BEIJING -- The Chinese government has pledged to join U.S. efforts to defeat the Islamic State group, saying the militant organization is wielding growing influence over the Muslim population of China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, through which President Xi Jinping dreams of creating a modern-day version of the Silk Road.
"We strongly oppose any form of terrorism," Xi said at a joint news conference after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Beijing on Nov. 12. "We will work together to wipe out various militant groups," he said.
The two leaders agreed to share information on international terrorism and cooperate in efforts to crack down on funding of terrorism and recruitment of extremists on the Internet. As part of that effort, China's Ministry of Public Security and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will work together in international investigations. This extraordinary cooperation between the strategic rivals stems from common concerns about the rise of Islamic State.
For the U.S., which has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq in hopes of destroying the militant group, any support from the international community is welcome. The cooperation between the two countries has become possible because China offered support for the U.S. despite the two countries' many differences.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing earlier this month drew the world's attention to the Xi government's Silk Road economic belt initiative. This envisions the creation of a major economic zone that extends from western China through Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe by developing infrastructure.
For China, this economic zone would not only bring economic benefits, but it would also bolster its energy security by enabling it to exert more influence on Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries that are rich in oil, natural gas and other natural resources. By providing economic assistance and funds for infrastructure development for years, Beijing has built friendly relations with Muslim countries in the Silk Road belt. In some Central Asian countries, a growing number of people are looking to China to play the role of regional leader as the Soviet Union once did.
But Islamic State has openly challenged China to stop that country's encroachment into the Muslim world.
In a statement released in July, the group called for revenge for the forcible denial of rights of Muslims in the East and the West. Criticizing China for its policy toward the Muslim Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the statement listed China among the top targets for revenge and declared that it would "occupy Uighur within several years."
Adding oil to the fire
This came as tensions between the Chinese government and the Uighurs continued to escalate. In the region's capital Urumqi, armored trucks and light tanks constantly patrol in the shadow of high-rise buildings. Surveillance cameras have been installed in areas where there is a high concentration of Uighurs. Armed police in camouflage gear patrol markets and parks.
According to Uighur residents in the southern region of Kashgar, last summer a young man who ran a red light was shot dead by police. It is also not rare for people, even housewives and the elderly, who are gathering for prayers to be accused of plotting terror attacks.
These tough actions are aimed at stopping violent attacks, but they have also created a spiraling situation where anger at the authorities' crackdown further fuel resistance and prompt attacks. In October alone, 50 people were killed and more than 100 injured in attacks and bombings in Maralbexi County in the Kashgar region.
Chinese leaders are also concerned about Uighurs joining terrorist organizations and receiving combat training.
In September, four Uighurs were arrested on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi by that country's anti-terrorism special force. The four were allegedly trying to contact a terrorist organization on the island. Local police said they held fake Turkish passports, purchased in Thailand, and entered Indonesia via Malaysia with plans to join Islamic State.
According to the Information Center for Human Rights & Democracy in Hong Kong, nearly 5,000 Uighurs flee China every month to escape oppression. Some of them are now leaving China intending to join Islamic State.
Xinjiang is key to realizing the Xi government's vision of creating a Silk Road economic belt, so Islamic State's growing influence over Islamic countries there is of major concern. This is what drove China to join hands with the U.S. in the fight against the militant group. But there is fear that this cooperation could lead to the West turning a blind eye to what is going on inside the Xinjiang autonomous region.
In a joint news conference in Beijing earlier in November, Obama briefly mentioned human rights issues in China, saying he told Xi why insisting on universal human rights is important. Protecting the rights of religious minorities would lead to further prosperity and greater success in the region, he added. But Obama only expressed his concerns about Hong Kong and Tibet and left out the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.