Will China Join the US in Counterterrorism Efforts?

Graeme Nicol via Flickr

On September 22 2013, People’s Daily reported that Chinese militants, mostly of the Uyghur ethnic group from the western region of Xinjiang, have fled the country illegally and joined the terror group Islamic State to get “terror training.”[1] Wu Sike, China’s former special envoy to the Middle East, confirmed this statement by stating that around 100 Chinese are fighting for the IS.[2]

The IS has been grabbing headlines nearly everywhere else in the world; however, it has not been the centre of focus of Chinese media.[3] Until now, China has not offered or voiced support for The United States’ campaign against terrorism and often condemned U.S intervention in the Middle East. [4] But knowing that Chinese nationals have fled from the borders to train with the brutal jihadist group that threatens to revenge against countries, including China, that are “oppressing” the Muslim people, China is feeling the carnage creeping closer to home.[5] Today, China echoes the same fears expressed by Western countries and is wary of the possibility of foreign-trained fighters returning home to mount attacks.[6] This shared threat may push China to militarily engage itself in global counterterrorism efforts.

One must note, however, that fighting terrorism is not foreign to China. China has been combatting low-level separatist insurgencies in Xinjiang and Tibet for decades. Xinjiang is home to the ethnic minority group, the Muslim Uygur people that speak a Turkic language.[7] Many Uyghurs feel oppressed by Chinese government’s restrictions on their culture, language and religion. For example, children under the age of 18 are not allowed to practice their religion, to engage in Islamic extremism, or travel without restrictions. [8] Other experts claim that it is the economic marginalisation of the Uyghurs that is the root of ethnic violence, not the cultural and religious oppression. [9] The Han Chinese have reaped the benefits of recent economic development in Xinjiang, as a result, evoked bitterness among the natives and especially among the Islamist extremists who seeks to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. [10] The Uyghurs’ riots in 2009, the Tiananmen Square attack in October 2013 and the Kunming Knife attacks in March of this year are examples of what Chinese authorities claim to be the deliberate terror attacks of the simmering independence movement.[11] Unlike past tensions that generally took the form of peaceful political movements against the power of Beijing in remote areas, the aforementioned conflicts resulted in deaths and injuries in metropolises. The extremity of the latest Uyghur insurgencies and the threat from the IS has made combatting terrorism national priority in China.[12]

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chun Ying said Monday: “We believe the world should make concerted efforts to combat terrorism and safeguard international peace and stability.”[13] This implies a platform for cooperation between the U.S and China. Still, experts insist that it is very unlikely China would involve itself with Obama’s administration’s military campaign against IS for a number of reasons. [14]

Firstly, China does not have the military capability to send troops abroad. Since September 11 2001, US counterterrorism efforts came with a “huge cost” in return for increasing terrorist activities.[15] Shen Dingli, Vice-Dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, sees the likelihood of China becoming the next target if it follows US’s footsteps. [16]

Second, there is a general reluctance and fear among American and Chinese security professionals to cooperate and share specific military information on terrorism with each other. [17] China’s record of political dissent and lack of transparency in military affairs will generate in the US uncertainty. [18] Mutual suspicion will hinder cooperation.

Also, the U.S has never classified Uyghurs attacks as evidences of terrorism. Instead, the U.S categorized them as expressions of frustrations against the communist regime. This view has offended the Chinese government and inflamed tensions between the two countries.[19] Thus, for cooperation to happen, the U.S must recognize the attacks in China as terrorist activities and not legitimate rights to freedom of expression, which doesn’t appear likely to happen anytime soon.

The most important factor preventing the development of Sino-American counterterrorist operations is  the U.S’s reluctance to acknowledge China’s role as an international stakeholder.[20] For a long time, the cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy is to not interfere but to respect the affairs and sovereignty of foreign states.[21] From both the Chinese and American perspective, cooperation would signal to the international community China’s increase in its sphere of influence and necessitate more responsibility within the international system.[22] The Chinese prefer to subscribe its long-held ideas of non-interference, and the US does not want to add onto the threat of IS with a stronger China.

On the other hand, instability in Iraq and Syria is not only a security issue but also an economic threat to China. China is Iraq’s largest oil client. [23] China has invested billions of dollars into Iraqi oil and into exploring a new Silk Road in hopes of creating a more accessible supply route. [24] Hence, it is unlikely that China will remain inertia when her economic interests are affected.

Despite that the factors surrounding counterterrorism that suggest an unlikely military cooperation, an unstable and threatening IS is not in either power’s favour. China is expected to ramp up international counterterrorism measures to address IS threat through supporting institutions such as the UN Security Council.


[1] Li, Hui, and Sui-Li Wee. “Chinese Militants Get Islamic State ‘terrorist Training’: Media.” Yahoo! News, September 22, 2014. Accessed September 24, 2014. http://news.yahoo.com/chinese-militants-islamic-state-terrorist-training-media-080016082.html.

[2] Vanderklippe, Nathan. “Chinese Radicals from Xinjiang Join Islamic State.” The Globe and Mail. September 23, 2014. Accessed September 26, 2014. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/chinese-radicals-from-xinjiang-join-islamic-state/article20735422/.

[3]Olsen, Alexa. “China Sees Islamic State Inching Closer to Home.” Foreign Policy. August 11, 2014. Accessed September 23, 2014. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/08/11/the_islamic_state_chinese_media_hong_kong_phoenix_xinjiang.

[4] “Report: Chinese Militants Get Islamic State ‘terrorist Training'” Report: Chinese Militants Get Islamic State ‘terrorist Training’ September 22, 2014. Accessed September 26, 2014. http://www.jpost.com/Breaking-News/Report-Chinese-militants-get-Islamic-State-terrorist-training-376016.

[5] Vanderklippe, “Chinese Radicals from Xinjiang Join Islamic State.”

[6] Vanderklippe, “Chinese Radicals from Xinjiang Join Islamic State.”

[7] Blanchard, Ben. “China Gives Cautious Response to Obama’s Islamic State Call.” Yahoo! News. September 11, 2014. Accessed September 26, 2014. http://news.yahoo.com/china-gives-cautious-response-obamas-islamic-state-call-083509137–finance.html.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Martina, Michael. “China Urges Central Asian Neighbors to Step up Extremism Fight.” Yahoo! News. September 12, 2014. Accessed September 26, 2014. http://news.yahoo.com/china-urges-central-asian-neighbors-step-extremism-fight-031143621.html.

[10] http://news.yahoo.com/china-urges-central-asian-neighbors-step-extremism-fight-031143621.html

[11] Ibid.

[12] Payne, Jeffrey. “Can the US and China Cooperate on Counterterrorism?” The Diplomat. July 23, 2014. Accessed September 26, 2014. http://thediplomat.com/2014/07/can-the-us-and-china-cooperate-on-counterterrorism/.

[13] Vanderklippe, Nathan. “Chinese Radicals from Xinjiang Join Islamic State.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Vanderklippe, Nathan. “Chinese Radicals from Xinjiang Join Islamic State.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Payne, “Can the Us and China Cooperate on Counterterrorism.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Blanchard, “China Gives Cautious Response to Obama’s Islamic State Call.”

[24] Chen, Yo-Jung. “Zhou Yongkang, Islamic State and China’s Pivot West.” The Diplomat. September 9, 2014. Accessed September 26, 2014. http://thediplomat.com/2014/09/zhou-yongkang-islamic-state-and-chinas-pivot-west/.