Few cities can evoke the same sense of promise as Shanghai can. For more than a century, the sprawling metropolis, now teeming with more than 25 million people and home to the world’s busiest transport hub, has been the crucible of modern China. There, on the Yangtze River estuary, the old world blends incongruously with the new amid a glittering riot of steel and glass and incandescent light. But the city has a darker underside. And that is where a small but quietly efficient group of Turks had set up an underground pipeline to help young Chinese Muslims travel abroad, for a fee, to wage global jihad.
China’s state media announced last month that Shanghai police arrested 10 Turkish nationals, eight male and two female, who entered the country illegally using bogus invitation letters. Allegedly, they were caught aiding (and abetting) nine ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang, the country’s mostly Muslim northwestern region, in their quest to join Islamic militant groups in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Uighurs said they each paid 60,000 yuan (about US$9,700) for travel documents and plane tickets. The Turks received US$2,000 each for their passports, which were doctored to allow the Uighurs to use them. Police claim they found terrorist training videos on the Uighurs’ cell phones, and at least one man was wanted already for taking part in separatist activities in Xinjiang.
The arrests were made in November but not made public until January, only after authorities concluded their investigation, which also netted two ethnic Han Chinese accomplices. Turkish human smuggling rings are nothing new in China. But over the past year they have mushroomed as more and more Uighurs look for ways to escape China’s sweeping counterterrorism campaign in Xinjiang. A year-long campaign began last May, putting new social and religious restrictions on Uighurs, including a ban on Muslim women wearing burkas and men wearing beards.
A common destination for Uighurs—those who can afford to leave, at least—is Southeast Asia, often by way of Afghanistan, which shares a short border with Xinjiang. Once in Southeast Asia, Uighurs generally seek passage to Turkey. Last October, for instance, Malaysian police raided an apartment complex in Kuala Lumpur where they discovered 155 Uighurs, 44 of them children, all crammed into two small units and carrying fake Turkish passports. That raid followed another case six months earlier in Thailand, in which more than 400 suspected Uighurs were found hiding in Bangkok and a southern trafficking camp on a rubber plantation. Those Uighurs claimed to be Turkish and requested political asylum or to be flown to Turkey.
Why should Turks have a particular interest in helping Uighurs flee China? Apart from profit, one reason stands out. Xinjiang’s Uighurs, while professing to be indigenous to China’s northwestern region, are a people of Turkic descent and have always looked to Turkey for support and political asylum. From 1933 to 1934, Uighurs briefly established an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang called the East Turkestan Republic. The state eventually collapsed, falling under a coalition government administered by the Chinese republican Kuomintang regime and the Soviet Union. In 1949, when Mao Zedong’s communists came to power, the People’s Liberation Army peacefully took control of Xinjiang.
Since then, Uighurs have continued to speak their own Turkic language and practice Sufism, a mystical approach to the Islamic faith, largely resisting integration with the country’s Han majority. As a result, they say, they have been subjected to decades of economic discrimination and religious repression by the Han, who have flooded into Xinjiang—the name literally means “New Frontier”—by the millions to work for Chinese companies exploiting the region’s rich natural resources. Those resources may include the country’s largest oil and gas reserves.
Turkey has long been sympathetic to the Uighurs’ plight in China, offering sanctuary to Uighur dissidents and refugees since the 1950s. After violent rioting broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in 2009, Turkey’s then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—now president—described the violence as “a kind of genocide.” “There are atrocities [in Xinjiang]; hundreds of people have been killed and 1,000 hurt,” Erdogan said. “We have difficulty understanding how China’s leadership can remain a spectator in the face of these events.”
Today, not all Uighurs moving through what has been called the “underground railroad” are fleeing violence and repression in Xinjiang, though. That became apparent last September when Indonesian police detained four Uighurs who entered the country on forged Turkish passports. They were found to have links to the Islamic State.
November’s arrests in Shanghai suggest a possible deepening of ties between the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that wants to bring about Xinjiang’s independence from China, and international terrorist groups outside China, including Islamic State and various branches of Al Qaeda. Beijing fears that Islamic radicalism is now spreading and hardening in Xinjiang, and that Muslims who travel abroad for jihad will return with the ability and resources to mount larger, more deadly assaults than the spate of bloody knife attacks and bombings China has already witnessed in recent years.
China’s leaders are beginning to fear that developments in the Middle East, together with their own heavy-handed policies in Xinjiang, are politicizing religious discourse amongst Uighurs, drawing them away from their more spiritual Islamic traditions of Sufism toward the militant preaching associated with Salafi and Wahhabi Sunni Islam. Indeed, Wu Sike, China’s special envoy on Middle East affairs, admitted last July that areas where these sects flourish, particularly Syria and Iraq, have become the primary training grounds for Uighur terrorists.
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has thus emerged as a new component of the Chinese security calculus. Beijing is worried that the rise and spread of Sunni militant Islam so close to its borders, including neighboring former Soviet “Stan” countries of Central Asia, will kindle radical elements in Xinjiang. Sunni militant Islam also threatens to become a strategic and an ideological nightmare for China’s massive and unprecedented multi-billion dollar investments from Xinjiang westward across Central Asia, the linchpin of Beijing’s future vision of energy security and economic development. Sunni radicalism could hinder, if not derail, the realization of Beijing’s Silk Road Belt initiative, presenting a major obstacle to building out a vast overland transcontinental transportation and energy infrastructure.
In an effort to maintain stability in Xinjiang, China has set about strengthening ties with Turkey. But this is no easy task. According to a Pew Research Center poll published last July, Turkey has the most unfavorable view of China amongst the Middle Eastern countries surveyed, with 69 percent of Turks expressing a negative opinion of China, and 57 percent saying that China’s growing economy is not good for Turkey.
And so China gravitates increasingly towards Iran, which it believes can act as a buffer zone against the eastward advance of Sunni radical Islam. In November Meng Jianzhu, who heads domestic law enforcement in China, paid a visit to Tehran, where he struck deals to expand cooperation in the fight again terrorism.
“China and Iran have broad common interests in fighting terrorism,” Meng said, “and China is willing to further step up cooperation with Iran and play a proactive role in maintaining both countries’ security interests and promoting regional peace and stability.”
Iran appears willing to work with China against Sunni radical Islam, in so far as it brings economic benefits, provides access to advanced Chinese military hardware, and wins diplomatic support from Beijing in the ongoing row over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran also sees security cooperation with China as an opportunity to secure full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Tehran’s mounting influence in the Middle East, demonstrated by its growing ability to sway regional developments through proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen against Sunni militants, has reassured the Chinese security establishment that Iran can serve as an effective bulwark against transnational Sunni militant Islam.
Turkish economic and political aspirations in Iraq trouble Iran’s leadership. Tehran regards Turkey’s assertive foreign policy as a competing geopolitical force, one intent on becoming the torchbearer of regional Islamic causes, a mantle long claimed by Iran. Iran’s security establishment also views ISIS as a powerful Sunni radical movement that derives strategic momentum from Turkey, as well as a geopolitical pawn fabricated by regional Sunni states intent on disrupting Iran’s geographic reach in Iraq and the Levant. Iran shares China’s anxiety concerning the potential for ISIS and other Sunni radical groups to invigorate social and political instability in the Caucuses and Central Asia.
Closer Sino-Iranian ties of course would bring important strategic benefits to Central Asia, where Iran has yet to make its geopolitical weight felt. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent declaration of independence by former Soviet republics, Iran has failed to reassert its cultural influence over the region to its own economic advantage. So far, Iran’s tentative attempts to extend its influence in Central Asia and the Caucuses have been met with resistance. The region’s respective states view Iranian foreign policy as being too ideological and deeply rooted in the tenets of Shiism and revolution.
A de-facto security partnership with China, calibrated against Sunni radical Islam, would give Iran greater political stock in the region. It would also help to connect Iran to Central Asian markets, opening new trade routes with the former Soviet republics seeking access to international markets through Iran and the Persian Gulf. The Persian Gulf is also becoming a focus of China’s geostrategic interests as Beijing views Iran as the state most capable of providing security there. For that reason, China appears willing to continue equipping Iran with advanced maritime technology, possibly of a type and scale beyond anything it has provided in the past, such as advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft weaponry, or new anti-access and area denial weapons systems.
Sino-Iranian defense cooperation over the past three decades has presented a significant challenge to U.S. geostrategic interests in the Gulf region. It not only has allowed Iran to modernize its military but also contributed important technology to its nuclear program. Beijing, cognizant of U.S. concerns but not willing to reduce its ties with Iran, has stepped up its diplomatic efforts to bring about a compromise between Iran and the international community over its development of a nuclear capability.
The question now is: How far is Beijing truly willing to go in its efforts to dissuade Iran from developing that nuclear capability? In 2013 Iran agreed to work with the United States and five other world powers towards a comprehensive lasting agreement on its nuclear program in exchange for reduced sanctions, but so far a deal has proved elusive, with a self-imposed June 30 deadline quickly approaching.
The United States continues to prosecute a defense strategy aimed at containing Chinese expansionary ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, reinforced in Obama’s 2016 budget for national security. This is providing added stimulus to China’s turn westward to Central Asia and the Middle East for energy security and economic development. As such, China is likely to become more reliant on Iran to realize its grand vision of a Silk Road Economic Belt, as well as to counter the rise of Sunni radical Islam in the region and the threat it poses to stability in Xinjiang.