Is China a Credible Partner in Fighting Terror?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said, “China is also a victim of terrorism. The fight against the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’… should become an important part of the international fight against terrorism.” But China recently has cracked down on Muslim Uighur communities, just this week killing 17 alleged terrorists, including women and children, killing dozens of Uighur protesters in July last year, and banning religious holidays such as Ramadan, and barring the wearing of the headscarf, leading us to ponder this week’s question. —The Editors


There clearly are reasons to doubt China’s credibility as a partner in fighting terror. Its unwillingness to draw clear lines between the terrorist, the political activist, and the aggrieved citizen makes certain forms of cooperation—such as detailed intelligence sharing—very problematic. Beijing’s repressive behavior in Xinjiang actively is worsening the conditions in which terrorist threats are liable to grow. And Beijing is willing to use its position on the U.N. Security Council to extend protection to members of specific terrorist organizations—such as Lashkar-e-Taiba—when it has political reasons to do so.

Nonetheless, there is no question that China increasingly is the victim of serious terrorist attacks, both at home and abroad. These are not just attacks on Chinese state institutions but atrocities against Chinese civilians, exemplified by the Kunming attack in 2014. A number of the incidents also have the hallmarks of jihadi methods, implying some degree of external influence even if not direct support. Although their numbers are small and their capacity to act on the Chinese mainland is limited, there are active militant groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party that have had a visible presence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and now Syria. And after a long period in which Al Qaeda and its affiliates, for tactical reasons, largely considered it inadvisable to make China a target, ISIS, by contrast, has been very explicit about the fact that it sees China as an enemy.

This is a completely different landscape for Beijing from the one it faced ten years ago. It already has prompted more serious efforts on China’s part to help stabilize Afghanistan, which it fears becoming a safe haven for Uighur militants. Beijing is now one of the leading actors in trying to bring about a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Many of its economic initiatives in the region are motivated as much by security considerations as commercial ones. China believes that the conditions in which militancy has thrived really only can be addressed through a transformation of the economic situation in these countries, including Pakistan. In many of these efforts—particularly the reconciliation push in Afghanistan—Beijing is working already with the United States as a close partner.

Syria is a more complicated case, where China’s antipathy towards ISIS coexists with its aversion to regime change, its backing of Russia’s position, and its caution about the sectarian dimensions of the conflicts underway there. China already has shown tacit support of anti-ISIS measures though, including military strikes, and if the political pieces fall into place, it is not impossible to imagine a larger Chinese role.

Conceived solely through the prism of Xinjiang and Beijing’s domestic counter-terrorism practices, there is good cause to be skeptical about China’s credibility as partner. There are forms of direct counter-terrorism cooperation with Beijing that will be limited, necessarily and rightly. But looking more broadly at stabilizing the whole arc running from Xinjiang to the Middle East, China’s economic and political role is likely to be a crucial one, and aspects of that partnership already are underway.

The terrorist attack in Paris last Friday, when 129 were killed, and the bombing of Russian jet, in which 224 lives were lost on Oct 31 in Egypt, are the latest atrocities that should be condemned by the whole world.

After the Paris attack, cities around the world lit their landmarks to show their support for the French people. That also included the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in my home city of Shanghai.

While expressing sympathy for the victims of the terrorist attacks, many Chinese asked what has caused the growing number of extremists in groups such as the Islamic State (IS).

The answer given by most U.S. politicians seems quite simple: They hate our values, they hate our democracy, they hate our freedom, and they hate our way of life. But such a reply hardly seems to address the question.

Of course, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has blamed the prolonged war following the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a cause. While such an answer does speak some truth, it is so politically incorrect that most U.S. news media won’t allow a live discussion.

U.S. leaders, so eager to pursue regime change in Syria, also have blamed President Bashar al-Assad for the rise of IS. This is hardly convincing given that many of the IS extremists are from other countries, notably countries in the Middle East and Europe.

The debate over whether Assad must go has been hampering a possible and better cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in fighting IS. In fact, the U.S. insistence on regime change has also prevented its fighting IS effectively.

After all, who has given Obama the right to say that Assad must go? The future Syrian leader must be decided by free and fair elections and the votes of the Syrian people, not the White House.

While accusing Russia of also targeting some Syrian rebels, U.S. leaders never told Americans and the world that the so-called moderate Syrian rebels it backed and armed have defected in droves to IS or al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.

No American politicians have talked about how many civilians have died as collateral damages since the G.W. Bush administration started its war on terror, a war that has been escalated during at least the first few years of the Obama administration with drastically increased drone strikes. Such collateral damage has certainly sowed hatred among local populations.

The chaos in the Middle East has proven the failure of U.S. intervention policy, whether in the form of the Iraq invasion, drone strikes, air strikes, regime change or the arming of rebels. This is because military actions can only decimate terrorists physically, not ideologically, which is really the key to success for the global campaign against extremists.

What’s worse is the double-standard adopted by the U.S. and some Western nations. The U.S. government has been reluctant to condemn terrorist actions when they happen on Chinese soil. White House and State Department officials have either used the excuse that they need more information or expressed concerns at Chinese government policies, as if there could be a justification for terrorists to kill innocent Chinese civilians.

This included the terror attack in the railway station in Kunming, Yunnan province, on March 1, 2014, when a group of Uighur terrorists murdered 31 civilians and injured 141. It took a while for the U.S. government to call it an act of terrorism after Chinese social media protested the U.S. double standards.

That is exactly the question some Chinese raised after the Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower lit up for Paris.

Compared with their reaction to the attacks in Paris, the U.S. and many Western governments have not expressed the same condemnation of IS and condolences to the Russian people after the Russian jet bombing. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that he is planning to close down any mosques that allow extremist clerics to preach following the deadly attacks. U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump also claimed that the U.S. will have “absolutely no choice” but to close down some mosques where “some bad things are happening.”

If such words were from Chinese officials, U.S. officials would have quickly cried out and called it religious persecution.

In between offering condolences and expressing solidarity in light of the Paris attacks last week, Chinese officials had some pointed comments for those in the West. Besides Foreign Minister Wang Yi, President Xi Jinping also strongly criticized the double standard over how terrorism is treated compared to terrorism in the West and emphasized the crucial need for international cooperation against terrorism, linking the Paris attacks to the similar attacks in Xinjiang. While the Chinese government has usually followed an insular approach to domestic issues, it has consistently pushed to connect the unrest in Xinjiang with the Western-led war on terror and extremism.

There are certainly some disaffected Uyghurs joining the likes of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS); a recent IS video, for example, highlights its Chinese Uyghur members and includes some harsh words for Chinese infidels. But while the actual extent of those links are debatable, the government has taken a heavy-handed approach to clamp down on any potential subversive activity in Xinjiang (particularly given the instability in neighboring Afghanistan). In light of the Paris attacks, and the death of Chinese citizen Fan Jinghui at hands of IS, such policies may intensify.

But the Chinese government is paying a price for its opaque ways: Western nations have been skeptical and sometimes dismissive of terrorism in China, accusing the government of exaggerating those risks. The Paris attacks are only the latest reminder to many Chinese people that while the Chinese expressed solidarity with France and denounced the perpetrators, the West has been more reluctant to express similar sentiments when such attacks (like the 2014 Kunming attacks) happen in China. The fear and terror caused by these attacks are real, as are the anger and frustration shared by many Chinese at how the West views attacks by Uyghur militants; that is, with not enough concern and seriousness.

The Chinese government has long tied the unrest in Xinjiang to the wider war on terror, but these latest remarks are the most vocal yet, strongly rebuking those that fail to recognize Xinjiang as another frontier in that struggle. At a time when many countries around the world are grappling with the extent and threat of Islamist extremism and terror, Chinese officials want to make clear the legitimacy of their country’s domestic terrorism problems and the importance (and effectiveness) of their policies, both through official statements and state-run media.

Unlike for many issues, China is decisively on the same page as Western nations in the struggle against militant Islamist groups. But already in uneasy collaboration with Russia in Syria, will Western nations accept China as another partner if it means compromises elsewhere (such as treating Xinjiang as a legitimate theater of terrorism)? Or will the threat of groups like IS necessitate a true global response with all five permanent members of the UN Security Council together as a united front? China has made its goals and interests clear, and the working relationship between China and the West in the war on terror will be an increasingly important topic moving forward.

The question of whether China can be a credible partner for the U.S. is critical—China’s credibility not only will impact the effectiveness of any efforts to cooperate with the U.S. on terrorism, it also will affect cooperation in other areas where the two share interests, such as climate change, territorial disputes, and trade. However, China’s credibility is not just about China's actions—it also rests on U.S. perceptions of those actions. In the case of fighting terror, these perceptions hinge on the degrees to which (1) the two countries agree on the nature of terrorism and (2) the U.S. trusts that China’s ultimate intentions are benign. Given increasing concerns about China’s rise, prospects that the U.S. will view China as a credible partner in fighting terror appear dim.

Andrew Small highlights the first reason the U.S. is unlikely to see China as credible when he notes that China’s unwillingness to draw clear lines between terrorism and other forms of resistance inhibits cooperation between the two—the U.S. is not convinced that it would be helping China to pursue targets that, from a U.S. perspective, can legitimately be deemed “terrorists.” Naming a terrorist involves a fundamentally political judgment of legitimacy. Everyone thus agrees that terrorists are bad, but agreement on how to identify and handle them is more elusive. Disagreement about the nature of terrorism makes China less credible to the U.S. as a partner, both because agreement about how to fight terror becomes harder, and also because the ways in which the two sides disagree link the politics of terrorism to other important issues in the U.S.-China relationship.

In other words, because partnering with China to fight terror implicates other issues that loom large in the relationship for the U.S.—especially human rights, China’s military modernization, and China’s increasing assertiveness—the question of how much the U.S. trusts China’s intentions in general also affects whether China can be seen as a credible partner in fighting terror. One lens through which to assess this kind of trust is the security dilemma, a concept from international relations theory that highlights how China’s defensive, security-seeking actions—including anti-terror efforts—could be seen by the U.S. as threatening. Recent work on the security dilemma in East Asia indicates that the U.S. increasingly doubts that China’s ultimate intentions are benign.

This kind of uncertainty about intentions not only intensifies U.S. concerns that cooperation with China will be ineffective in fighting terror, it also foregrounds concerns that such cooperation could support China’s pursuit of undesirable goals in other areas. For instance, in the presence of worries about China’s ultimate intentions, cooperating with the Chinese domestic security apparatus is more likely to be seen as enabling an increase in state power that could ultimately threaten the U.S. If the U.S. were to become confident that China did not seek to challenge it, this kind of worry would diminish, and China would be seen as a much more credible partner in the fight against terror. China so far has been unwilling to take actions that plausibly could diminish such worries in the U.S., and even if it did so, the U.S. might perceive such actions in unpredictable ways. So long as negative views of China in the U.S. continue to predominate and differences of opinion about fighting terror persist, therefore, it seems unlikely the U.S. will see China as a credible partner on this issue.