China and US Forge Common Stance against Terrorism
Photo Credit: AFP
By Tai Wei Lim

China and US Forge Common Stance against Terrorism

Jul. 04, 2017  |     |  0 comments

In the current spirit of rapprochement between the US and China led by the Trump and Xi administrations respectively, Sino-US relations have improved dramatically after what some commentators considered to be a low point in bilateral relations during the later stage of the Obama administration. The Trump administration seems to be more effective in its initial overtures to Beijing, cooperating on issues like the North Korean missile crisis in April 2017. In the latest sign of warming relations, the US has asked China to step up their efforts in combating terrorism.


This includes confronting the Islamic State (IS), including its presence in Iraq. The IS has also claimed responsibility for recent attacks in London. The US is leveraging on China’s own national interests in fighting terrorism as a self-motivated incentive for the Chinese government to ramp up its security efforts against terror groups. For example, recent terrorist murders of two Chinese citizens in Pakistan may indicate clashes between the terror groups’ interests and Chinese national interests. At a broad level, China’s expanding economic interests overseas appear to be a major incentive for greater coordination with western efforts.


Political instability caused by terrorists may also affect Beijing’s economic master-plan, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China also has its own wish list in cooperating with the US on the issue of managing global terrorism. In return for possibly protecting their own economic interests and internal national priorities, Beijing wants the Western powers to officially designate Uighur radicals in Xinjiang as terrorists. Reciprocity from the West on this issue appears to be a much-wanted conditionality on the Chinese side for their cooperation in anti-terror efforts. China’s major target is the Uighur separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement in Xinjiang, which may have absorbed Syrian fighters (veteran fighters with recent combat experience). Meanwhile, on its own terms and initiative, the Chinese law enforcement agencies have equipped their paramilitary forces for activities in Urumqi.


The US is active in a 68-nation coalition formed to combat terrorism and is interested to coordinate with Chinese efforts to work with this bloc of nations in confronting terrorism collectively. Over a longer time-frame, Beijing (or what Washington hopes) may possibly be considering membership in this coalition group. Top diplomats, national security advisors, and military officials from the US and China are now discussing such coordinated efforts. If this transpires, it is hoped that China can supply resources and equipment to anti-terrorist law enforcement agencies and also offer professional training to their trainees.


Such developments are not entirely new. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had already given China top ranking amongst countries marked out for terrorist strikes in 2014, citing Beijing’s alleged mistreatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, although this development did not draw any serious response from the Chinese authorities. To provoke Chinese response further, 50-year old Chinese citizen Fan Jinghui was captured in September 2015 and later executed by fighters from IS. Beijing activated priority rescue efforts. At the time of Fan’s capture by IS on November 18, 2015, President Xi and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spoke out against the act of terror. Terrorists struck again at overseas Chinese citizens when 19 Chinese citizens were murdered on November 20, 2016 by Al-Qaeda affiliates in politically-volatile Mali. 

Good diplomacy may also be a motivation for US and China to draw closer together in counterterrorism cooperation.

One of the latest terror incidents against Chinese citizens involved a husband and wife pair, Lee Zing Yang (24 years old) and Meng Li Si (26 years old), who were kidnapped on May 24, 2017 and murdered in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The two Chinese were apparently kidnapped by individuals masquerading as law enforcement officers. They were alleged to be spreading religious ideas as missionary proselytizers in a Muslim region within Pakistan where militant groups are active. IS claimed responsibility for the killing through its official news agency Amaq.


According to their documentation, the couple had entered the country in the hope of picking up Urdu language at a Korean technical institute that had been set up in Quetta. The dissonance between the two Chinese citizens’ stated purpose and their actual activities on the ground prompted the Pakistani authorities to urge visitors to stick to their official stated objectives when visiting Pakistan.


This murder of Chinese citizens may lend some support to hawkish commentators advocating Beijing to play a more productive role in furthering their economic interests, especially with China’s increasing reach through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other components of the BRI economic region. Pakistan is a major recipient of BRI investments and this increases incentives by the Chinese to ask for better security to protect their investments, including the western Balochistan province to operate its Gwadar deep-water port and road artery in the CPEC. Special law enforcement agencies to protect Chinese visitors are in place, and the Pakistani authorities are also setting up a computer data system to track the whereabouts of these visitors.


Finally, good diplomacy may also be a motivation for US and China to draw closer together in counterterrorism cooperation. Other commentators who go along with the idea of the rise of China as a great power believe its growing involvement in global counterterrorism efforts can increase China’s status in world affairs but it brings the risk of criticism from those who worry about a more muscular Chinese presence, especially if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is involved. To complicate matters, there are already charges of alleged neo-colonialism from some quarters amongst African recipients of Chinese aid, loans and capacity-building. Thus, China needs to tread carefully to maintain its image overseas.


Other commentators are also worried that participating in counterterrorism initiatives may force Beijing to choose side in conflicts like Syria which has seen Russian-backed pro-Assad state forces pitted against Western-backed rebels. China has stayed out of the fray mainly, though selectively and strategically making statements in accordance with its national interests. More hawkish figures in China claim that participating in the global war against terror can sharpen the PLA’s fighting experience but this could escalate Beijing’s frictions with the Islamic world. A middle-of-the-path approach is preferable, for example by supporting United Nations Security Council initiatives in managing the global response to terrorism, as well as engaging in soft cooperation like intelligence exchanges and border coordination.

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