Thanks to its insulation from the outside world, a powerful repressing apparatus and its “third world” status, China was long free of major terror attacks. In spite of its growing economic influence, it was perceived as “different” from Western, often former colonial, powers. However, China is increasingly confronted by the same risks, and the rhythm of attacks against its citizens and interests has accelerated in recent years, both within and outside its territory.
Inside China, terror attacks are linked to the situation in Xinjiang, but also to bursts of violence caused by frustration and grievances against the system. Outside its own territory, China is increasingly treated to the same terrible threats as other major powers. Chinese people are the targets of kidnapping and executions, while radical Islam organizations denounce Beijing’s treatment of Muslim minorities in China.
A few weeks ago, Islamic State radicals for the first time executed a Chinese hostage, and three representatives of a Chinese state railway company were killed in Bamako, Mali. Terror attacks against Chinese interests and personnel happened in recent years in Pakistan, raising questions on the future of Chinese investments in the region, and in Ethiopia, where the Ogaden Liberation Movement targeted a Chinese oil company.
For a long time, the Chinese regime was relatively able to ignore the problem. Within China, heavy-handed repression was applied, under the leaden shroud of information control, in the name of stability. Externally, negotiations and paying ransoms helped solve individual cases.
But for the regime, an increasingly open society, in spite of constant efforts to control information and the Internet, poses new challenges. Chinese citizens, including the more nationalistic fringe of Internet activists who the authorities often use in campaigns against foreign actors, expect a prompt and efficient reaction from a regime whose objective is to project the image of a strong and confident power, able to protect and avenge its citizens. Moreover, the terror attacks that took place in Beijing in 2013 and Kunming in 2014 were also highly visible, contrary to other events limited to the Xinjiang autonomous region.
This is not an easy task, however, given the risk of growing frustrations against a system whose major legitimacy comes from economic performance, threatened today by a slowing growth, and nationalist hubris.
The risks are growing higher, in proportion with the constant increase of Chinese engagement abroad. The situation is aggravated by the fact that China, in the pursuit of energy, resources and market shares, was far more ready than other actors to expand in risk areas. As a result, not only Chinese companies but also individuals are present in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and, in massive numbers, Africa.
In response to these challenges, the Chinese government has taken some steps. A national security commission headed by President Xi Jinping was established in 2013. Its mission focuses on internal “stability” in order to maintain the rule of the Communist Party against all threats, including “separatism and terrorism.” At the same time, the budget, equipment and size of the People’s Armed Police has been increased substantially and it could be transformed into a national guard with 1 million personnel as part of a broader reform of the People’s Liberation Army. The stress on indiscriminate repression, however, poses the risk of a vicious circle leading to more terror attacks.
Outside the country, the degree and nature of integration of China in the fight against terror and the Islamic State poses other challenges.
At the ideological level, the government hopes to see the attacks on its soil considered equivalent to, and part of, the global terrorist threat. In that sense, the attacks in Paris, as well as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. — strongly condemned by Beijing — were also opportunities for China to play this card.
Moreover, China rejects all queries concerning the root causes of the growing terrorist activities within its borders. The Chinese media and the Foreign Ministry recently targeted a French journalist for her nuanced analysis of this issue.
But at the same time, in direct contradiction to this position and the condemnation of “double standards,” articles published in official newspapers list interference by the United States and the Western world, and the support of regime change, as causes for the rising threats of jihadism and terrorism. This contradictory posture makes in-depth and fruitful debate with the Chinese regime on these issues difficult.
Shocked by the Mali attack in November, however, China has proposed concrete actions to demonstrate its willingness to play a role in the coalition against terrorism outside its borders. It will establish a logistics base in Djibouti, not only to support its anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean, but also contribute to the stabilization of the region with the establishment of a 8,000-strong peacekeeping force. In September, Xi also promised $100 million in further military aid to the African Union.
China however, will not, and indeed does not, have the military capability — yet — to commit itself to more, particularly to participate in operations in Syria or Iraq. Indeed, China is today the biggest contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations in terms of numbers, but its engagement remains mostly limited to noncombat missions.
China, though, could play a significant and positive role in contributing to a reduction of terrorist risks. It could moderate its support for authoritarian and fragile political regimes, and use its aid to encourage gradual evolution for the sake of future stability. It could also reduce its role as the main purveyor of small arms to unstable regions in the world, particularly Africa.
Based on these two points, and a more open dialogue on the root causes of terrorism both inside and outside the country, China could fully engage in its role as a responsible great power in the common war against terror.
Valerie Niquet is head of the Asia department of the French think tank Foundation for Strategic Research. She is currently a visiting research fellow at the Japanese Institute for International Affairs.