May 29, 2016


This report examines the clashing ambitions between ISIS and China. With ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate that encompasses China’s Muslim Xinjiang, Chinese strategists will now consider how ISIS’s Eastward pivot will impact China’s own Westward march to create a Silk Road Economic Belt across Eurasia. While the Western U.S.-led coalition continues to be hamstrung by a lack of ground forces, the coveted “boots on the ground” could eventually come from the East–as China asserts its military power to protect its energy supply and stem ISIS-inspired insurgency in its strategic Xinjiang province.

On July 4, 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for jihad against countries that “seized Muslim rights,” citing 20 countries around the world.  That he named China first in the list is not lost on Beijing.  In the video, al-Baghdadi referenced Xinjiang numerous times and asked Chinese Muslims to plead allegiance to him. He even threatened to occupy parts of Xinjiang, which appeared on ISIS’s caliphate map.[1]

Map 1: ISIS Caliphate in Five Years’ Time 

Map 1: ISIS Caliphate in Five Years’ Time

Source: Mirror Online, June 30, 2014

While the idea of occupying Chinese territory currently seems farfetched, the Chinese have a legitimate reason to defend against what amounted to a declaration of war from this Islamist extremist organization. Chinese strategists will also worry about how ISIS’s eastward pivot will impact China’s own westward march across the Eurasian Silk Road.[2]



China had been facing its worst terrorist attacks since the early 2000s in Xinjiang and an uptick of violence spanning a period of 22 months. With over 100 people killed in July 2014, President Xi Jinping vowed to cast a wide net “from the earth to the sky” to capture terrorists in a “strike hard” counter-terror campaign.[3]  Jacob Zenn, an analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, said terrorism might come to dominate Xi’s leadership in much the same way it did for President George W. Bush.[4]

Fears of homegrown radicalization of China’s 20 million Sunni Muslims have been exacerbated by the capture of a Chinese national fighting with ISIS in Iraq in September 2014.[5]  China estimates there are about 300 Chinese jihadists fighting for ISIS, with additional fighters in Syria that have crossed over from Turkey, where more than 20,000 Uighur diaspora reside.[6] In July 2013, China’s state press the Global Times accused Xinjiang terrorists of finding training and support in Syria and Turkey. Beijing pointed out Turkic Uighurs were being recruited by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), working alongside the Istanbul-based exile group the East Turkistan Educational and Solidarity Association (ETESA), and were being sent across the border to train in Syria with al-Qa’ida affiliates.[7] Li Wei, an antiterrorism expert with the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said recent terror attacks had shown that the “East Turkistan secessionist terrorists had copied the international mode and used it in Xinjiang,” while Meng Hongwei, vice minister of public security, likewise warned that Xinjiang terrorism was being influenced by overseas jihadists.[8]

Indeed another Xinjiang-based terror group, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), has raised its profile among al-Qa’ida and other jihadi groups. TIP propaganda material is being coordinated by al-Fajr, an al-Qa’ida jihadi media forum, and TIP leader Abdallah Mansour has laid out grievances against China. Mansour also compared Xinjiang to other areas where jihadists are fighting, such as the Palestinian territories, Kashmir, and Syria. Al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri now mentions “East Turkistan” among other jihadi battlegrounds, and TIP has praised Syrian jihadists for combating the China-backed Asad regime. Similarly, “ISIS has openly listed China as a major threat to them and if they gain more influence, it’s likely they will target Xinjiang and even other parts of China,” said Dingding Chen, assistant professor at the University of Macau.[9] A December 2014 Global Times article further highlighted this threat, revealing ETIM and TIP have added “IS” to the name of their organizations to signal their allegiance as a new sub-division under the Islamic State.[10]

With China’s Xinjiang province increasingly on the radar of global terror groups, the government can no longer isolate the local “East Turkestan separatist” problem from the “global jihadi” problem.  Given this, China is doubling up its “Strike Hard” campaign to fight terrorism in Xinjiang. While the world focuses on China’s growing military budget and tensions in the East and South China Seas, scant attention has been paid to the fact that China’s internal security budget has surpassed that of its military every year since the 2009 Xinjiang uprising.

In 2010, its security budget was $87 billion while defense was $84.6 billion; in 2011 security was $99 billion while defense was $95.6 billion; in 2012 security was $111.4 billion while defense was $106.4 billion; in 2013 security budget was $123.6 billion while defense was $119 billion. In 2014, the Communist government deliberately withheld full disclosure of the security budget due to its sensitive nature, while defense was $131.57 billion. However, based on past trends it was likely higher than the defense budget.[11]

Based on its budget expenditures, this suggests Beijing views terrorism and instability as a greater security threat than military conflict in the Western Pacific. China fears the inability to safeguard the security of energy supply lines from increasingly Islamist and unstable countries will harm the continued economic growth, which underpins the legitimacy and survival of the Communist regime. Moreover, in December 2014, China promoted the governor of Xinjiang Nur Bekri to its top energy post in the National Energy Administration as well as the deputy head of economic planning in the National Development and Reform Commission.[12]  The Xinjiang Daily quoted the region’s party chief as praising Bekri’s “important contributions” to Xinjiang stability. Indeed, Bekri’s appointment as China’s energy chief signals this Muslim province’s significance as a strategic Eurasian energy hub that is crucial to the Middle Kingdom’s growing energy needs as well as its security.[13]  As such, Beijing is expected to become more proactive in its foreign policy to safeguard its security interests.


China’s remedy for restive Xinjiang is thus the vision of the “New Silk Road, New Dreams,” unveiled by the state-owned Xinhua News Agency in May 2014.  Consisting of a Silk Road Economic Belt across the Eurasia continent from Beijing to Rotterdam with an accompanying Maritime Silk Road, the Chinese map portrays the scope of China’s Silk Road plan.[14]

Map 2: China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road

Map 2: China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road Source: Xinhua, May 8, 2014

According to the map, the overland Silk Road would begin in Xi’an in central China and continue west through Lanzhou in Gansu province, Urumqi and Khorgas in Xinjiang, and continue onwards from Central Asia to the Middle East–traversing Iran, Iraq, and Syria–onto Turkey and Europe.  The maritime counterpart would begin in Fujian and would circle around the Indian Ocean littoral onto the Mediterranean, meeting the overland Silk Road in Venice via the Adriatic.  Thus, the “One Belt and One Road” would link the three continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa–reminiscent of China’s imperial outreach as the “Middle Kingdom” during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The aim is connectivity via infrastructure (especially railways and ports) projects along the route to facilitate movement of goods, services, and people.  In 2009, Xinhua first proposed the three Eurasian land bridges.  The first two railway-land bridges are already running, with the third southern corridor currently under negotiations with 20 countries across Eurasia.[15]


Map 3: Three Main Eurasian Land Bridges

Map 3: Three Main Eurasian Land Bridges 

Source: “Third Land Link to Europe Envisioned,” China Daily, July 2, 2009

However, these countries overlap with territories of ISIS’s aspirant caliphate.  Given this, ISIS and a rising Middle Kingdom seem poised to fight for influence in the energy-rich Greater Middle East, with the main battleground in Iraq and Syria.

Map 4: ISIS Islamic Caliphate

 Map 4: ISIS Islamic Caliphate

Source: Daily Mail, June 30, 2014[16]




According to Zhu Weilie, director of the Center for China-Arab States Cooperation Forum Studies and professor at Shanghai International Studies University, the Silk Road Initiatives were an upgraded version of Chinese enterprises’ “going out” strategy back in 1993, when China first became an oil importer.[17] In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, security of China’s energy supply, regional stability, and stemming international terror support for Xinjiang separatists became pressing national security priorities.  As such, the state-run People’s Daily wrote in February 2014, “The economic belt of the Great Silk Road and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road are the main features of China’s diplomacy in the new era.”[18]  Beijing’s Middle East policy is hence officially endorsed as a Chinese foreign policy priority.

This was evidenced in the September 2014 meeting between U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Chinese President Xi Jinping regarding Beijing lending support to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.  In a break from China’s traditional policy stance of non-intervention and allergy to foreign military conflicts, President Xi expressed interest in the U.S. led-effort and recognized that China was entering a new era of globalization of terrorism.[19] “China definitely has a stake in this issue… the rise of ISIS now overrides other turbulence in the Middle East and becomes a common enemy of the world,” said Hua Liming, former Chinese ambassador to Iran and expert on Middle East studies. [20]   Li Haidong from China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing added, “The ISIS-led unrest in Iraq has jeopardized the security of Chinese energy projects and personnel in the country, and disrupted China’s cooperative vision of a Silk Road Economic Belt.”[21] He continued, “The stability of the Middle East, an important link on the new Silk Road, is crucial to the success of this economic structure and the cooperation between China and the region.” Thus China is poised to exercise its power to safeguard the stability of the Middle East.

Battleground Between the Middle Kingdom and the Islamic State

Iraq and the Levant will likely be the frontline of battle between the Middle Kingdom and the Islamic State. In 2012, Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, called the rapidly developing ties between Beijing and Baghdad the “B&B” link.[22]  With China emerging as the largest investor in the Iraqi oil industry and Iraq’s ascendancy as the second largest crude oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), some pundits believe this would force China to have a greater political and military involvement in Iraq and the broader Middle East.[23]

Since 2012, China has diversified its oil suppliers, reducing imports from Saudi Arabia, Angola, and Russia while Iraqi imports rose roughly 50 percent in 2013–with Beijing purchasing nearly half the oil Iraq produced.[24]  In 2014, China had planned to purchase 70 percent of Iraqi oil exports at 850,000 barrels per day (bpd), narrowing the gap between Iraq and China’s top supplier Saudi Arabia at 1.1 million bpd in 2013, said Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Husayn al-Shahristani.[25]  Saudi Arabia accounts for 20 percent of China’s total oil imports, and currently Beijing imports 60 percent of its oil from the Middle East.[26]

According to Erica Downs of the Brookings Institution, Beijing expects Baghdad to figure heavily into its energy towards the Middle East, with China’s most productive upstream activities in the Middle East located in Iraq.[27] The Iraqi fields are among the world’s largest, with China’s oil giant CNPC holding substantial stakes in al-Ahdab, Rumayla, Halfaya and West Qurna 1 in the south, and Sinopec also holding stakes in an oil field in Iraqi Kurdistan.[28] China’s Communist Youth League estimates there are about 15,000 Chinese workers in Iraq, and the Chinese military are likely considering a possible contingency similar to its Libyan evacuation of 36,000 Chinese workers in 2011.[29]

ISIS, similar to China, also has its eyes on the prized Iraqi oil fields. By seizing numerous oil fields in Iraq and Syria, the black oil market has become a means for ISIS to self-finance its expansionist activities.  Rafiq Mark Latta with Energy Intelligence Group estimates ISIS earns between $1 million to $3 million a day by smuggling oil–especially through NATO member Turkey–making ISIS the wealthiest terrorist group to date.[30] ISIS already controls more than 60 percent of Syria’s oil, and its territory spans an area of Iraq and Syria that is larger than the United Kingdom.[31] Valerie Marcel from Chatham House observes that unless regional or international forces are able to take back Syrian and Iraqi fields from ISIS control and dismantle regional oil smuggling operations, ISIS will continue to strengthen and expand.[32]

Thus, it appears ISIS and China’s ambitions are postured in a potentially existential competition for oil resources in this region–existential because the sine qua non for survival and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist regime is security of energy supply to feed China’s voracious growing economy, just as the survival of ISIS directly depends on continued self-financing mainly through its oil revenues, similar to other wealthy petrol-state models of Arab Gulf states. Indeed, Chinese writings are already emerging calling for Beijing to send troops to Baghdad to defend its interests. In addition, in December 2014, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Safari revealed China had joined the fight against ISIS by offering air support to the Iraqi military.[33]  This came just weeks after Iranian airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and on the heels of Beijing and Tehran’s September 2014 joint naval war games in the Persian Gulf as well as a pronouncement of closer military ties. [34] As such, China and Iran will likely cooperate against ISIS in Iraq, and, in time, Beijing may deploy ground forces.


Dingding Chen from Macau University argued in The Diplomat that China should send troops to fight ISIS.[35] He noted that ISIS had territorial ambitions toward Xinjiang that threatened Chinese territorial integrity, the need to protect China’s energy interests in the Middle East, gain combat experience, and project power and prestige as a global leader. Observing lessons learned from the Libyan investment losses of $20 billion and evacuation of 36,000 Chinese nationals, Chen argued how a military presence in Iraq would provide solid security for Chinese investments, especially since Chinese stakes in Iraq are much greater than in Libya.[36] This would be in line with China’s 2004 military doctrine, when President Hu Jintao commissioned the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to conduct “New Historic Missions” to protect overseas interests.[37]

New Historic Missions and MOOTW on the Maritime Silk Road

In December 2004, President Hu Jintao commissioned the PLA to conduct “New Historic Missions” to protect overseas interests, in which the PLA stressed the need to develop a “logistics tail” in the form of overseas bases to sustain their operations over the long term.[38]  President Hu emphasized the importance of logistics once again in 2010, when he said, “Modern wars are all about support. Without a strong comprehensive support capability, it is very hard to win combat victory. When logistics support is in place, victory is a sure thing.”[39]

As such on January 4, 2013, the Xinhua-owned International Herald Leader newspaper published an article on China’s intention to build 18 overseas bases (See Map 5). They took pains to explain these were not U.S.-style military bases, but were what they called “overseas strategic support bases” for logistics and replenishment.[40]


Map 5: China’s 18 Overseas Bases

Map 5: China’s 18 Overseas Bases

Source: International Herald Leader, January 4, 2013; Atlantic Council, January 19, 2013

It is important to clarify further that China uses a commercial-diplomatic model rather than a U.S.-style military model for PLA Navy (PLAN) to carry out operations in various seaports. China’s commercial-diplomatic model of overseas bases provides PLAN access based on close diplomatic relations with many countries in the region and organizational capabilities of major state-owned entities (SOEs), such as COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company). Because China’s SOEs are government controlled, civil-military cooperation has broader applicability in China than in the West. In the Chinese case, this goes well beyond military contracting specialized firms, as mainstream logistics companies (e.g., COSCO Logistics) can also be dependable partners for the PLAN.[41] Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls SOEs such as COSCO, the PLA–the party’s military arm–also has priority access to COSCO-run seaports. As such, it is not necessary for China to have permanent naval bases if PLAN has access by other means.

Thus, China is also courting countries in the Mediterranean littoral for these strategic “logistics and replenishment” seaports, acquiring stakes in shipping and logistics companies, and expanding ports in Greece (Piraeus Port), France (Port of Marseille Fos 4XL container terminal), Spain (El Prat pier in Barcelona Port), Lebanon (Port Tripoli), Israel (Port Ashdod), and Egypt (Post Said).[42]


Map 6: China’s Foreign Seaports

 Map 6: China’s Foreign Seaports

Source: The Economist, June 8, 2013[43]

Aircraft carriers are also part of this extension of logistical capability to support China’s growing global interests. According to David Lai from U.S. Army War College, China is likely to build several aircraft carriers in the next 15 years.[44]  Since China relies heavily on economic and diplomatic tools to secure foreign interests, with military tools complementing the others, carriers are likely to be deployed for such secondary missions of MOOTW (Military Operations Other Than War) rather than as deterrence against U.S. sea power.

J. Michael Cole, former intelligence officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, observes that as China plans to build more aircraft carriers, this points to a desire “for Beijing to acquire the ability to sustain a permanent naval presence overseas with the means to launch military operations well outside its traditional theaters of operations.” Given China’s high stakes in the region, Cole believes, “Future Middle Eastern contingencies certainly fit such requirements.”[45] Thus, the Chinese Navy will increasingly conduct President Hu Jintao’s “New Historic Missions” via President Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Road.


New Historic Missions and MOOTW on the Silk Road Economic Belt

The PLA is also preparing for MOOTW via its railways in the Silk Road Economic Belt.  The Hong Kong-based Jing Bao argued in a January 2010 article that railways–and their military significance–needed to be infused into Chinese leaders’ strategic lenses when exporting railway technology as they enhanced military power projection.[46] Indeed, in applying this strategic vision, on November 17, 2010, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took the Shanghai-Nanjing express train for the first time to return to their barracks after completing security duty at the Shanghai World Expo 2010.[47]   According to the Military Representative Office of the PLA stationed at the Shanghai Railway Bureau, the Shanghai-Nanjing express railway is an inter-city railway that can run at a maximum speed of 350 kilometers (km) per hour, and Chinese military analysts touted this as an ideal way for rapid mobilization of PLA troops and combat equipment in non-war operations.[48]

Military requirements are part of China’s rail development, and the PLA has actively participated in the design and planning of China’s high-speed rail.[49]  According to the Military Transportation Department of the PLA General Logistics Department (GLD), over 1,000 railway stations have been equipped with military transportation facilities, thereby establishing a complete railway support network that enhances the PLA’s strategic projection capability.[50] The GLD had cooperated with the PRC’s Ministry of Railway in 2009, and fulfilled over 100 military requirements for 20 odd railways in China with the capability of military transportation.[51]It is actively involved in the entire process of the railway construction, from the programming to the completion of the railways.  For example, when building the railway from Kunming (the capital of Yunnan Province) to Nanning (the capital of the Guangxi  Zhuang Autonomous Region), in order to meet troop maneuver requirements, the Ministry of Railway had to revise a partial route and  prolong 12.4 km of railways at an increased cost of 1.55 billion yuan ($232.66 million).[52]

In addition, “A lightly equipped division could be moved on the Wuhan-to-Guangzhou line about 600 miles (965 km) in five hours,” stated a China Youth Daily article.[53] A typical military train includes 16 high-speed rail cars that can carry 1,100 lightly armed soldiers. The report continued that “with the daily improvement in China’s high-speed rail network, transferring a 100,000 strong army might be possible within half a day in the future,” adding that the network could also be used to deploy short-range missiles.  China is also reportedly planning rail-mobile launchers for nuclear capable Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) using a separate system not built for high-speed travel, but for heavy transport.[54]

Thus, China’s new bullet train from Lanzhou to Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, tested in June 2014, will help Beijing tighten its grip in this restive Muslim province.[55] Reaching up to 135 mph, travel time from Lanzhou to Urumqi will be cut from 20 to 8 hours on this iron Silk Road.[56] As China’s economic and energy portfolio continues to rise in the Greater Middle East, it is increasingly likely there may be future scenarios for the PLA to deploy troops via China’s “Orient Express” to protect its interests. Given that China’s third Eurasian land bridge would connect Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to reach the European market–and the presence of Chinese energy investments and workers in Iraq–ISIS stands as the biggest obstacle to Beijing in realizing its new “China Dream” of the Silk Road Economic Belt.[57]

New Historic Missions and MOOTW via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is also an essential component of China’s pivot West. In a 2010 article in Beijing Xiandai Guoji Guanxi (Beijing Contemporary International Relations), published by State Council’s Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), Deputy Director of the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University Tang Yongsheng wrote a piece expounding China’s Westward Strategy.[58] Tang argued that China was a maritime as well as a Eurasian continental power, and proposed that the SCO would be China’s vehicle to enhance regional security and cooperation especially in transport corridors, as well as to conduct oil diplomacy in the Middle East, Caspian Sea, and Central Asia.

The SCO is the most prominent of Chinese efforts to develop counterterrorist capabilities via joint military exercises under the “Peace Mission” moniker.[59]  Founded in 2001, the SCO consists of China, Russia, and the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan and its objective is to fight the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism. The SCO has a permanent Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, and the RATS director Zhang Xinfeng expressed concern that all member states had citizens who have joined ISIS.[60]

As such, the SCO’s Peace Mission exercise from August 24-29, 2014, was held in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region with 7,000 troops, involving a scenario whereby domestic separatists were supported by international terrorists to plot terrorist attacks and hatch a coup d’état.[61]  Wang Ning, deputy chief of the general staff of the PLA, added that SCO members were to quell the insurrection and restore stability.[62] The military drill also encompassed some of China’s most advanced military hardware, such as the armed WZ-10 and WZ-19 attack helicopters as well as China’s CH-4 drone, similar to the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper.[63] China began to deploy drones to hunt terrorists in Xinjiang following the July 2014 violence.[64]

According to Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, general staff chiefs met to discuss the security situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how the SCO could promote regional stability.[65] As the two largest members, China and Russia especially cooperate closely in joint military exercises, whether in the East China Sea in the Western Pacific or off the Syrian coast in the Eastern Mediterranean.[66] Given Moscow and Beijing’s shared threat of ISIS, they will likely upgrade their military cooperation within the SCO.

Already, China and Russia are enlarging their military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean to maintain regional stability and to protect their interests.  Russia currently maintains the naval port in Tartus, Syria, and is looking for additional ports in Cyprus and Egypt.[67]  As discussed earlier, the Chinese navy (PLAN) also has access via COSCO-run seaports throughout the Mediterranean littoral for non-war operations, and China has deployed troops under UN peacekeeping banner in Lebanon (1,000 troops), Cyprus (Chinese commander for UN mission), Mali (500 troops), South Sudan (1,050 troops),[68] as well as offered troops to the West Bank.[69]

China will also likely increase counterterror forces abroad to protect its interests.  Beijing’s traditional special operation units such as the Snow Leopard Commandos (400 officers) have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and under President Xi Xinping’s helm, China is expanding its anti-terror forces. On April 9, 2014, Xi unveiled China’s national anti-terror brigade, the Falcon Commando Unit, made up of 5,000 officers of the People’s Armed Police.[70] China’s counterterror forces regularly participate in bilateral exercises with Russia as well as the multilateral SCO Peace Mission for contingencies abroad, and would likely deploy additional troops to Iraq as the ISIS threat grows.[71]

While the CIA estimates ISIS has 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, China has 2.3 million active duty soldiers, with approximately 1 million reservists and some 15 million militia.[72]  With a population of 1.3 billion, China also has a potential manpower base of another 200 million males fit for military service available at any time.[73] Should ISIS continue to taunt the Chinese regarding Xinjiang, which is a core interest and red line for the PLA, the Middle Kingdom has sufficient capabilities that could be brought to bear in a battle against ISIS.


In August 2014, China’s National Space Administration announced that its Gaofen-1 satellite had captured images of “dozens of cross-border tunnels” in northwest Xinjiang.[74] These tunnels are a concern given ETIM and TIP’s increasing linkage with international terrorist organizations, and the likelihood of jihadists infiltrating China to carry out terrorist attacks there.[75] The recent discovery of Hamas terror tunnels underneath Israel underscores this threat.[76]   Tunnels are an asymmetric counter-measure against an opponent’s air superiority–especially the West’s lethal precision airstrikes and increasing use of drones.[77]

However, should jihadists dig terror tunnels into China to wage attacks, they may run into PLA tunnels. Since 1995, the Chinese military has already dug an entire subterranean city consisting of 3,000 miles of nuclear tunnels crisscrossing China.[78] Whether above ground or underground, jihadists would encounter Chinese soldiers within Chinese territory.  This is especially the case in Xinjiang, where nuclear warheads are stored in tunnels under Urumqi, the site of the 2009 uprising in which 200 people died and 2,000 were injured (See Map 7). Any unrest in Xinjiang and potential jihadi access of nuclear warheads is a red line for the Chinese military.

Map 7: China’s Underground Nuclear Tunnels

Map 7: China’s Underground Nuclear Tunnels

Source: Seattle Times, November 30, 2011[79]

Similarly, “lawfare”–the use of law as a weapon of war–will likely be ineffective against China.[80]  In asymmetric warfare whereby a weaker power attempts to defeat a stronger foe, the former may employ strategies that exploit the enemy’s weakness to offset its own deficiencies.  As such, ill-equipped terrorist groups fighting advanced jetfighters would seek to deter Western air power by using human shields and abusing human rights and international law to brand counterterrorism tactics as “war crimes.” For example, the Taliban and al-Qa’ida’s greatest vulnerability is precision airstrikes. In 2008, the Washington Times reported a Taliban fighter lamenting, “Tanks and armor are not a big deal. The fighters are the killers. I can handle everything but the jet fighters.”[81] As such, they attempt to demonize the air weapon through manipulation of civilian casualties that airstrikes can produce–hiding heavy weaponry in mosques and NGO compounds such as CARE International in hopes of deterring attacks or producing collateral damage media events. However, China will be largely immune to this, as it is also on the receiving end of accusations of human rights violations, given its placement of national stability before human rights.[82]



Thus, ISIS may have made a gross miscalculation when it threatened the Chinese dragon. Lacking understanding of Chinese strategic thinking and awareness of China’s quiet but pre-positioned presence in its aspirant caliphate, ISIS is stumbling upon a formidable foe of a rising Middle Kingdom. Dealing with radical Islamists is not new to China–the Middle Kingdom has had a history of managing inner Asia barbarism, which was administered through their Office of Barbarian Affairs during the Ming and Qing dynasties. As ISIS attempts to cross the Asian steppes using brute force and intimidation to establish a caliphate, “Caliph” al-Baghdadi may very well find himself outflanked and slapped back by a Silk Road Economic Belt held in the hands of Xi Jinping, an equally brutal yet sophisticated King from the East.

* Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University.


[1] “ISIS Plans to Take Holy War to Xinjiang,” Want China Times, August 10, 2014; Don Mackay, “ISIS Militants in Iraq Proclaim New Islamic State and Pose Threat to ‘All Countries,’” Mirror, June 30, 2014,

[2] Yo-Jung Chen, “Zhou Yongkang, Islamic State and China’s Pivot West,” The Diplomat, September 9, 2014.

[3] N.D., “China’s Xinjiang Problem: The Net Is Cast,” The Economist, July 1, 2014; Ben Blanchard, “Almost 100 People Killed During Attacks in China’s Xinjiang Last Week,” Reuters, August 2, 2014.

[4] Julie Makinen, “China Holds Mass Sentencing of 55 People at Football Stadium,” Time, May 28, 2014.

[5] Jaime A. Flocruz, “Capture of Chinese National Fighting with ISIS Gives China Jitters,” CNN, September 5, 2014; Johnlee Varghese, “China May Have Around 100 Citizens Fighting for ISIS,” International Business Times, July 28, 2014; Edward Wong, “Iraqis Identify Prisoner as Chinese Islamist Fighter,” New York Times, September 4, 2014.

[6] Michael Martina, “About 300 Chinese Said Fighting Alongside Islamic State in the Middle East,” Reuters, December 15, 2014,

[7] Lin Meilian, “Xinjiang Terrorists Finding Training, Support in Syria, Turkey,” Global Times, July 1, 2013; Michael A. Katz, “Hundreds of Chinese Fighters Join Islamic State Via Turkey,” China Topix, December 15, 2014.

[8] Meilian, “Xinjiang Terrorists Finding Training, Support in Syria, Turkey.”

[9] Katie Hunt, “U.S. Likely to Get Beijing’s ‘Quiet’ Support in Bid to Destroy ISIS, Analysts Say,” CNN, September 11, 2014.

[10] Qiu Yongzheng, “Turkey’s Ambiguous Policies Help Terrorists Join IS Jihadist Groups: Analyst,” Global Times, December 15, 2014.

[11] “China Withholds Full Details of 2014 Domestic Security Budget,” South China Morning Post, March 5, 2014; Ben Blanchard and Jon Ruwitch, “China Hikes Defense Budget, to Spend More on Internal Security,” Reuters, March 5, 2013; Edward Wong, “China Announces 12.2% Increase in Military Budget,” New York Times, March 5, 2014; Mu Chunshan, “China and the Middle East,” The Diplomat, November 9, 2010; “China Boosts Domestic Security Spending by 11.5 Pct,” Reuters, March 5, 2012; Leslie Hook, “Beijing Raises Spending on Internal Security,” Financial Times, March 6, 2011.

[12] Du Juan and Cui Jia, “Xinjiang Official Named Head of NEA,” China Daily, December 31, 2014,

[13] Ben Blanchard, “China Promotes Governor of Troubled Xinjiang to Top Energy Post,” Reuters, December 31, 2014,

[14] Xinhua News Agency, May 8, 2014; Shannon Tiezzi, “China’s ‘New Silk Road’ Vision Revealed,” The Diplomat, May 9, 2014; John C. K. Daly, “China Focuses on Its Maritime Silk Road,” Silk Road Reporters, July 17, 2014; C. Raja Mohan, “Chinese Takeaway: One Belt, One Road,” Indian Express, August 13, 2014.

[15] Christina Lin, “China’s New Silk Road to the Mediterranean: The Eurasian Land Bridge and Return of Admiral Zheng He,” Institut für Strategie- Politik- Sicherheits- und Wirtschaftsberatung ISPSW/ETH Zurich, October 2011. Paper presented at U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) on October 27, 2011.

[16] John Hall, “ISIS Militants Outline Chilling Five-Year Plan for Global Domination,” Daily Mail, June 30, 2014,

[17] Pu Zhendong and Li Xiaokun, “Silk Road Offers Sino-Arabian Blueprint,” Washington Post, June 6, 2014.

[18] Zhong Sheng, “Xilu jingshen guanchuan guijin kaixinpian” [“Spirit of the ‘Silk Road’: A New Chapter Running Through Antiquity and Modernity”], People’s Daily, February 26, 2014; Konstantin Antipov, “Aspects of the Evolution of China’s Middle East Policy,” Far Eastern Affairs, No. 2, 2014.

[19] Jeremy Page, “U.S. Seeks China Backing for Coalition Against Islamic State,” Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2014; Katie Hunt, “U.S. Likely to Get Beijing’s ‘Quiet’ Support in Bid to Destroy ISIS, Analysts Say,” CNN, September 11, 2014.

[20] Pu Zhendong, “Rise of ISIS Surpasses Other Middle East Chaos,” China Daily, September 4, 2014.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Javier Blas, “The Beijing-Baghdad Oil Axis,” Financial Times, October 11, 2012; “Beijing-Baghdad Oil Axis: The Growing Relationship Between China and Iraq,” BERC China Focus, October 16, 2013.

[23] Ibid; Bree Feng and Edward Wong, “China Keeps a Close Eye on Oil Interests in Iraq,” New York Times, June 17, 2014.

[24] Wayne Ma and Brian Spegele, “New Suppliers Boost China Oil Imports,” Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2014,; Max Fisher, “Why It’s Good News for the U.S. that China Is Snapping Up Iraq’s Oil,” Washington Post, June 3, 2013,

[25] Meeyoung Cho and Jane Chung, “Update 2–Iraq Says China Seeking 70 Pct More Crude in 2014,” Reuters, October 16, 2013.

[26] Zachary Keck, “China Doubles Down on Iraqi Oil Gamble,” The Diplomat, October 18, 2013.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Feng and Wong, “China Keeps a Close Eye on Oil Interests in Iraq.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Deborah Amos, “How the Islamic State Smuggles Oil to Fund Its Campaign,” NPR, September 9, 2014; “Experts: ISIS Makes up to $3 Million Daily in Oil Sales,” al-Arabiya News, August 28, 2014; Raheem Salman and Yara Bayoumy, “The Islamic State’s Financial Independence Poses a Quandary,” Reuters, September 11, 2014; Maria Gallucci, “Self-Financed Extremist Group ISIS Could Be the Wealthiest Terrorist Network Ever Known, Officials Say,” International Business News, August 27, 2014; Karen Leigh, “Examining the ISIS Oil Business,” ABC News, September 13, 2014.

[31] Indira A. R. Lakshmanan, “Islamic State Now Resembles the Taliban with Oil Fields,” Bloomberg, August 25, 2014; Nour Malas and Maria Abi-Habib, “Islamic State Economy Runs on Extortion, Oil Piracy in Syria, Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2014; Ma’ad Fayad, “ISIS in Control of 60 Percent of Syrian Oil: Sources,” Asharq al-Awsat, July 11, 2014; Patrick Johnston and Benjamin Bahney, “Hitting ISIS Where It Hurts,” New York Times, August 13, 2014; David Sanger and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Struggling to Starve ISIS of Oil Revenue, U.S. Seeks Assistance From Turkey,” New York Times, September 13, 2014.

[32] Valerie Marcel, “ISIS and the Dangers of Black Market Oil,” Chatham House Expert Comment, July 21, 2014.

[33] Mike Shedlock, “China Enters Fight Against ISIS,” Global Economic Analysis, December 12, 2014; Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Lucy Hornby, “China Offers to Help Iraq Defeat Sunni Extremists,” Financial Times, December 12, 2014; “China Offers Military Help to Iraq to Defeat ISIS-Report,” Russia Today, December 15, 2014.

[34] Sangwon Yoon and Gregory Viscusi, “Iranian Airstrikes on Islamic State in Iraq a Plus, Kerry Says,” Business Week, December 3, 2014; Thomas Erdbrink and Christ Buckley, “China and Iran to Conduct Joint Naval Exercises in the Persian Gulf,” New York Times, September 21, 2014,; Shannon Tiezzi, “China Wants More Military Co-op with Iran (Sorry, US and Pakistan),” The Diplomat, October 24, 2014,; Ben Blanchard, “China Says Wants Closer Military Ties with Iran,” Reuters, October 23, 2014.

[35] Dingding Chen, “China Should Send Troops to Fight ISIS,” The Diplomat, September 12, 2014; “It’s Still a Good Idea for China to Send Troops to Fight ISIS,” The Diplomat, September 16, 2014.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Hu Jintao Urges Army to Perform “Historical Mission,” People’s Daily, March 14, 2005; James Mulvenon, “Chairman Hu and the PLA’s ‘New Historic Missions,’” China Leadership Monitor, No. 27, Hoover Institution,  2009.

[38] LTC T. Chaho, “Lending a Helping Hand: The People’s Liberation Army and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief,” INSS, USAFA, 2009; Christina Lin, “China-NATO Engagement in the Mediterranean Basin: Developing the Dragon’s Logistics Tail and Supplying the PLA Navy in the Far Seas,” ISPSW, No. 219/ETH Zurich, March 2013; Christina Lin, “”Cooperative Security with China and the Post-Arab Spring Mediterranean Security Architecture” in Flockhart et al., Liberal Order in a Post-Western World, 2013-2014 Transatlantic Academy Collaborative Report, April 2014.

[39] Hu Jintao, Addressing a PLA Logistics work meeting cited in “Fundamental Guidance for Development of PLA Logistics–Study Hu Jintao’s Important Discussion of Military Logistics Construction,” China Military Science, No. 6 (2010), pp. 25-31; Abraham Denmark, “PLA Logistics 2004-11 Lessons Learned in the Field,” in Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, Travis Tanner (eds.), Learning by Doing: The PLA at Home and Abroad, (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College (USAWC), November 2012), p. 298.

[40] “Chinese Paper Advises PLA Navy to Build Overseas Military Bases,” China Defense Mashup, January 9, 2013; Jorge Benitez, “Chinese Paper Urges PLA Navy to Build Overseas Military Bases,” Atlantic Council, January 19, 2013; Yu Runze, “Chinese Navy Expected to Build Strategic Bases in Indian Ocean,” Sina English, January 7, 2013.

[41] Lausanne Kamerling and Frans-Paul Vander Putten, “An Overseas Naval Presence Without Overseas Bases; China’s Counter-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, Vol. 40, No. 4 (2011), p. 131.

[42] N. Mihalakas, “Part II: Chinese Investments in Europe –A Year in Review,” Foreign Policy, February 11, 2011; P. Leach, “Hutchison Ports to Develop Fos Terminal,” Journal of Commerce Online, March 19, 2010; “Chinese Group Hutchison Whampoa Increases Participation in TerCat,” Sinalunya, January 24, 2011; S. Marchetti, “Chinese Investments in Italy Increases,” Xinhua, November 5, 2009; “Greece to Become China’s Mediterranean Gateway,” Network 54, August 1, 2006; Economics Newspaper, “Barcelona Hopes the Chinese Landed,” July 7, 2011; Amiram Barkat, “Chinese Co PMEC Wins Ashdod Port Tender,” Globes, June 23, 2014; “Tripoli Port Set to Receive $145 Million in Improvements,” The Daily Star, April 17, 2012; S. Nasr, “China Meets Egypt,” al-Ahram, No. 699, July 15-21, 2004.

[43] “China’s Foreign Ports: The New Masters and Commanders,” The Economist, June 8, 2013.

[44] David Lai, “The Agony of Learning: The PLA’s Transformation in Military Affairs,” in Roy Kamphausen et al. (eds.), Learning by Doing: The PLA Trains at Home and Abroad (Carlisle, PA: SSI, USAWC, November 2012), p. 344; Michael McDevitt, “PLA Naval Exercises with International Partners,” in Kamphausen et al. (eds.), Learning by Doing.

[45] J. Michael Cole, “China’s Oil Quest Comes to Iraq,” The Diplomat, December 2, 2012.

[46] Jing Bao [Hong Kong], January 29, 2010; Christina Lin, “The PLA’s Orient Express: Militarization of the Iron Silk Road,” China Brief, Vol. 11, No. 5 (March 25, 2011).

[47] China Army, November 19, 2010.

[48] “High-Speed Rail Has ‘Immense Strategic Military Value’: China,” Economic Times, February 6, 2014; Bell Gertz, “Inside the Ring: China Military on the Rails,” The Washington Times, February 5, 2014.

[49] Xinhua, December 7, 2010.

[50] PLA Daily, February 4, 2010; Defense Professional, February 4, 2010.

[51] Ibid.

[52] PLA Daily, February 4, 2010.

[53] China Youth Daily, January 14, 2014.

[54] Bill Gertz, “Riding the Nuclear Rail,” Free Beacon, January 25, 2013.

[55] Simon Denyer, “Bullet Trains Help China Tighten Its Grip on Xinjiang Province’s People and Resources,” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 14, 2014.

[56] Simon Denyer, “With Bullet Trains As a New Silk Road, China Tightens Embrace of Its Restless West,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2014.

[57] Frank Ching, “China’s Silk Road’ Dream,” Korea Times, September 18, 2014; Meng Xinagqing, “Chinese Dream Includes Strong PLA,” China Daily, October 8, 2013; Maurizio Molinari, “China’s New Silk Road Must Pass Through Middle East,” World Crunch, February 19, 2014; “‘Chinese Dream’ to Shape Global Landscape; Experts,” China Daily, December 7, 2013.

[58] Tang Yongsheng, “Actively Promoting Westward Strategy,” Beijing Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, November 20, 2010; Christina Lin, A New Eurasian Embrace: Turkey Pivots East While China Marches West, 2013-2014 Transatlantic Academy Paper Series, No. 3, May 2014.

[59] Kendrick Kuo, “How China Develops Its Counterterrorism Capability,” Registan, November 11, 2013.

[60] Christopher Bodeen, “China: Fighters Back from Iraq, Syria Are Threat,” Associated Press, September 11, 2014.

[61] “SCO Exercise Peace Mission 2014 to Involve 7,000 troops,” ITAR-TASS News Agency, August 19, 2014; “China Focus: SCO Anti-Terror Drill Kicks Off in China,” Xinhua, August 24, 2014; “7,000 Troops Deployed for Upcoming SCO Military Drills,” Xinhua, August 23, 2014.

[62] “China Hosts Largest Ever Military Drill with Russia, Other SCO Nations,” RT News, August 24, 2014; Shannon Tiezzi, “China Hosts SCO’s Largest Ever Military Drills,” The Diplomat, August 29, 2014.

[63] Gordon Arthur, “China Confirms CH-4 UCAV in PLA Service at ‘Pace Missions 2014’ Drill,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 1, 2014.

[64] Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “China Said to Deploy Drones After Unrest in Xinjiang,” New York Times, August 19, 2014.

[65] “Shanghai Cooperation Organization Staff Chiefs Meet to Discuss Afghanistan, Middle East,” RIA Novisti, August 28, 2014; “Interview: SCO Important Instrument for Stability, Development: Chinese Ambassador to Russia,” Xinhua, September 12, 2014.

[66] Vladimir Radyuhin, “Russia, China Launch War Games in the Mediterranean,” The Hindu, January 26, 2014; Peter Apps, “China, Russia, U.S. Raise Mediterranean Naval Focus,” Reuters, January 24, 2013; Tom Phillips and Julian Ryall, “China and Russia Send Joint Force of 19 Warships to Sea of Japan in Largest Ever Naval Exercise,” The Telegraph, July 5, 2013; Zachary Keck, “China, Russia Military Ties Deepen with Naval Drill in East China Sea,” The Diplomat, May 2, 2014; Sam LaGrone, “Russia and China to Hold 2015 Naval Exercises in Mediterranean, Pacific,” US Naval Institute News, November 20, 2014,

[67] Captain Thomas R. Fedyszyn, U.S. Navy (retired), “The Russian Navy ‘Rebalances’ to the Mediterranean,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Magazine, Vol. 139/12/1,330, December 2013; “Russia Seeks Naval Base in Egypt,” Middle East Monitor, November 20, 2013; John C. K. Daly, “Republic of Cyprus to House Russian Aircraft, Naval Ships,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 11, No. 14 (January 23, 2014);  “Cyprus to allow Russian Air Force and Naval Fleet Use of Bases,” Macedonia Online, January 12, 2014; “Stefanos Evripidu, “Cabinet Gives OK for Russian Use of Paphos Base” Cyprus Mail, January 10, 2014.

[68] China currently has 350 troops in South Sudan, mostly in the Western Bahr al- Ghazal, Warrap, and Lake states.  The September 2014 announcement of an additional battalion of 700 combat troops brought total number of Chinese troops to more than 1,000. Mading Ngor and Ilya Gridneff, “China to Deploy Troops to Protect South Sudan Oil Facilities,” Bloomberg, September 10, 2014,

[69] “China Ups Lebanon Force to 1,000,” BBC, September 18, 2006; Peter Apps, “Chinese General Leads Troops in Cyprus as Beijing Embraces U.N. role,” Reuters, March 27, 2013.  In August a Norwegian commander replaced the Chinese commander. See “Cyprus UN Peacekeeping Force to Get Woman Commander,” Xinhuanet, August 11, 2014; Kathrin Hille, “China Commits Combat Troops to Mali,” Financial Times, June 27, 2013; “South Sudan, China to Send Troops for U.N. Mission,” New York Times, September 25, 2014; “China Sending 1,800 Peacekeepers to South Sudan,” VOA News, September 10, 2014; Author correspondence with Chinese official, September 25, 2013.

[70] Minnie Chan, “Mainland’s Elite Forces Go Through ‘Hell’ to Prepare for War Against Terror,” South China Morning Post, July 6, 2014; “Xi Calls for Better Anti-Terror Forces,” China Daily, April 9, 2014.

[71] Tang Yuankai, “Beijing’s Answer to Bond,” Beijing Review, No. 3, January 17, 2008; “China Offers Military Help to Iraq to Defeat ISIS—Report,” Russia Today, December 15, 2014.  China’s military modernization and special forces have gained international recognition over the years, and its elite Snow Leopard commandos has garnered prestige by winning the SOFEX’s (Special Operations Forces Exhibition) Warrior Competition held in Jordan in 2013 and 2014, beating the United States, Germany, and others in the multi-national competition.  Mohammed Najib, “SOFEX 2014: China’s Snow Leopards Claim Second Warrior Contest Victory,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 11, 2014,

[72] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2010 (London: Routledge, 2010); “China’s Military and Armed Forces,” China Today, September 18, 2014; “CIA: As Many as 31,000 Islamic State Fighters in Iraq, Syria,” Voice of America, September 11, 2014; Abdulrahman al-Rashed, “ISIS Has Grown Larger than Kuwait’s Army,” al-Arabiya, September 13, 2014.

[73] Larry Wortzel, “China’s Military Potential,” Strategic Studies Institute Monograph, (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, October 2, 1998).

[74] “Satellite Spots Cross-Border Tunnels,” Crienglish, August 25, 2014.

[75] Shannon Tiezzi, “China Discovers Cross-Border Tunnels Leading to Xinjiang, North Korea,” The Diplomat, August 26, 2014.

[76] Gerard DeGroot, “The Enemy Below: Why Hamas Tunnels Scare Israel So Much,” Washington Post, July 25, 2014; Dan Lamothe, “Hamas Tactics Highlight U.S. Military’s Preparation for Tunnel Warfare,” Washington Post, July 21, 2014.amas tunnels scare Israel so much

[77] Donald M. Heilig, “Subterranean Warfare: A Counter to U.S. Air Power,” Air Command and Staff College, Air University, April 2000; Lamothe, “Hamas Tactics.”

[78] Russell Hsiao, “China’s ‘Underground Great Wall” and Nuclear Deterrence,” China Brief, December 16, 2009; Eli Jacobs, “Chinese Underground “Great Wall”: A Success for Nuclear Primacy,” CSIS, October 25, 2011

[79] William Wan, “U.S. Students Dig Up China’s Nuclear Secrets: Arsenal Could Be Huge,” Seattle Times, November 30, 2011.

[80] Charles Dunlap, Jr., “Law and Military Interventions: Preserving Humanitarian Values in 21st Century Conflicts,” paper prepared for Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University, November 29, 2001; Charles Dunlap, Jr., “Lawfare: A Decisive Element of 21st Century Conflicts, Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 54, 3rd quarter, 2009.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Zlatica Hoke, “China Acknowledge Human Rights Shortcomings,” Voice of America, October 23, 2013.