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Terror overseas: understanding China’s evolving counter-terror strategy

Since the beginning of the US war on terror, Chinese diplomacy has consistently criticised the international community’s militarised response to Islamist terrorism.

China has rejected involvement in large multinational military coalitions in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State. China’s nationalistic media have not only lambasted the US war on terror, but occasionally even promoted a narrative that holds the West responsible for Islamist terrorism, blaming excessive Western military intervention in the region for not only the explosion of terrorist attacks globally, but for the rise of ISIS as well.

Two key concepts have underpinned China’s diplomatic posture on terrorism: “double standards” and “tackling the root causes”. At the G20 summit in Ankara last year, soon after the November terror attacks in Paris, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated: “China holds that joint forces should be formed to fight against terrorism, and that both the symptoms and root causes of the issue should be addressed.

Double standards shouldn’t be allowed”. “Double standards” is coded language referring to Western criticism of China’s actions in Xinjiang, signaling that what matters most to Beijing is international endorsement for its own domestic counter-terrorism policies.

This is their overarching priority in terms of national security, compared to which overseas risks are clearly a secondary concern. The reference to “root causes” indicates China’s preference for policies addressing factors that often encourage radicalisation, such as a lack of economic development and social justice.

Although this narrative has hardly changed, this policy brief indicates a “militarisation trend” emerging in China’s counter-terrorism strategy overseas. In December 2015, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed a new counter-terrorism law that, among other provisions, allows the army and armed police to engage in counter-terrorist missions abroad.

The scope of these missions are not precisely defined, in order to enable maximum flexibility during future crises. This law has the potential to lead to a dramatic change in the use of Chinese military power overseas. Other signs of such an evolution, driven by China’s changing stance on its “overseas interests” (海外利益), include new developments within the PLA in terms of doctrine, training, equipment, basing and diplomatic activity.

Chinese Special Forces / Wikimedia Commons

In response to the emergence of new threats, China’s approach to international cooperation is also changing. China’s own problem with foreign fighters has resulted in diplomatic efforts to develop intelligence cooperation with new partners, including in Europe.

China is attempting to establish a counter-terrorism dialogue with the European Union, but these efforts have so far been unsuccessful. There are very strong normative differences keeping China and Europe apart on key definitions and approaches.

China frames terrorism as one of “three evils” (三股势力) alongside extremism and separatism, which has resulted in Europe approaching counter-terrorism cooperation with China from a human rights angle, making it difficult to disentangle domestic terrorism in China from the threat that international terrorism poses to both European and Chinese citizens.

This obstacle is likely to structurally limit the potential of Europe-China cooperation on counter-terrorism. Although some EU member states are pursuing a policy of engagement with China, this has not resulted in any concrete benefits for European security. China is not a key partner in solving Europe’s terror problem.

This policy brief argues that the EU should pursue a policy of cautious engagement, but wait for further moves from China before shifting towards greater cooperation. It also predicts that Chinese requests for cooperation will become more focused and less formalistic as China continues to adjust its overseas counter-terrorism strategy to a changing threat environment.

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