Is China a Credible Partner In Fighting Terror?

Terrorist violence has rocked cities across China, but Beijing’s motives for cracking down remain opaque.

This picture taken on June 6, 2014 shows security forces participating in a military drill in Hetian, northwest China's Xinjiang region.China vowed a year-long campaign against terrorism, days after attackers in the western region of Xinjiang killed 39 people in a suicide raid. The statement said the campaign would last until June 2015 and is aimed at "preventing the spread of religious extremism" from Xinjiang to the country's interior.      CHINA OUT   AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on June 6, 2014 shows security forces participating in a military drill in Hetian, northwest China's Xinjiang region.China vowed a year-long campaign against terrorism, days after attackers in the western region of Xinjiang killed 39 people in a suicide raid. The statement said the campaign would last until June 2015 and is aimed at "preventing the spread of religious extremism" from Xinjiang to the country's interior. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, which killed at least 130, Beijing has sought to highlight its role in the fight against terrorism. “China is also a victim of terrorism,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi remarked at a Nov. 15 G20 summit in Turkey, continuing, “The fight against the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’” — a shadowy militant group which aims to bring independence to China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang — “should become an important part of the international fight against terrorism.” China’s growing presence in the Middle East has also brought the conflict closer to home; on Nov. 18, the terrorist group Islamic State released news that it had killed a Chinese hostage. But Chinese government restrictions on religion and society in Xinjiang, and alleged state violence against civilians there, have prompted serious human rights concerns, while tight information control has made Chinese claims of local links to international terrorist organizations difficult to verify. In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss China’s role in the global war on terror, as well as Chinese claims that the West holds a “double standard” on terrorism.

Andrew Small , transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States:

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, the Islamic State, 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 the Islamic State 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-Islamic State 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.

Wei Zhu, program associate with the religion program at the Social Science Research Council in New York:

In between offering condolences and expressing solidarity in light of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Chinese officials had some pointed comments for those in the West. Chinese 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; a recent Islamic State 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 the Islamic State, 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, without sufficient 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.

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? Will the threat of groups like the Islamic State 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.

Eric Hundman, doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Chicago:

The question of whether China can be a credible partner for the United States is critical — China’s credibility not only will impact the effectiveness of any efforts to cooperate with the United States 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 United States trusts that China’s ultimate intentions are benign. Given increasing concerns about China’s rise, prospects that the United States will view China as a credible partner in fighting terror appear dim.

Small highlights the first reason the United States 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 United States 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 United States 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 United States — especially human rights, China’s military modernization, and China’s increasing assertiveness — the question of how much the United States 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 United States as threatening. Recent work on the security dilemma in East Asia indicates that the United States 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 United States. If the United States 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 United States, and even if it did so, the United States might perceive such actions in unpredictable ways. So long as negative views of China continue to predominate Stateside and differences of opinion about fighting terror persist, therefore, it seems unlikely the United States will see China as a credible partner on this issue.

AFP/Getty Images

Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Wei Zhu is an editorial and program associate with the Social Science Research Council in New York City.