Uighur refugees in Southeast Asia stoke Chinese worries

Beijing is worried that the convergence of a Uighur diaspora and jihadist influence could pose a serious threat to China's national security.

Lowy Interpreter

In recent years, growing domestic Uighur unrest has led to a rising threat to China's national security and internal stability.

For Beijing, the foreign policy dimension of the Uighur issue has manifested in two areas: the handling of the Uighur diaspora and refugees, and the convergence of the Uighur diaspora with religious extremism and terrorism. On the former, Beijing has consistently pursued a policy of repatriation of Uighurs back to China. As for the latter, although the real capabilities of radical Uighur groups are unknown, Beijing's concern for their potential is unsurprisingly high. Both dimensions play an interesting role in China's relations with Southeast Asian countries.

Due to its geographical proximity, Southeast Asia has been a common destination for Uighurs seeking to leave China. The long and porous border between China and countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Thailand has made illegal exit and entry relatively easy and cheap. The ethnic diversity and the Muslim populations in some Southeast Asian countries have made it possible for Uighur refugees to blend in. Furthermore, some Uighurs hoped that Muslim countries in Southeast Asia would be more friendly and lenient towards Uighur Muslims.

There have been abundant cases of illegal Uighur immigration into Southeast Asia since the 5 July 2009 riot in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In Cambodia, a group of 20 Uighurs was forcibly returned to China in December 2009, followed by similar deportation cases by Laos in 2010 and by Malaysia in 2011 and 2012. The trend intensified after violent attacks by Uighurs in China such as the Tiananmen explosion in October 2013 and the Kunming railway station knife attack in March 2014. 

In spring 2014, Thai authorities detained two groups of illegal immigrants in Songkhla and Sakaew provinces. It has beenreported that some were Uighurs and Beijing demanded access to the group. In a more extreme case in Vietnam in April, a group of Chinese civilians, allegedly Uighur asylum seekers, clashed with Vietnamese border guards when the guards detained them with the intention to return them to Chinese authorities. The confrontation left seven dead, including two Vietnamese border guards.

Beijing's general approach toward the Uighur refugees in Southeast Asia is to request local governments to deport them back to China. Most Southeast Asian countries have chosen to comply with Chinese demands due to diplomatic pressure and/or economic enticement. The most frequently quoted example is Cambodia's deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China in 2009. According to the US State Department, the deportation was conducted 'without the benefit of a credible process for determining (their) refugee status and without appropriate participation by the UNHCR'.  Both China and Cambodia denied any quid pro quo between the deportation and the $1.2 billion worth of economic cooperation deals signed two days after the deportation. However, the case is regarded as a classic example of China leveraging its economic power to pursue its agenda on the Uighur diaspora in Southeast Asia.

On the societal level, the Uighur issue has not been a key concern for Southeast Asian Muslim populations, which could be because of a knowledge deficiency or because the issue of religious solidarity is overwhelmed by the nations' interest in maintaining favourable relations with Beijing. Vocal criticisms of China's treatment of Uighurs have been scarce, with minimal impact on Southeast Asian government policies toward the Uighurs. Since the 2009 riot, the only overt and open condemnation of China has come from the Indonesian Chinese Muslim Association (PITI) on China's brutality against the Uighur Muslim minority and on the silence of Muslim nations.

While the Uighur diaspora in Southeast Asia has been relatively well managed from Beijing's perspective, a more profound and troubling problem has emerged in recent years.

Xinjiang has been increasingly identified by jihadist groups as the 'occupied Muslim land', which could heighten their aspirations and activities in Xinjiang. The 5 July riot led a high-ranking al Qaeda leader to call on Uighurs to prepare for a holy war against the Chinese government for 'salvation and to lift the oppression and tyranny'.  Then in 2014, ISIS leader Abe Bakr al-Baghdadi called for jihad against countries seizing Muslim rights and explicitly included Xinjiang in ISIS's designed territory. This was echoed most recently in October by the al Qaeda magazine Resurgence, calling for Xinjiang to be 'recovered by the Islamic Caliphate'.

There is increasing evidence showing a linkage or convergence between Uighur militants and jihadist terrorist organisations in the Middle East, including ISIS. Several cases of Chinese citizens, most likely Uighurs, participating in fighting or training by jihadist terrorist groups have been identified in recent months and have been acknowledged by Chinese officials. In July the Iraqi government announced the capture of a Chinese national fighting for ISIS. Two month later, Indonesian police arrestedfour Uighurs with suspected links to ISIS.

Beijing is rightly worried that the convergence of Uighur diaspora and jihadist influence could pose a serious threat to China's national security. In the view of Chinese officials, after being immersed in extremist ideas, the Uighur militants could return to China and launch attacks both as revenge for ethnic and religious oppression and as a campaign toward the independence of an Islamic Uighur state. In the government's narrative, the rising violent attacks by Uighurs inside China in the past years reflect this trend.

It is true that in Southeast Asia the threat from the convergence of Uighur diaspora and religious radicalism has not been as conspicuous as in Central Asia and in the Middle East. This offers some explanation for Southeast Asia's relatively low priority in China's counter-terrorism strategy. However, Beijing has followed the development of Southeast Asian radical Islamic organisations since the 2000s. If evidence emerges that Southeast Asia has become a key location for the radicalisation of Uighur diaspora, it will inevitably change China's priorities and policy toward Southeast Asian countries, paving the way for more robust counter-terrorism cooperation.

China officially launched a joint patrol and law enforcement operation on the Mekong River with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand in 2011. The operation has set a precedent for Chinese invasive law enforcement in Southeast Asia, including the use of drones. Terrorism concerns could open up more space for Chinese unilateral or joint operations and raise questions about enhanced Chinese influence in the security arena. Southeast Asian governments should carefully assess the implications of such cooperation. 

Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Republished with permission.