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Will China get involved in the fight against ISIS?

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A Chinese Navy submarine attends an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy on April 23, 2009 off Qingdao in Shandong Province. (Photo by Guang Niu/AFP/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Non-intervention has been a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy for five decades.

However, the killing of a Chinese national by ISIS, and increased calls for an international coalition to fight the group, have people questioning whether Beijing may be forced to rethink its approach and engage in the fight against ISIS and other Islamist terror groups.

This pressure grew more stark Friday after three Chinese citizens were reported among the at least 21 killed in the Mali hotel siege.

China responded to ISIS’s latest barbaric act with some of its strongest language yet on the issue.

“The Chinese government opposes all forms of terrorism and firmly cracks down on any violent and terrorist crimes that challenge the baseline of human civilization,” said Hong Lei, a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman.

For all its might, most analysts believe military intervention in the conflict with ISIS is highly unlikely. But it may force China to move off the sidelines in the international fight against terror.

As more and more Chinese citizens travel overseas for business, tourism and education, the greater the chance one of them may fall victim to a terrorist attack — also increasing the pressure on the government to act.

“If they get hijacked or held hostage, or somebody bombs Chinese property overseas you’ve got to react,” said Xie Tao, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Non-intervention not negotiable

China may be willing to enhance its global cooperation in light of recent developments, but the chances of it acting in a more military capacity in the fight against ISIS are slim.

“I think the Chinese government is not ready and nor are the Chinese people,” says Xie.

He says the Chinese government is fearful of the repercussions of military intervention, like retaliatory attacks.

“Are Chinese people ready to see caskets covered in the Chinese national flag carried back through Chinese airports? Their sons and daughters dying on a foreign battleground, fighting against the terrorists?”

Non-intervention is also a cornerstone of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, a philosophy developed by Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, that has guided China’s foreign engagement since 1954.

Breaking with this would require a fundamental rethink of China’s foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“The Chinese government position remains that non-interference, diplomatic solutions are preferred, and military intervention would not be able to resolve the problems,” said Jingdong Yuan, a Chinese defense and foreign policy academic from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

But closer cooperation likely

But China may begin to engage more closely in the fight against terrorism in other ways, Yuan added.

He said China already participates in international action against maritime piracy and in United Nations peace-keeping missions, and that it could be open to further collaboration and cooperation in non-combat areas, like intelligence sharing.

China also has strong domestic reasons for closer anti-terrorism cooperation, he added.

Beijing says it has been fighting what its calls its own “war on terror” in Xinjiang, an ethnically divided and resource rich province in China’s far west, for years.

The Chinese government blames the ethnic unrest on Uyghur separatists, but Uyghur exiles and rights activists blame what they describe as Beijing’s repressive and discriminatory policies.

“I think the Chinese government would like to be engaged because …they may also be given access to some sort of intelligence which will help them with regard to any terrorist activities aimed at Xinjiang autonomous region,” he said.

In 2014, Iraq’s army said it had captured a Chinese national fighting for ISIS.

Chinese extremists

Attacks on Chinese citizens in public places like railways have been on the rise and often result in numerous fatalities, but China has complained that the world has ignored its terrorism plight.

A 2014 attack on travelers at a station in the southwest city of Kunming left 29 people dead and injured a further 130, while knife-wielding attackers wounded ten people in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in May.

Yuan said, in many ways, China feels it is already fighting ISIS on its own soil, and believes the group is now training many Uyghur separatists.

Although China may well be able to hold off on military intervention in the short term, both Yuan and Xie said closer links by Chinese citizens with foreign countries may well force it to reconsider its approach.

“That’s what a global power is supposed to do to protect its own citizens and its own interests,” said Xie.