For the better part of two decades, China has paid nothing and benefited greatly from the American willingness to secure international waterways and police the Persian Gulf. While Washington did the heavy lifting, Beijing played it both ways: Trade with oil-rich American allies and markets guaranteed by U.S. security, while at the same time supporting rogue regimes as part of an anti-American chess match.
In both Syria and Pakistan, China may finally learn that it can only play both sides of an issue for so long. While the Chinese government supports Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Chinese Muslims have been fighting within the Syrian opposition. Jihadi chat forums have posted eulogies, for example, to Chinese Uighurs who came to Syria to fight alongside Turkish, Saudi, Swedish, and British co-religionists.
At its root, China is an imperialist power, one more brutal than Europe’s formerly colonialist powers who, to this day, continue to beat themselves up over their nineteenth and early twentieth century pasts. The Tibetans have been victims, Taiwan—whose unique identity is apparent to any visitor—might become a victim, and the Uighur Muslims are victims, as are any group who are not Han Chinese. Muslim restaurants in touristy areas of Beijing are one thing, but real cultural and religious diversity is another. Few Uighurs in far Western China like being part of the Peoples’ Republic of China.
As my colleague Dan Blumenthal points out, China is increasingly wary about Islamist blowback from the Middle East (and South Asia). Beijing has recently blamed Syrian rebels for Xinjiang violence, and may finally be recognizing in the way that Russia has that the American retreat from Afghanistan will put them on the front lines of Islamist radicalism. Indeed, Chinese President Xi has already put Pakistani Islamist assistance to the Uighur Muslims on the bilateral agenda.
If China believes that international jihadism derives from grievances against Western countries only and that China will be immune, the Chinese are mistaken: Islamist radicalism promotes hatred toward both West and East. China may soon find that being a global power has a cost, and that not all countries care enough or are even able to restrain Islamists who may be unwilling to turn their back on their Chinese brethren. Get ready, China: The next decade is going to be a very bumpy ride.