Al Qaeda and the Rise of China: Jihadi Geopolitics in a Post Hegemonic World

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Prognosticating about China’s economic, political, and military rise has become a favorite conversation for Western politicians and policy wonks. But Western observers are not the only strategists debating the impact of increased Chinese power. A parallel conversation has been taking place among al-Qaeda affiliated jihadi thinkers for much of the last decade. That discussion ranges from debate about how best to support rebellion among Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province to more abstract disagreements over how a transnational militant network such as al-Qaeda should adapt when a traditional state upends the U.S.-led system that has been its primary boogeyman for nearly 15 years.

As al-Qaeda wrestles with an old-fashioned shift in the global distribution of state power, China must determine how to evolve its traditional foreign policy memes in response to the transnational problems posed by al-Qaeda and its allies. China’s traditional policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries has served it reasonably well for 60 years and continues to create certain advantages in negotiations with less-than-humanitarian regimes in the Middle East and Africa. But sub-national and transnational threats will challenge the doctrine of non-interventionism, which is grounded in a decidedly Westphalian understanding of the world. China has already grown somewhat more forward-leaning in dealing with some transnational threats, including pirates off of East Africa, but jihadi groups represent a challenge that is both broader and potentially more disruptive. To date, China has responded to a potential threat from al-Qaeda by minimizing rhetorical confrontation and hoping that al-Qaeda’s operators remain focused elsewhere. But ten years after 9/11, global jihadis such as al-Qaeda view China’s economic and political support for “apostate” regimes a terrible offense. That, coupled with the increasing prominence of the Uyghurs in jihadi propaganda, suggests China will not be able to avoid al-Qaeda forever.

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