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Is Islamic State Cornering China into a Military Role in the Middle East?

Having involved most Middle Eastern nations, Russia, and the United States in its apocalyptic war in Syria, the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) appears determined to force China to establish a presence in the region, also, threatening the Asian nation in a new video and boasting of the murder of a Chinese citizen last week.

The Islamic State has made note of China in the past, mentioning it as a desired territory for conquest in propaganda released as early as mid-2014. China has a sizable Muslim population in its western territories, particularly the province of Xinjiang, home to most of the nation’s ethnic Uyghurs. It is estimated, Bloomberg reports, that at least 300 Chinese citizens of Uyghur descent have joined ISIS.

Against Uyghur suspected Islamist terrorists, China has vowed an iron fist. It has curbed much Islamic activity in Xinjiang – from banning the wearing of burqas to banning fasting during Ramadan for Communist Party members and forcing stores to sell haram products like alcohol and cigarettes – and conducted raids against terror groups with much fanfare. Most recently, the Chinese government claims to have used a flamethrower to force up to ten suspected Uyghur terrorists out of a cave in which they were hiding from the government. While reports did not specify whether the suspected terrorists were ISIS-affiliated, the government labeled them affiliates of “foreign-led extremists.”

Internationally, however, China has mostly stayed out of the ISIS war. In Syria and Iraq in particular, China has played no meaningful role in combating the terrorist group. Bloomberg posits that the terrorist group is working diligently to change that. In the latest issue of its English-language magazine Dabiq, for example, ISIS boasted that their jihadis had executed Fan Jinghui, a Chinese citizen. “The Chinese government strongly condemns this inhuman action and will definitely hold the perpetrators accountable,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in the statement of Fan’s death.

“The killing of a Chinese national will certainly inject a new variable into Beijing’s calculations about its position on the conflict,” Michael Clarke, an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College, told Bloomberg, noting that “events are dragging China further” into Syria’s war. Fan’s execution in particular because reports indicate the Chinese government had been trying to negotiate with ISIS for his release. According to Qiu Yongzheng, a Chinese state war correspondent, ISIS terrorists had reached out to China demanding a ransom for Fan’s freedom. The Chinese government, possibly hoping to avoid major escalation in the region, had accepted negotiations and, Qiu writes, believed they were “making progress” on that front when Dabiq announced his execution.

Qui blames Russia and France for the change in temperament on ISIS’ negotiators’ part. “But recently, countries such as Russia and France started heavy air strikes against IS, which upset the group’s overall arrangement and original plans… this had led to the interruption of channels to rescue the hostage,” he wrote.

One of the most popular articles at Chinese state newspaper The People’s Daily is a condemnation of “Western double standards” specifically condemning a French article detailing the crackdown on Islam in Xinjiang, indicating that China’s line of attack on the ISIS issue will continue to be to use the situation to condemn Western nations and, sometimes, Russia. The other People’s Daily articles referring to terrorism include a report on “homegrown anti-terrorism robots” and a photo essay on joint military exercises with the U.S., which does not explicitly mention terrorism but serves as a boast of China’s military might.

It appears this will not be enough to deter ISIS from trying to rope China into Syria, anyway. Yesterday, the terror group released a new video demanding jizyathe punitive tax on non-Muslims proscribed by the Quran, from China, among others. The video is called “If You Want To Save Your Life, You Either Convert to Islam or Pay the Jizyah.”

The Guardian points out some military shortcomings that could hurt China, particularly its military’s dependence on ground troops in a war largely conducted in the air. Fear of reprisal by Islamist groups in Xinjiang may also keep China from openly participating in the war there. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that the Islamic State sees a role for China in their desired global struggle between Islam and civilization, whether China sees it or not.

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