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

Press release

Rising potential for Chinese counter-terror military interventions

While China’s traditional approach to international terrorism was forged around its criticism of the United States’ excessively militarised response, Beijing is now embarking on a marked militarisation of its own counter-terrorism strategy overseas. This trend increases the possibility of a future Chinese global program of military counter-terror interventions, according to a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This trend has been prompted by two factors, the first of which is China’s increasing exposure to terrorism overseas as its international footprint has grown. 128 million Chinese travelled overseas in 2015, compared to only 280,000 in 1982. Many Chinese citizens also live in countries that are frequently targeted by terrorists: there are 3,000 Chinese nationals in Mali, 65,000 in Nigeria and more than 10,000 each in Iraq and Pakistan. Almost 4,000 Chinese companies are now registered in the so-called “arc of instability” - the geographical region extending from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Sahel area.

Secondly, tension and violence in Xinjiang has attracted the attention of several Islamist terrorist groups. In his first message as the so-called Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi listed China among the countries in which “Muslim rights are forcefully seized” and called on ISIS soldiers to “take revenge”.

In response, China has passed its first counter-terrorism law, which took effect in January 2016. It states that, “The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese People's Armed Police (PLAP) forces may assign people to leave the country on counter-terrorism missions as approved by the central military commission.”

The author of the ECFR report, Mathieu Duchâtel, said,

“This purposefully vague language could be a game-changer for China’s use of military power overseas. ‘Assign people’ could mean anything from sending individuals on diplomatic fact-finding missions to deploying substantial military units abroad.”

Indeed, China seems to be developing the capacities for the latter, with the PLA undergoing a comprehensive modernisation programme. The PLA Navy is permanently patrolling the Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy missions and will soon benefit from permanent logistical facilities in Djibouti. And the PLA Air Force received the first of its newly developed long-range Y-20 heavy transport aircraft in June 2016, substantially increasing the PLA’s capacity to mount expeditions far from China’s shores.

The Chinese arms industry also has a major programme of manufacturing drones, including UAVs with the capacity to carry out precision strikes, the key weapon of the US war on terror. The US Department of Defence estimates that by 2023 the PLA will have thousands of drones deployed, including for counter-terrorism operations.

At the same time, the traditional brakes on China’s involvement in international security affairs – the non-interference principle, the practice of cautiousness internationally, Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine to avoid “taking the lead” (决不当头) – have all been weakened under Xi Jinping, who supports greater international involvement and tends to see military power as a foreign policy tool.

Nonetheless, China will not easily cross the major threshold that separates using military power on operations other than war – such as evacuations, protective patrols, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief – and joining a multinational coalition striking a terrorist organisation overseas. However, the trend of militarization of China’s counter-terrorism strategy is crystal clear and has the potential to accelerate if Chinese nationals are victims of new attacks. In turn, these evolving practices fromby China will entail new risks for Chinese nationals overseas.

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