The events following the Paris terror attacks, including the execution of a Chinese hostage by the Islamic State (IS) group, appear to have placed China at the proverbial ‘fork in the road’ regarding its policy on combating terrorism. The dilemma appears to be rooted in a mix of local politics, internal security considerations, Foreign policy position and external threats to its security. The events have left China-watchers wondering whether this is the point where China will find a common ground with the West on how to deal with terrorism. Alternatively, the events could only see the Chinese make some adjustments and press on with their current approach on countering terror.
Following the attacks in Paris, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi reportedly said that the struggle against Islamist militants in China’s western region of Xinjiang should be acknowledged as part of global war on terror. In his view, “China is also a victim of terrorism, and cracking down on East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) should become an important part of the international fight against terrorism”. Beijing has blamed the violence in Xinjiang and other locations on Islamist militants, led by the ETIM; a group seen to have ties to al-Qaeda. More recently, China has reported that some Uyghurs from Xinjiang have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with IS and other groups.
Past few years have seen a growing number of attacks on civilians in Xinjiang, as well as a series of high-profile terrorist attacks in other major cities, including an attack on the railway station in Kunming in 2014. The Xinjiang-Uyghur issue has also been an irritant in the US-China relationship, with China accusing the US of maintaining a “double standard” on terrorism as the US has been raising concerns over Chinese government actions in Uyghur-majority areas. China would like US and the West to dispel their “double standard” and recognise its internal security issue in Xinjiang as terrorism.
Wang also appeared to indicate how China would like the ‘internationalisation’ of fight against terror to take shape when he said “the UN’s leading role should be brought into full play to combat terrorism, and a united front in this regard should be formed”. Chinese state media has sought to link China’s own “war on terror” with the Paris attacks while the Uyghurs have raised fears that China is using the Paris attacks to justify anti-Uyghurs actions in Xinjiang.
Other event indications
On 14 November, the next day to the Paris attacks, China’s Ministry of Public Security took an unprecedented step of publicizing during the G-20 meetings in Turkey, its 56-day campaign against terrorists in Xinjiang. On display were a series of nine pictures of Chinese armed forces on what the state media said was a mission to root out militants in Xinjiang.
Subsequently, on 20 November, the Xinjiang regional government’s Tianshan web portal reported that 28 terrorists had been killed during the 56-day manhunt. They were suspected of being responsible for a knife attack at the Sogan colliery in Aksu on September 18 which had killed 11 civilians and five police officers. The 14 September report on the operation had put the toll at 17 including the seven women and children.
The IS, on 19 November claimed to have executed two more hostages – one Norwegian, the other Chinese; a consultant named Fan Jinghui. The latest edition of its magazine ‘Dabiq’, which had the Paris attacks on its cover, featured photographs of the two hostages, each of them apparently shot in the head. “Executed,” it proclaimed, “after being abandoned by the kafir nations and organizations.” In the wake of the Paris attacks, the French President had called on his Chinese counterpart to become more involved in the global fight against terrorism.
On 20 November three senior executives of a Chinese state-owned rail construction company and six Russian employees of a cargo company were among the 19 victims of the gunmen who attacked a hotel in the capital of Mali. The three Chinese victims, all men, were killed at the start of the siege of the hotel, their employer, China Railway Construction. The next day Xi Jinping condemned the “cruel and savage” attack.
The last relevant occurrence in the string of these events saw the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopting a sweeping anti-IS resolution calling on member states to “redouble and coordinate their efforts” to prevent further terrorist horrors by the group and “eradicate” it’s safe havens straddling parts of Iraq and Syria. Even though the resolution does not invoke Chapter VII of the UN charter which authorizes the use of outside military force within the borders of a sovereign state, the spotlight was on Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members. On the Syria issue, China and Russia had vetoed four separate UN Security Council resolutions since 2011.
The Chinese way
The Chinese policy on extremism and terrorism for years has been to avoid becoming a target for terrorists by not drawing too much attention on its policies both internal and external. However recent incidents such as those involving Turkey and Thailand over Uyghur asylum seekers have not kept the spotlight away even from internal issues.
China has experienced its citizens being victims of terrorist violence overseas but dealing with IS maybe a new ball game. In the case of Fan Jinghui, China had kept the reporting of the kidnapping by media under wraps. With Russia and France reacting so aggressively in response to attacks on their citizens, China may have to revisit its response particularly since appears to be a demand for “action” from the Chinese people.
While China is being accused of using the Paris attacks to suppress internal dissent, it finds itself guilty of the same lapses as the French, in failing to bring in some flexibility in its attitude towards religion and integrating its minorities. China as a part of its counter-terrorism policy in Xinjiang has been discouraging − and sometimes banning − expressions of Islamic faith such as fasting during Ramadan, wearing burqas. These have been largely viewed as excessive and counterproductive by analysts.
The challenge of dealing with terrorism at home and abroad stares the Chinese policy makers in the face as the country’s quest for energy and economic security takes its citizens and investments to West Asia, North Africa and other global terrorism hotspots. There is also this realisation that, this is one battle, it cannot fight alone.
However decision to join the a larger alliance against terrorism would require it to balance other strategic issues such as the South China Sea and factor in the possibility of facing terror threats in other parts of the world, where groups allied to the IS and al-Qaida operate.