China has appealed for international help in the battle it says it is waging against Islamist militants in its far western region of Xinjiang, as Beijing seeks Western support for its own “war on terror” in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Hundreds of people have died in unrest in Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur people, and other parts of China over the past three years or so.
Beijing has blamed much of the violence on Islamist militants, led by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group it says has ties to al Qaeda and wants to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
More recently China has reported that some Uighurs have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with Islamic State and other groups.
Speaking in Turkey on Sunday on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on the international community to form a “united front to combat terrorism” in the aftermath of Paris attacks, state news agency Xinhua said on Monday.
“The UN’s leading role should be brought into full play to combat terrorism, and a united front in this regard should be formed,” Wang said.
“China is also a victim of terrorism, and cracking down on ETIM should become an important part of the international fight against terrorism,” he added.
Many foreign experts doubt ETIM exists as the coherent group China portrays, or even exists at all.
Western countries have long been reluctant to share intelligence with China or otherwise cooperate, saying China has provided little evidence to prove ETIM’s existence and citing worries about possible human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
One Beijing-based Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was inevitable China would try to use what happened in Paris to seek Western support in Xinjiang, much as it did after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Then, China was able to get both the United Nations and Washington to place ETIM on lists of terrorist organisations.
“URGENT” NEED FOR COOPERATION
Li Wei, a terrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a think-tank backed by the secretive Ministry of State Security, wrote in the official China Daily that it was “urgent” that China should increase cooperation, such as joint drills, with Western countries.
“China is facing the same threats from IS as France and must prepare for similar terror attacks,” Li said.
Rights groups and exiles say the violence stems more from widespread Uighur resentment at Chinese controls on their religion and culture rather than being committed by a well-organised militant group. China strongly denies abusing human rights in Xinjiang.
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia director, said China would struggle to win much substantive support from Western countries.
“Nobody wants to cooperate closely with a government that is so oppressive at the religious level,” he said.
The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, on Monday slammed what it said was the hypocrisy of Western nations, who reel from their own attacks and yet refuse to offer wholehearted support to combat China’s militant problems.
“Objectively speaking, the pressure Western countries are facing from international terrorism is on the increase, and over the long-term it will be in the West’s interests to strengthen anti-terror cooperation with China,” it said in an editorial.
President Xi Jinping, in Turkey for a G20 summit, called on Sunday for the world not to adopt “double standards” when it comes to terrorism, Chinese code for the anger it feels at the lack of strong Western condemnation of violence in Xinjiang.
Xinhua pointed out that ETIM had claimed responsibility for three recent attacks, including a fatal vehicle crash in 2013 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in which five died.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said ETIM was also becoming an international terror threat, though he did not explain how.
“We have extensively explained the threat presented by ETIM-led forces to the international community and provided ample evidence,” he told a daily news briefing.
There have been no reports of Uighurs detained in Europe in connection with groups such as Islamic State.