Monday June 1, 2020


December 15, 2015

Since the Paris attacks, the emergence of ISIS as a global threat has been rallying world powers around the cause of defeating it. We are likely to see the creation of a multilateral coalition. The U.S., the U.K., and France have spearheaded such efforts historically. Yet in recent years, China has also assumed a major role on the international stage. Entering the fight against ISIS would help China realize its aspirations of becoming a global leader, of which a requirement is extra-economic involvement in world affairs. As much as China aspires to this peer recognition, however, the country will probably not begin assuming this responsibility by taking on ISIS.

China believes it cannot afford to pursue any cause other than its own development. Even when investment extends beyond Chinese borders, it is designed to serve the nation’s economic self-interest, albeit thinly veiled as public works. Examples include road expansion into Central Asia and aid projects in Africa, where expanding markets will eventually feed into the Chinese economy.

Such foreign aid is not charity as much as an investment into China’s (economic) future. The Chinese approach to investing here is nevertheless hands-off: funds come with few stipulations on how they should be distributed. Strings attached to foreign aid are a common method employed by countries like the U.S. to accomplish domestic or ideological agendas, and so it is notable that Chinese financial aid comes with almost no strings whatsoever. China’s actions thus remain consistent with its policy of “non-interference,” by which the country will not impose its policies or beliefs onto another.

The Chinese government invokes this policy in an effort to deflect external criticism of its internal affairs. It fiercely protects its ability to manage internal affairs so as to preserve social stability, the Communist party’s chief concern. Non-interference thus accomplishes two goals for China: it allows the country to maintain both the 1) operational and 2) diplomatic leeway to focus on domestic policy in the way the government deems fit.

Given that ISIS is a stateless nation, China might be able to involve itself in a coalition’s efforts without creating de facto justification for foreign interference in its domestic affairs. The universality of the ISIS threat coupled with its ambiguous statehood means that Chinese involvement might not be perceived as “interference.” China undertook comparable measures earlier this year, when sending a thousand troops to Sudan in its first UN peacekeeping mission. Yet China acquiesced to deploying troops only under the UN aegis, absolving the country of all agency in the matter. Notwithstanding ISIS’s singularities, we can see how China will assess any risk of foreign interference as greatly outweighing the benefits of establishing itself as a global power.

Indeed, China stands to gain little directly from joining a coalition against ISIS. The Chinese government is already addressing a homegrown insurgency by the Muslim Uighur minority in the Western province of Xinjiang. Were Uighur secessionism motivated by ISIS activity, China’s pursuit of the latter would bolster its reputation abroad while promoting security at home, but most experts agree that this is not the case. China highlights the religious connection between the Uighurs and the so-called Islamic State merely for the solidarity with targeted Western nations it suggests; the Chinese government anticipates that such solidarity might dissuade criticism for the way it chooses to manage associated unrest. A real connection could develop in the future, given recent overtures by ISIS to recruit Chinese nationals. Unless those efforts gain traction, resources given to an anti-ISIS coalition would instead be counter-productive, being reallocated away from fighting Uighur secessionists.

Abstention from fighting ISIS would not come without costs for China. Namely, foreign powers’ perception of Chinese self-interestedness would be confirmed. This would prolong the process whereby China enjoys equal treatment by other world leaders, who will consider China as having a smaller stake in world affairs. This status quo will be maintained until a diplomatic opportunity arises where China’s interest aligns better with the global. We can only hope that another tragedy will not be the catalyst.

For more information on China’s position on ISIS, please see the following news sources and commentary:

NYTimes − ISIS Extends Recruitment Efforts to China With New Chant

Forbes −China And Japan’s Fight Against ISIS

CBS News − Will China change its ways to counter ISIS?

Compiled and edited by Juliet Tempest.