China’s Foreign Fighters Problem
China has a foreign fighters problem. Like many other states, it is dealing with the complex security and legal implications of its residents leaving the country to join jihadist groups. In Beijing’s case, the problem is not limited to Chinese nationals who have joined jihadist organizations in Syria. Some combatants are indeed ethnic Uyghurs of Chinese nationality and a few Han Chinese. But other combatants are ethnic Uyghurs who have never been citizens of the People’s Republic but could, in a worst-case scenario, target Chinese interests to retaliate against China’s Xinjiang policies or to promote independence for the northwestern province. In addition, non-Uyghur foreign fighters can become sensitive to the cause of Islam in China: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made this clear in his speech announcing the creation of the Islamic State’s Caliphate, in which he pointed to China as a country where “Muslim rights are forcibly seized.” China’s foreign fighters problem thus encompasses risks to the country’s domestic security but also to its overseas interests, and highlights the interplay between internal and external risk management.
The Syrian war is a central element of China’s foreign fighters problem because of the presence of the Turkestan Islamic Party, a Uyghur jihadist organization with a foothold in Idlib province near the border with Turkey, on Syrian soil. Some fighters have traveled to Syria through Afghanistan. However, as strict border controls have made emigration through China’s borders with Greater Central Asia extremely difficult, a migration route has developed from China to Syria through Southeast Asia and Turkey. This has put police cooperation and extradition issues high 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 attack on the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. Court proceedings are still unfolding, but some of the principal suspects are from Xinjiang. For this reason, China’s main response has been to seek deepened cooperation with states that can provide intelligence and law-enforcement assistance, especially those located on the emigration routes between Xinjiang and Syria.
The push to structure China’s international law-enforcement cooperation has been going on for some time. But now, it takes place in the extraordinary context of the massive internment campaign of Xinjiang’s Muslim population, which is increasingly receiving international attention. This context does not serve China’s plan to deepen law-enforcement cooperation with key states. In fact, countries other than Russia and the Central Asian states appear likely to continue to refuse to endorse China’s “three evils” terminology, which seeks to put terrorism, extremism, and separatism in the same basket to justify various policies including the approach to Xinjiang. Such opposition will likely weaken China’s international law-enforcement cooperation.
In this way, the interplay between domestic and international counter-terrorism is playing out both inside and outside China — actions taken by China domestically affect the international security environment for Chinese nationals, as well as the international community’s willingness to accept China’s terms for cooperation. China’s need for international partners could lead to some rethinking in Beijing regarding the international consequences of massive internment in Xinjiang, especially if the country suffers additional setbacks on law-enforcement cooperation or if overseas risks continue to rise.
Who Are the Chinese Foreign Fighters in Syria?
The war in Afghanistan revealed to a broader public the presence of Uyghur individuals in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas, especially when the United States jailed 22 in the Guantanamo detention camp. Many died in U.S. and Pakistani operations, including the leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (a predecessor of the Turkestan Islamic Party), Hasan Mahsum, who was killed in 2003. The Uyghurs’ presence led China to increase security cooperation with Afghanistan and Pakistan, which included paying more attention to border security and exercising caution about investing in the two countries.
But the Syrian War and the emergence of Islamic State gave a global dimension to a problem once confined to the Afghan-Pakistan border. The links between the Af-Pak and Syrian theaters are illustrated by the biography of Abu Omar al-Turkistani, a senior Turkestan Islamic Party figure and jihadist born in Xinjiang who fought the Tora Bora battle against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan before spending a decade in jail in Pakistan. He then returned to Afghanistan, joined a group linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and al-Qaeda, and moved to Syria where he fought in Aleppo and Latakia before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2017.
The exact number of Chinese nationals who have joined the Syrian war (中国籍武装人员) is subject to speculation. Estimates vary from a few hundreds to a few thousands. China’s special envoy for the Syrian issue, Ambassador Xie Xiaoyan, said in July 2018: “I’ve seen all sorts of figures — some say 1,000 or 2,000, 2,000 or 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000, and some say even more.” Last year, Syrian ambassador to China Imad Moustapha suggested that up to 5,000 Uyghurs were fighting in various militant groups in Syria, adding that China should be “extremely concerned.”
Most Chinese foreign fighters have joined the al-Qaeda network, because of historic ties developed in Afghanistan and Pakistan between the East Turkestan Islamic Movement/Turkestan Islamic Party and Osama bin Laden’s organization. According to interviews I’ve conducted in Beijing, Uyghurs affiliated with al-Qaeda’s network are said to be in the thousands, but this includes their wives and children. An independent media resource, The Levant, estimates 2000 to 2500 Uyghurs fighting under the al-Nusra Front.
Numbers are lower for the Islamic State. Chinese media usually cites a figure of 300 Uyghurs affiliated with the Islamic State, while a leaked internal list of Islamic State fighters included 200. Other sources have numbers as low as about 100. Overall, they represent a tiny minority of the 40,000 foreigners from more than 100 countries who have fought for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In addition, some of the Uyghurs fighting in Syria are Turkish or Central Asian, and there are a few Han Chinese as well. The Malhama Tactical Group, a for-profit jihad mercenaries organization known to have sold services to al-Qaeda groups in Syria, has advertised planned expansion in Xinjiang and China and claims to have recruited and trained Uyghur and Han fighters from China. The group’s nucleus is composed of fighters from Central Asia and the Caucasus, suggesting the foreign fighters problem goes beyond radicalized Uyghur individuals. Indeed, the Kyrgyz government accuses an Uzbek-dominated group (Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad) of ordering the 2016 attack against the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. While the investigation has not resolved all questions, the case points to shared agendas and solidarity between different organizations affiliated with the al-Qaeda network.
Altogether on balance, China’s problem with foreign fighters can be characterized as Lieutenant General Qin Tian, vice-commander of the People’s Armed Police Force, described it: multicentered (多中心) and dispersed (分散化). The core of the issue is radicalized overseas Uyghurs who have fought in Afghanistan and Syria — some of them originally from China but not all — but the problem has expanded to non-Uyghurs.
Structuring Law-Enforcement Cooperation
Although China passed a counter-terrorism law in 2015 that authorizes the Central Military Commission to send the People’s Liberation Army on counter-terror missions abroad, international law-enforcement cooperation remains the most cost-effective way for China to deal with foreign fighters. Access to intelligence and information-sharing regarding specific individuals is essential for China, but also challenging given China’s hard-line three evils concept, which most states do not endorse.
The deteriorating security situation in Xinjiang and the increase of risks to Chinese nationals overseas have led China to expand the scope of its international law-enforcement cooperation (Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption policy, and in particular the Fox Hunt operation to track international fugitives have also played a role).
International law-enforcement cooperation is an essential building block of the global counter-terrorism architecture. U.N. member states are bound by Security Council Resolution 1373 to “ensure that any person who participates in the financing, planning, preparation or perpetration of terrorist acts or in supporting terrorist acts is brought to justice.” Extraditions and transfers of suspects are the “front line” of that cooperation and mostly take place through bilateral treaties, as international law does not impose an obligation on states to extradite. When signing extradition treaties, states agree on the principles and the offenses, but a political decision to extradite a criminal can be made without a treaty. Conversely, states can always find justifications to exercise discretion, and cases can easily become political.
China’s extradition treaties with countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa
|Date of signature
|Entry into force
|26 August 1993
|7 March 1999
|20 May 1996
|3 July 1997
|22 June 1995
|7 May 1998
|26 June 1995
|10 January 1997
|1 July 1996
|16 January 1999
|5 July 1996
|10 February 1998
|19 August 1997
|10 January 1999
|27 April 1998
|27 April 2004
|10 December 1998
|13 July 2000
|9 February 1999
|13 December 2000
|8 November 1999
|29 September 2000
|Republic of Korea
|18 October 2000
|12 April 2002
|30 October 2001
|12 March 2006
|19 November 2001
|29 December 2005
|4 February 2002
|13 October 2003
|United Arab Emirates
|13 May 2002
|24 May 2004
|17 June 2002
|21 June 2003
|3 November 2003
|10 January 2008
|17 March 2005
|1 December 2010
|14 November 2005
|4 April 2007
|6 November 2006
|22 September 2009
|31 January 2007
|25 July 2009
|20 March 2007
|17 July 2017
|1 July 2009
|19 January 2018
|7 October 2010
|13 December 2015
|10 September 2012
|14 January 2017
|20 December 2012
|12 October 2014
|27 September 2013
|23 May 2017
|13 September 2014
|18 January 2017
|25 March 2015
|4 January 2018
|7 April 2015
|7 April 2016
|11 May 2016
|31 October 2016
|13 May 2017
|15 May 2017
China has more efficient tools than extradition treaties to pursue law-enforcement cooperation on counter-terrorism. It has signed 10 treaties on the transfer of sentenced persons (移管被判刑人条约), to obtain the repatriation of Chinese citizens condemned for crimes committed overseas, including with Russia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Iran, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia. The “gold standard” of international acceptance of China’s counter-terrorism terminology is the “Cooperation agreements on fighting 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 five Central Asian Republics between 2002 and 2010.
But if greater Central Asia has emerged as a somewhat reliable partner, this is not the case with countries on the new migration route. The above table illustrates some of the challenges China has faced in developing such institutional cooperation with states on the new emigration route from Southeast Asia to Syria via Turkey: the relatively late signature of a treaty with Turkey despite early attempts, the length it took Indonesia to ratify the agreement, and the absence of an extradition treaty with Malaysia.
The Limits of China’s Progress in Southeast Asia
China has considerably strengthened border security with its Central Asian neighbors, thanks to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, its own investment in infrared cameras and facial recognition, joint patrols with the Afghan National Army on the Wakhan Corridor, and the development of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. As a result, around 2014, a new emigration route through Yunnan’s more porous borders with Southeast Asia became the rational choice for Uyghurs seeking to flee China. Since then, Malaysia and Indonesia have arrested Uyghur individuals who joined cells of Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and the Islamic State. Some of the individuals arrested were carrying Turkish passports.
The emergence of the Southeast Asian emigration route has prompted China to seek a multilateral extradition treaty with ASEAN, among other measures. Chinese analysts generally recommend that the state focus on completing the legal framework for justice and law-enforcement cooperation with Southeast Asia, especially extradition agreements; creating a joint digital database of potential jihadists; increasing exchanges and joint training programs for law enforcement officers; and agreeing on a common road map tackling returnees, the financing of terrorism, and controls over flow of information on the internet.
Indeed, law-enforcement cooperation is not proceeding as smoothly as China would hope. My interviews with Chinese experts have revealed complaints that Thailand rejects Chinese demands to deport Uyghurs serving jail terms in the country, despite the longtime existence of an extradition treaty. This comes after Thailand returned 100 Uyghurs accused of illegal immigration in 2015, leading to strong criticism among rights groups. China is also encountering resistance from Indonesia and Malaysia. In 2016, Indonesia rejected a Chinese offer for a four-for-one exchange of prisoners. China agreed to extradite the Indonesian fugitive without obtaining the transfer of four Uyghur prisoners serving terrorism-related sentences in Indonesia, though there is speculation that China gained access to better intelligence cooperation on Uyghur activity in return.
Law-enforcement cooperation with Malaysia enabled China to repatriate more than 100 Chinese nationals between 2014 and 2016 without an extradition treaty. In early 2017, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister said his country had deported 28 Uyghur militants to China since 2013, not on the basis of an extradition treaty but on an intelligence-sharing agreement. But in 2018, he said Malaysia was under “great pressure” to extradite 11 Uyghurs who had broken free from a Thai prison and entered the country illegally to China and not to Thailand. Malaysia resisted the pressure. The prosecutors dropped the charges and the group was sent to Turkey.
These developments highlight Southeast Asian states’ reluctance to fully accept Chinese terms of cooperation, and the balancing act they engage in between necessary law-enforcement cooperation with China and their own domestic considerations. This delicate balance is characterized by a refusal to fully cooperate and a choice to turn a blind eye on China’s treatment of its Muslim minorities. Seen from Southeast Asia’s perspective, this long-term game is the future of non-interference. These countries may suspect that criticizing China for its Xinjiang policy could lead to a more aggressive Chinese approach on extradition issues (the Ministry of Public Security has a recent record of kidnapping individuals critical of President Xi Jinping, such as Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, disappeared in Thailand in October 2015) and on problematic regions, such as Aceh in Indonesia.
China’s Fragile Trust with Turkey
Turkey is the pivotal country on the migration route from Xinjiag to Southeast Asia to Syria. Since Xinjiang was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China, Turkey has facilitated Uyghur immigration, taking refugees from Xinjiang out of solidarity with ethnic Turkish people abroad. To what extent Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has facilitated a Uyghur presence in the neighboring Idlib region of Syria as part of its support for anti-Assad forces is not well documented in open-source material, but many Chinese experts assume that Uyghur fighters have acted as a Turkish proxy in the conflict. Today, the situation is more complex , given Turkey’s new strategic positioning between the United States and China.
In recent years, Xinjiang has caused intense tensions in China-Turkey relations. During the 1990s, Erdogan — then the mayor of Istanbul — was a staunch supporter of Uyghur identity as part of his support for the pan-Turkism ideology. After the 2009 riots in Xinjiang, Erdogan accused China of committing “genocide” against the Uyghur population there. Anti-China protests erupted in Turkey in July 2015 after Thailand deported 100 Uyghurs, to which the Turkish government responded with a statement expressing “deep concerns” regarding new restrictions on religious freedom in Xinjiang.
Gaining Turkish cooperation on Xinjiang has thus been a priority for China. Having Turkey on its side would not only significantly decrease external pressure on China’s Xinjiang policy, it would ideally help China gain access to crucial intelligence. China is using its economic leverage to facilitate exactly this. In Beijing in 2017, on the sidelines of the Silk Road Summit — at which Erdogan was one of two keynote speakers alongside Vladimir Putin — Xi Jinping made clear to the Turkish president: “to promote even greater development of relations, China and Turkey must respect and give consideration to each other’s core concerns, and deepen security and counter-terrorism cooperation.”
Geopolitics play to China’s advantage. In part because of the July 2016 failed coup against Erdogan, Turkey has come to see relations with China as a way to rebalance its foreign policy away from the West. Turkey’s trade war with the United States is also opening space for China and Turkey to deepen their trade, investment, and financial relations. Ideological opposition to the liberal democratic model also plays a role.
However, these shifts have been insufficient to cement trust between the two governments on the issue of the Uyghurs. Three years after the protests, Turkey is clearly seeking to minimize disagreements on Xinjiang to avoid disrupting the “strategic partnership” with China. So far, the government has remained silent on the transformation through education camps in Xinjiang. But the issue remains a “barometer” (晴雨表) for China-Turkey relations. On the one hand, neutrality will never be an option for the Turkish government given the depth of Turkey’s cultural links with Xinjiang. On the other hand, Turkey seeks to balance geopolitics and economic interests with its traditional support for pan-Turkism, according to a journal article by scholar Wang Yan, in an article not available online.
Turkey has the East Turkestan Islamic Movement on its list of terrorist organizations and signed an extradition treaty in 2017, which still needs to be ratified (though there is no sign that ratification will be problematic). But there are still worries in Beijing that Turkey might continue to play a double game with Syria’s Uyghurs, and there is of course solidarity in Turkish society with the Uyghur cause.
China’s distrust is directly linked to the question of Turkish passports. In 2015, China accused Turkish diplomats in Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur of issuing passports to Uyghurs, helping them to join the war in Syria “under the guise of rescuing them” (营救) while the real aim was to get “cannon fodder” (炮灰) in the words of the People’s Daily. 250 blank Turkish passports were found at the home of a suspect in the Erawan shrine bomb attack. In general, Turkish consular officers are said to be flexible and open about issuing documentation to the ethnic Uyghurs who manage to reach the door of Turkish missions overseas.
According to my interviews with Chinese officials and experts, despite the ongoing improvement in bilateral ties, there is still doubt in China that Turkey has completely ceased its accommodating and often political practices with regards to passports. Notably, another key actor shares this skepticism: Overseas Uyghurs who deplore the rise of extremism in their communities abroad also accuse Turkey of accommodating Islamist Uyghurs to use them as proxies in Syria.
In addition to this lingering mistrust, there is an open question about the future of Turkey’s policy vis-à-vis Uyghur foreign fighters, especially after Syrian forces take over Idlib, where most Uyghur fighters are still located. The ongoing collapse of the so-called caliphate and the defeat of other jihadist organizations will force these fighters to decide about their future, and their choice will be shaped by Turkey’s calculations. Will a continuous presence of Uyghur fighters in Syria serve Turkish goals? Will Erdogan offer them safe haven for their contribution to the war once the conflict ends, allow them safe passage to other countries, or abandon them altogether? The answer to these questions will be the real test for China-Turkey relations.
Foreign fighters are an extreme incarnation of a larger problem: the radicalization of disenfranchised Chinese citizens, the appeal of jihadist ideology, the presence of recruiting networks, and the high tensions in Xinjiang. The end of the Syrian war will disperse the surviving fighters. This is an objective threat that will require international cooperation, but the risk to China’s overseas interests may be larger. How can China avoid the radicalization of Muslim individuals against it, particularly given the massive internment in Xinjiang? This is a bigger foreign and security challenge for Beijing than preventing attacks from foreign fighters.
The interplay between domestic and international risks to Chinese security interests is not simply about jihad ideology penetrating Chinese borders. The terrorist risk posed by Chinese nationals acting as foreign fighters overseas could, for instance, threaten the ability of the Belt and Road Initiative — Xi’s signature foreign policy project — to promote a new wave of globalization of Chinese firms and increase China’s global influence. How would China react if a major Belt and Road project was hit by a large-scale terror attack? A military operation is a possibility thanks to the 2015 legislation, but China counts more on law-enforcement cooperation, especially at the bilateral level, to prevent such a scenario.
Despite the overall progress of China’s recent drive to structure its international law-enforcement cooperation, China’s policy in Xinjiang may make states more reluctant to cooperate on China’s terms, particularly as the region gets more international attention. In its effort to deepen law-enforcement cooperation, China’s main weakness remains the mismatch between its draconian “three evils” terminology and most other states’ more restrictive approach to terrorism. This clearly creates distrust in China’s relations with liberal democracies, but it also restricts what China can achieve in relations with Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Can this international environment exert a moderating influence on China’s Xinjiang policy? China’s recent decision to allow 2,000 Kazakhs to renounce their Chinese citizenship is a small step in that direction. China’s need for international partners to address risks overseas could lead to an assessment in Beijing that the repressive policies in Xinjiang should be eased — not as a concession to human rights norms that the Chinese government rejects, but as a matter of security interests.
Dr. Mathieu Duchâtel is director of the Asia program at Institut Montaigne. He previously worked for the European Council on Foreign Relations and as a representative of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Beijing.
Image: Richard Weil