How to Get Away with Terrorism: The Chinese Edition

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Terrorism is a term that transcends linguistic, cultural and social divides. It is a notion that we all can identify and we ardently oppose. Whether it is the Islamic State (ISIL), the Taliban, al-Qaida or another, acts of terrorism are not merely defined by the perpetrators but by the grandeur of the acts: executions, bombings, fear-mongering. These tactics are universally understood.

As a response to recent terrorist attacks, Western countries have ramped up their rhetoric and commitments to the cause of defeating terrorism.

Shortly after the Paris attacks, French President François Hollande proclaimed that “France is at war” and swiftly authorized increased airstrikes in Syria aiming symbolically at ISIL’s capital, Raqqa. More recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron has urgently beseeched the British Parliament to authorize military action in conjunction with other Western powers in order to eliminate ISIL. President Barack Obama has expressed solidarity with the French people and reaffirmed its commitment to eliminating those who would launch “an attack on the civilized world.” Since the Paris attack, the political gravity has pulled the West toward a renewed engagement in disposing terrorist threats, specifically from ISIL.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a group more globally repudiated than ISIL.

Their abhorrent campaign across Syria and Iraq has, in part, motivated a refugee crisis of an unimaginable scope; recruited neophytes willing to savagely attack at home and abroad; and successfully forced the West to double-down on their liberal, democratic beliefs by redeploying military assets in the region.

Underscoring this global antipathy, the United Nations’ Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2249 denouncing the numerous terrorist actions committed by ISIL. Even among the divergent Permanent 5 (P-5) members, they managed remarkably to find a common denominator among them all: ISIL has to go.

However, one P-5 member has surreptiously remained out of the conversation: China.

On the surface, it is hard to see why. China’s blood has too been spilled at the hands of global terrorist organizations; very recently, in fact. First, captured Chinese national, Fan Jinghui, was executed by ISIL in mid-November along side a Norwegian national, as a public show of resistance against Western intervention. Second, three Chinese citizens were identified among the dead after the raid on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bomoko, Mali perpetrated by al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Third, the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang has continuously been at odds with Beijing and some radicalized individuals have gone to train with ISIL only to return intensifying the threat of domestic terrorism within China. In response, President Xi Jinping stated that China “resolutely opposes terrorism in any form” and denounced all actions taken by terrorists against the People’s Republic of China. In effect, it would seem that Beijing publicly demarcated a political line against terrorism, and postured itself as a potential ally in the renewed fight against ISIL.

But, in reality, this hard line may be nothing more than a line in the sand.

This is due in part because China has consistently upheld its policy of non-interference in international affairs, consecrated by Zhou Enlai at the 1955 Bandung Peace Conference. Consequently, non-interference has paid off well for China: economic growth, cooperative alliances and political prominence in the wake of diminishing Western power. Furthermore, as it has not interfered militarily abroad, China has greatly stockpiled its military assets through manufacturing and acquisition, albeit at times clandestinely. With greater economic reach and militarily capability, China has the means and methods to possess military power and deterrence. All in all, time has been good to China.

As China rises in the global system, however, it too will need to assume some responsibilities. And transnational terrorism should be the testing ground for China’s global capacity.

Unlike conventional conflicts, terrorism defies states and borders. This means that regardless of proximity to terrorism loci, terrorism will be incessantly at China’s doorstep or even in its house. And as Chinese interests expand away from the security of home, those interests will most certainly run up against the interests of terrorist groups. Whether in Africa, Central Asia, or the Middle East, these regions are rife with terrorist organizations and lie within China’s economic and political interest zones. If no action is taken, it will eventually mean more Chinese lives will be lost, more Chinese blood spilled. If China doesn’t want the killing and death of Chinese citizens to be the “cost of doing business,” Beijing needs to prepare for this eventuality.

That is why this is the prime opportunity for China to participate in joint operations with the other P-5 members against ISIL. Politically, ISIL and counter-terrorism are “low-hanging fruit”; the Chinese public already approves retaliatory actions against ISIL. With its military capacity and its future sights on aggrandizement, fighting ISIL in the aftermath of the recent carnage would not only corroborate growing domestic fervor, but, more importantly, provide the logistical blueprint for its future role in the international system.

Some may argue that if the non-interference doctrine isn’t broken, then we shouldn’t fix it. However, with China’s outward posture and desire to assert itself internationally, combatting ISIL will be first stepping stone permitting China to finally “walk the walk”, not just “talk the talk”.

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