ETIM back in the spotlight

When I was writing "Revisiting the Salafi-jihadist Threat in Xinjiang" I naturally read up a lot on the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (later East Turkistan Islamic Party or Turkistan Islamic Party, the synonymous names get confusing). Since then, this group has not made it into the headlines for quite some time. I will refer to the group as ETIM (East Turkistan Islamic Movement) since it's the label that gained the most traction when the U.S. Department of State placed them on its terrorist organization list.

Turkistan Islamic Party video that aired before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Turkistan Islamic Party video that aired before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Sino-Pakistan relations is the backdrop for ETIM reemerging in the media. Last month ETIM released a video showing children firing weapons and the light-blue ETIM flag billowing at the corner of the video frames. Malik Ayub Sumbal at The Diplomat reports:

The video is the first evidence of long-time Chinese claims that such training camps are active in the tribal areas of Pakistan. What complicates the situation are Pakistan’s strong relations with China. Pakistan's reaction to the video has not been made official by the authorities but it is expected to be supportive of China’s position.

The U.S. Department of State has reported ETIM ties to al-Qaeda via financing and training, as well as participation in attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. Uyghurs previously held in Guantanamo, captured during the fighting, were allegedly tied to ETIM. Yet theETIM is considered by some to be a concocted cover by the Chinese government to string together unconnected violent incidents across Xinjiang and graft it into the broader narrative of the war on terror.

The best published work on ETIM is The ETIM: China's Islamic Militants and the Global Terrorist Threat, written by J. Todd Reed and Diana Raschke. The monograph does not try to address the territory of Xinjiang nor the Uyghur ethnic group, but focuses solely on the ETIM as a terror organization. The Long War Journal also published a compilation of quotes from the Uyghurs detained at Guantanamo recorded during their combatant status review tribunals.

With this video's release, there is potential for closer Sino-Pakistan cooperation and a larger Chinese footprint in the Muslim world. Weeks ago we saw a Chinese President, for the first time, articulate a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace (though the plan lacked any originality). Similarly, Beijing may begin to take more interest in the mess known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Arguably this is good for the United States as its troops begin to pull out of the area, but any enthusiasm should be tempered by potential overreach whereby targeting ETIM operatives leads to negative domestic repercussions in Xinjiang.

Sumbal's conclusion strikes the right chord:

The ETIM issue is a challenge for both China and Pakistan. If tackled correctly it could take bilateral relations to a new level. But even a slight miscalculation could prove devastating for both countries and the regional resolve against terrorism.

Any Chinese approach to the ETIM will be a regional one. Beijing's regional approach is not just due to ETIM's transnational presence, but because China's non-intervention stance in foreign policy requires multilateralism and voluntary cooperation (with of course both carrots and sticks). We saw this demonstrated this very week with the visit of Tajikistan president Emomali Rakhmon. China Daily reports:

Rakhmon said Tajikistan would like to be a trusting and strategic partner of China and would continue supporting China on issues related to its core interests and key concerns.
They also vowed to boost joint efforts to combat the "three evil forces" of separatism, extremism and terrorism, as well as drug-related crimes.
On the Afghanistan issue, the two leaders said they oppose external forces' intervention in the domestic affairs of Central Asian nations and undermining of stability....

China and Tajikistan support accelerating the peace process and reconstruction in Afghanistan and would like to strengthen cooperation under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to protect regional stability, the leaders said....
"Tajikistan borders Afghanistan, and terrorists in the two countries have remained in contact. The situation in Tajikistan impacts security in western China," Li [Xin, director of the Center of Russian and Central Asian Studies at Shanghai Institutes of International Studies] said.

We should expect Beijing to continue building up the SCO as its primary instrument for diplomacy in Central Asia and potentially, in the future, a tool for joint-operations against the three evils. The ETIM issue will help facilitate this growing role for China.