While the recent bombings in Jakarta prove that Islamic State (IS) is extending its tentacles to Southeast Asia, some forces seem to be encouraging this to stop China’s fast spreading economic and political influence in the region.

The recent Jakarta attack sent a clear message that IS is gaining ground in Southeast Asia
The recent Jakarta attack sent a clear message that IS is gaining ground in Southeast Asia

After the Jakarta attacks, many wonder how a supposedly “weak” and largely “destroyed” IS — a claim both the West and Russia continue to repeat — could possibly establish itself in this region.

Although it may appear somewhat simplistic to contend that the overt extension of IS to Southeast Asia is solely a result of and is deeply rooted in the US’ failing foreign policy objectives vis-à-vis China,  this factor cannot be brushed aside as insignificant.

This line of argument mainly gets some substance when we compare what the U.S. and its allies, both western and eastern, did in Iraq and Syria with what they possibly aim to do in Southeast Asia.

If destruction of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon through the establishment of a ‘Salafist Principality’ in the Middle East was a part of the West’s policy of destroying ‘Shia crescent’, as a leaked 2012 report of the US Defense Intelligence Agency suggests, the purpose behind directly or indirectly allowing IS to establish itself in Southeast Asia can possibly be to disrupt and do maximum damage to China’s fast spreading economic and political influence in the region.

For instance, the Jakarta bombing took place when Indonesia’s increasing tilt towards China was becoming more than evident.  While China and Indonesia do have some issues in South China Sea, Jakarta has been treading a careful path and has largely avoided getting too deeply involved in the US’ provocations in the sea dispute.

And the path it has taken is clear: instead of moving into the US’ ‘Asia Pivot’, Indonesia chose to deepen its relations with China. Nothing explains the situation better than its decision to allow China to build a $5.5 billion railway line in Indonesia — a project expected to boost not only Indonesia-China bi-lateral relations but also Indonesia’s economy. Hence, the “sudden” emergence of IS in Indonesia and the consequent political panic in the region.

The emergence of IS in Indonesia, or in Southeast Asia, has a clear and definite connection with IS’ presence in Syria. Indonesia’s security minister Luhut Panjaitan said that $100,000 worth of funding sent to Indonesian extremists was believed to have originated in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto IS capital in the Middle East. Hence, the implication of “terror” being used as a tool of foreign policy objectives by some “major powers”, both western and eastern.

Among the eastern powers, Turkey has the most to gain (and to lose also) from supporting militant outfits in the region, especially against China. While Turkey may need an “economic partnership” with China, both countries have locked horns over the “Turkmen question” in Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in northwest China.

According to some sources, the Turkish-Uyghur terror network, in addition to fomenting violence across China, has more recently been trafficking terrorists from Xinjiang, through Southeast Asia, and onward to Turkey where they are armed, trained, and sent to fight proxy wars in Syria. This trafficking network apparently snaked its way through Thailand and was exposed when Thailand detained over 100 Uyghurs who were then deported upon Beijing’s request back to China in July 2015.

A month later, ‘Grey Wolves’, an allegedly Turkish terrorist group, was implicated in the Bangkok shrine bombing in which at least 20 Chinese tourists were killed.

More than a mere coincidence, the attack on Chinese tourists in Thailand was clearly aimed at damaging China-Thailand military and economic ties which had received fresh boost after Bangkok  began slowly moving away from an increasingly meddlesome West.

Thailand had sought to purchase Chinese weapons, including several submarines. It already possesses Chinese-made warships and armored vehicles. Late last year, it conducted the first ever joint Thai-Chinese military exercises.

While the western mainstream media was quick to blame Uyghurs network instead of ‘Grey Wolves’ for the Bangkok attack, enough reports have already appeared that suggest how Uyghurs are being misguided by terrorists operating from the Middle East.

Indonesia’s official estimates say there are about 1,000 IS sympathizers in the country. About 200 fighters have travelled to Syria from Indonesia. Hundreds of Malaysians too are said to have joined jihad in Syria and Iraq.

According to a report by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, at least 450 people from Malaysia and Indonesia, including women and children, are in Iraq and Syria today. IS has a special unit in Syria called ‘Katibah Nusantara’ which is made up of Indonesian and Malay-speaking fighters and their families. It is feared that members of this group may return to carry out jihadist activities at home.  That fear has been exacerbated by the jihadist attacks attributed to IS in Jakarta earlier this month.

Despite external geo-political factors involved in the spread of jihadi philosophy of IS in this region, it can still not be gainsaid that these countries’ political system, marred as it is by political controversies of various sorts, is pushing people towards abandoning their traditional sufistic religious outlook in favor of more radical ideologies.

While this may be one reason for radical ideologies to become more acceptable at societal level, the argument loses its weight when we compare the ‘corrupt political systems’ of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand with that of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates etc — countries which are by all means facing no virtual threat from Islamic State despite the fact that they are not only authoritarian and oligarchic but also thrive on indiscriminate use of force.

Hence the question: how and why could “corrupt political system” be the cause of spread of radical ideologies in countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, which are historically known for religious tolerance and moderation?

The answer, as mentioned earlier, lies not simply in the internal dynamics of these societies but in the larger changes taking place at geo-strategic level. The rise of Chinese influence in the region is akin to a ‘policy defeat’ for the U.S. By allowing to create disruption and chaos in the region, the U.S. and its allies, especially Turkey, can do considerable damage to the prospects of an ‘Asian Century’ led by China.

The anti-China message was clear when, in December 2015, a new song, sung in Chinese language was released by IS, solely aimed at inspiring fighters, supporters and sympathisers for “greater jihad” in the region.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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