profit jihad mercenaries group recognized to have bought providers to al-Qaeda teams in Syria, has marketed deliberate enlargement in Xinjiang and China and claims to have recruited and educated Uyghur and Han fighters from China. The group’s nucleus consists of fighters from Central Asia and the Caucasus, suggesting the overseas fighters drawback goes past radicalized Uyghur people. Certainly, the Kyrgyz authorities accuses an Uzbek-dominated group (Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad) of ordering the 2016 assault towards the Chinese language Embassy in Bishkek. Whereas the investigation has not resolved all questions, the case factors to shared agendas and solidarity between totally different organizations affiliated with the al-Qaeda community.

Altogether on stability, China’s drawback with overseas fighters might be characterised as Lieutenant Common Qin Tian, vice-commander of the Individuals’s Armed Police Pressure, described it: multicentered (多中心) and dispersed (分散化). The core of the difficulty is radicalized abroad Uyghurs who’ve fought in Afghanistan and Syria — a few of them initially from China however not all — however the issue has expanded to non-Uyghurs.

Structuring Regulation-Enforcement Cooperation

Though China handed a counter-terrorism regulation in 2015 that authorizes the Central Army Fee to ship the Individuals’s Liberation Military on counter-terror missions overseas, worldwide law-enforcement cooperation stays probably the most cost-effective approach for China to cope with overseas fighters. Entry to intelligence and information-sharing relating to particular people is important for China, but in addition difficult given China’s hard-line three evils idea, which most states don’t endorse.

The deteriorating safety state of affairs in Xinjiang and the rise of dangers to Chinese language nationals abroad have led China to increase the scope of its worldwide law-enforcement cooperation (Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption coverage, and particularly the Fox Hunt operation to trace worldwide fugitives have additionally performed a task).

Worldwide law-enforcement cooperation is a vital constructing block of the worldwide counter-terrorism structure. U.N. member states are sure by Safety Council Decision 1373 to “make sure that any one that participates within the financing, planning, preparation or perpetration of terrorist acts or in supporting terrorist acts is delivered to justice.” Extraditions and transfers of suspects are the “entrance line” of that cooperation and principally happen by way of bilateral treaties, as worldwide regulation doesn’t impose an obligation on states to extradite. When signing extradition treaties, states agree on the rules and the offenses, however a political determination to extradite a felony could be made with no treaty. Conversely, states can all the time discover justifications to train discretion, and instances can simply turn out to be political.

China’s extradition treaties with nations in Asia, Europe, the Center East and Northern Africa


Signatory Date of signature Entry into drive
Thailand 26 August 1993 7 March 1999
Bulgaria 20 Might 1996 three July 1997
Belarus 22 June 1995 7 Might 1998
Russia 26 June 1995 10 January 1997
Romania 1 July 1996 16 January 1999
Kazakhstan 5 July 1996 10 February 1998
Mongolia 19 August 1997 10 January 1999
Kyrgyzstan 27 April 1998 27 April 2004
Ukraine 10 December 1998 13 July 2000
Cambodia 9 February 1999 13 December 2000
Uzbekistan eight November 1999 29 September 2000
Republic of Korea 18 October 2000 12 April 2002
Philippines 30 October 2001 12 March 2006
Tunisia 19 November 2001 29 December 2005
Laos four February 2002 13 October 2003
United Arab Emirates 13 Might 2002 24 Might 2004
Lithuania 17 June 2002 21 June 2003
Pakistan three November 2003 10 January 2008
Azerbaijan 17 March 2005 1 December 2010
Spain 14 November 2005 four April 2007
Algeria 6 November 2006 22 September 2009
Portugal 31 January 2007 25 July 2009
France 20 March 2007 17 July 2017
Indonesia 1 July 2009 19 January 2018
Italy 7 October 2010 13 December 2015
Iran 10 September 2012 14 January 2017
Bosnia-Herzegovina 20 December 2012 12 October 2014
Afghanistan 27 September 2013 23 Might 2017
Tajikistan 13 September 2014 18 January 2017
Armenia 25 March 2015 four January 2018
Vietnam 7 April 2015
Sri Lanka 7 April 2016
Morocco 11 Might 2016
Belgium 31 October 2016
Turkey 13 Might 2017
Kenya 15 Might 2017


China has extra environment friendly instruments than extradition treaties to pursue law-enforcement cooperation on counter-terrorism. It has signed 10 treaties on the switch of sentenced individuals (移管被判刑人条约), to acquire the repatriation of Chinese language residents condemned for crimes dedicated abroad, together with with Russia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Iran, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia. The “gold normal” of worldwide acceptance of China’s counter-terrorism terminology is the “Cooperation agreements on preventing terrorism, separatism and extremism” (关于打击恐怖主义、分裂主义、极端主义的合作协定) that China signed with Russia, Pakistan, and the 5 Central Asian Republics between 2002 and 2010.

But when higher Central Asia has emerged as a considerably dependable companion, this isn’t the case with nations on the brand new migration route. The above desk illustrates a number of the challenges China has confronted in creating such institutional cooperation with states on the brand new emigration route from Southeast Asia to Syria by way of Turkey: the comparatively late signature of a treaty with Turkey regardless of early makes an attempt, the size it took Indonesia to ratify the settlement, and the absence of an extradition treaty with Malaysia.

The Limits of China’s Progress in Southeast Asia

China has significantly strengthened border safety with its Central Asian neighbors, because of the Shanghai Cooperation Group, its personal funding in infrared cameras and facial recognition, joint patrols with the Afghan Nationwide Military on the Wakhan Hall, and the event of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. In consequence, round 2014, a brand new emigration route via Yunnan’s extra porous borders with Southeast Asia turned the rational selection for Uyghurs looking for to flee China. Since then, Malaysia and Indonesia have arrested Uyghur people who joined cells of Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and the Islamic State. A few of the people arrested have been carrying Turkish passports.

The emergence of the Southeast Asian emigration route has prompted China to hunt a multilateral extradition treaty with ASEAN, amongst different measures. Chinese language analysts usually advocate that the state concentrate on finishing the authorized framework for justice and law-enforcement cooperation with Southeast Asia, particularly extradition agreements; making a joint digital database of potential jihadists; growing exchanges and joint coaching packages for regulation enforcement officers; and agreeing on a standard street map tackling returnees, the financing of terrorism, and controls over stream of data on the web.

Certainly, law-enforcement cooperation just isn’t continuing as easily as China would hope. My interviews with Chinese language specialists have revealed complaints that Thailand rejects Chinese language calls for to deport Uyghurs serving jail phrases within the nation, regardless of the longtime existence of an extradition treaty. This comes after Thailand returned 100 Uyghurs accused of unlawful immigration in 2015, resulting in robust criticism amongst rights teams. China can also be encountering resistance from Indonesia and Malaysia. In 2016, Indonesia rejected a Chinese language supply for a four-for-one trade of prisoners. China agreed to extradite the Indonesian fugitive with out acquiring the switch of 4 Uyghur prisoners serving terrorism-related sentences in Indonesia, although there’s hypothesis that China gained entry to raised intelligence cooperation on Uyghur exercise in return.

Regulation-enforcement cooperation with Malaysia enabled China to repatriate greater than 100 Chinese language nationals between 2014 and 2016 with out an extradition treaty. In early 2017, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister stated his nation had deported 28 Uyghur militants to China since 2013, not on the idea of an extradition treaty however on an intelligence-sharing settlement. However in 2018, he stated Malaysia was underneath “nice strain” to extradite 11 Uyghurs who had damaged free from a Thai jail and entered the nation illegally to China and to not Thailand. Malaysia resisted the strain. The prosecutors dropped the fees and the group was despatched to Turkey.

These developments spotlight Southeast Asian states’ reluctance to completely settle for Chinese language phrases of cooperation, and the balancing act they interact in between mandatory law-enforcement cooperation with China and their very own home issues. This delicate stability is characterised by a refusal to completely cooperate and a selection to show a blind eye on China’s remedy of its Muslim minorities. Seen from Southeast Asia’s perspective, this long-term recreation is the way forward for non-interference. These nations might suspect that criticizing China for its Xinjiang coverage might result in a extra aggressive Chinese language strategy on extradition points (the Ministry of Public Safety has a current report of kidnapping people important of President Xi Jinping, reminiscent of Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, disappeared in Thailand in October 2015) and on problematic areas, resembling Aceh in Indonesia.

China’s Fragile Belief with Turkey

Turkey is the pivotal nation on the migration route from Xinjiag to Southeast Asia to Syria. Since Xinjiang was included into the Individuals’s Republic of China, Turkey has facilitated Uyghur immigration, taking refugees from Xinjiang out of solidarity with ethnic Turkish individuals overseas. To what extent Turkey underneath President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has facilitated a Uyghur presence within the neighboring Idlib area of Syria as a part of its help for anti-Assad forces isn’t properly documented in open-source materials, however many Chinese language specialists assume that Uyghur fighters have acted as a Turkish proxy within the battle. At present, the state of affairs is extra complicated , given Turkey’s new strategic positioning between the USA and China.

In recent times, Xinjiang has brought on intense tensions in China-Turkey relations. Through the 1990s, Erdogan — then the mayor of Istanbul — was a staunch supporter of Uyghur id as a part of his help for the pan-Turkism ideology. After the 2009 riots in Xinjiang, Erdogan accused China of committing “genocide” towards the Uyghur inhabitants there. Anti-China protests erupted in Turkey in July 2015 after Thailand deported 100 Uyghurs, to which the Turkish authorities responded with a press release expressing “deep considerations” relating to new restrictions on spiritual freedom in Xinjiang.

Gaining Turkish cooperation on Xinjiang has thus been a precedence for China. Having Turkey on its aspect wouldn’t solely considerably lower exterior strain on China’s Xinjiang coverage, it will ideally assist China achieve entry to essential intelligence. China is utilizing its financial leverage to facilitate precisely this. In Beijing in 2017, on the sidelines of the Silk Street Summit — at  which Erdogan was one in every of two keynote audio system alongside Vladimir Putin — Xi Jinping made clear to the Turkish president: “to advertise even larger improvement of relations, China and Turkey should respect and provides consideration to one another’s core considerations, and deepen safety and counter-terrorism cooperation.”

Geopolitics play to China’s benefit. Partially due to the July 2016 failed coup towards Erdogan, Turkey has come to see relations with China as a solution to rebalance its overseas coverage away from the West. Turkey’s commerce warfare with america can also be opening area for China and Turkey to deepen their commerce, funding, and monetary relations. Ideological opposition to the liberal democratic mannequin additionally performs a task.

Nevertheless, these shifts have been inadequate to cement belief between the 2 governments on the difficulty of the Uyghurs. Three years after the protests, Turkey is clearly looking for to attenuate disagreements on Xinjiang to keep away from disrupting the “strategic partnership” with China. Thus far, the federal government has remained silent on the transformation by means of schooling camps in Xinjiang. However the challenge stays a “barometer” (晴雨表) for China-Turkey relations. On the one hand, neutrality won’t ever be an choice for the Turkish authorities given the depth of Turkey’s cultural hyperlinks with Xinjiang. However, Turkey seeks to stability geopolitics and financial pursuits with its conventional help for pan-Turkism, based on a journal article by scholar Wang Yan, in an article not obtainable on-line.

Turkey has the East Turkestan Islamic Motion on its record of terrorist organizations and signed an extradition treaty in 2017, which nonetheless must be ratified (although there isn’t a signal that ratification shall be problematic). However there are nonetheless worries in Beijing that Turkey may proceed to play a double recreation with Syria’s Uyghurs, and there’s in fact solidarity in Turkish society with the Uyghur trigger.

China’s mistrust is immediately linked to the query of Turkish passports. In 2015, China accused Turkish diplomats in Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur of issuing passports to Uyghurs, serving to them to hitch the struggle in Syria “beneath the guise of rescuing them” (营救) whereas the actual purpose was to get “cannon fodder” (炮灰) within the phrases of the Individuals’s Every day.  250 clean Turkish passports have been discovered on the house of a suspect within the Erawan shrine bomb assault.  Generally, Turkish consular officers are stated to be versatile and open about issuing documentation to the ethnic Uyghurs who handle to succeed in the door of Turkish missions abroad.

In response to my interviews with Chinese language officers and specialists, regardless of the continued enchancment in bilateral ties, there’s nonetheless doubt in China that Turkey has utterly ceased its accommodating and sometimes political practices on the subject of passports. Notably, one other key actor shares this skepticism: Abroad Uyghurs who deplore the rise of extremism of their communities overseas additionally accuse Turkey of accommodating Islamist Uyghurs to make use of them as proxies in Syria.

Along with this lingering distrust, there’s an open query about the way forward for Turkey’s coverage vis-à-vis Uyghur overseas fighters, particularly after Syrian forces take over Idlib, the place most Uyghur fighters are nonetheless situated. The continued collapse of the so-called caliphate and the defeat of different jihadist organizations will drive these fighters to determine about their future, and their selection shall be formed by Turkey’s calculations. Will a steady presence of Uyghur fighters in Syria serve Turkish objectives? Will Erdogan supply them protected haven for his or her contribution to the conflict as soon as the battle ends, permit them protected passage to different nations, or abandon them altogether? The reply to those questions would be the actual check for China-Turkey relations.


Overseas fighters are an excessive incarnation of a bigger drawback: the radicalization of disenfranchised Chinese language residents, the attraction of jihadist ideology, the presence of recruiting networks, and the excessive tensions in Xinjiang. The top of the Syrian conflict will disperse the surviving fighters. That is an goal menace that may require worldwide cooperation, however the danger to China’s abroad pursuits could also be bigger. How can China keep away from the radicalization of Muslim people towards it, notably given the huge internment in Xinjiang? This can be a greater overseas and safety problem for Beijing than stopping assaults from overseas fighters.

The interaction between home and worldwide dangers to Chinese language safety pursuits just isn’t merely about jihad ideology penetrating Chinese language borders. The terrorist danger posed by Chinese language nationals appearing as overseas fighters abroad might, for example, threaten the power of the Belt and Street Initiative —  Xi’s signature overseas coverage undertaking — to advertise a brand new wave of globalization of Chinese language companies and improve China’s international affect. How would China react if a serious Belt and Street undertaking was hit by a large-scale terror assault? A army operation is a risk because of the 2015 laws, however China counts extra on law-enforcement cooperation, particularly on the bilateral degree, to stop such a state of affairs.

Regardless of the general progress of China’s current drive to construction its worldwide law-enforcement cooperation, China’s coverage in Xinjiang might make states extra reluctant to cooperate on China’s phrases, notably because the area will get extra worldwide consideration. In its effort to deepen law-enforcement cooperation, China’s important weak spot stays the mismatch between its draconian “three evils” terminology and most different states’ extra restrictive strategy to terrorism. This clearly creates mistrust in China’s relations with liberal democracies, nevertheless it additionally restricts what China can obtain in relations with Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Can this worldwide setting exert a moderating affect on China’s Xinjiang coverage? China’s current choice to permit 2,000 Kazakhs to surrender their Chinese language citizenship is a small step in that path. China’s want for worldwide companions to deal with dangers abroad might result in an evaluation in Beijing that the repressive insurance policies in Xinjiang must be eased — not as a concession to human rights norms that the Chinese language authorities rejects, however as a matter of safety pursuits.


Dr. Mathieu Duchâtel is director of the Asia program at Institut Montaigne. He beforehand labored for the European Council on Overseas Relations and as a consultant of the Stockholm Worldwide Peace Analysis Institute in Beijing.

Picture: Richard Weil

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