BEIJING — China and its Central Asian neighbors face increased terrorism threats as their citizens return home after fighting in Iraq and Syria, the head of a regional anti-terrorism organization said Thursday.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's Regional Anti-Terrorism Agency is assisting authorities in those countries in monitoring militants who have traveled to terrorist hotspots, the group's director, Zhang Xinfeng, was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua News Agency.
They are also closely watching online discussions where radicals "tend to incite religious extremism, recruit followers and plot terror attacks," Zhang said.
All member states of the organization known as SCO, which also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, have citizens who have joined radical groups in Iraq and Syria, Zhang said, reflecting similar concerns in Europe and the United States about the impact of radicalized fighters on security at home.
"These people have started returning to their homeland, which constitutes a major threat to regional security," Zhang said. No other details were given, although Chinese officials say they believe several dozen Chinese citizens have joined radical groups in Iraq and Syria.
Despite its concerns about terrorism, China is wary of foreign intervention in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and has blocked attempts at the United Nations to authorize action against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
China was also a harsh critic of the "Arab Spring" uprisings that toppled governments in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, yet left power vacuums that Islamic militants are exploiting. While it declined to veto a U.N. resolution authorizing action in Libya, it later criticized NATO for allegedly overstepping its mandate in the air campaign that followed.
Beijing's reluctance was reflected in its response to President Barack Obama's announcement of a sweeping airstrike campaign in both Iraq and Syria against the group calling itself the Islamic State.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the authority of the two countries' governments must be recognized.
"We believe the global community should fight terrorism together, and support some countries' efforts to maintain their respective stability," Hua said.
"At the same time, China holds that we should follow the international laws and respect other countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity when fighting terrorism," Hua said.
China's main domestic security threat comes from militants among its Uighur Muslim ethnic minority who have been waging an increasingly violent uprising against Chinese rule in their northwestern homeland. Some are believed to have joined with Islamic militants in Pakistan's lawless northwest, although it is unclear whether they have joined in fighting there. China has about 10 million Uighurs and about 10 million more non-Uighur Muslims, some of whom identify with global jihadist causes.
Citizens of the other five SCO member states are also believed to have joined up with other radicals in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Zhang said his agency plans to take up further anti-terrorism measures at this week's SCO summit in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe.
"Our goal is to eradicate threats to the region's stability before they cross the borders," Zhang said.