Expert Commentary

The Changing Nature of Terrorism in China

Christina Lin
Fellow, Johns Hopkins University SAIS

On August 14, Director of International Cooperation at China’s Central Military Commission, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, reached a deal to provide humanitarian aid, military training, and intelligence sharing with the Syrian government.

Two weeks later on August 30, there was a suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan.  According to Bishkek, the terrorist attack was ordered by Uighur jihadists in Syria, financed by the rebranded al Nusra Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), coordinated from Turkey, and carried out by a member of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP/ETIM).

It appears the nature of terrorism against China is changing, and so is Beijing’s response.

The central front

From the 1990s to the late 2000s, China’s anti-terror efforts were largely localized in Xinjiang and bordering countries—their central front against Uigher jihadists in the Global War on Terror. After 9/11, when the U.S. asked China for anti-terror cooperation, Beijing responded that they would contribute by clearing their house in Xinjiang.   At the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention facility there were 22 Chinese Uyghur detainees caught fighting with al Qaeda. At one point in 2006, Chinese citizens were the fourth largest group held in detention, behind citizens of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

For threats emanating across the border, China relies on bilateral cooperation with Central Asian states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and largely outsource Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) to the  U.S. and NATO.

However, after the outbreak of the Syrian war and when Uyghur militants based in AfPak began to migrate to Syria starting in 2012, the Middle East became the forward front for China’s War on Terror.  Beginning in 2013, there was an uptick of terrorist attacks in China (Beijing 2013, Kunming and Urumqi 2014) directed from abroad as Uyghur terrorism became trans-nationalized.

In response, China’s State Council established the Leading Small Group on Counter-Terrorism led by the Minister of Public Security in August 2013, along with a new National Security Commission led by President Xi Jinping in January 2014. In December 2015, China took a more expeditionary approach and passed a new anti-terror law that paved way for the Chinese military and paramilitary to operate abroad.  

The expansion of ISIS, al Qaeda, and various terrorist groups in Syria has had a gravitational effect on jihadist movements worldwide.  With Syria’s Idlib replacing Afghanistan’s Tora Bora as the main pot for the global jihadi “witches brew” that includes TIP, Syria is the focus of China’s forward front in anti-terrorism.

The forward front

In addition to modernizing its security forces, upgrading surveillance, conducting military exercises, and strengthening the legal apparatus in its anti-terror efforts, China is also trying to stabilize both its central and forward fronts via economic development. In September 2013, Beijing rolled out the Eurasian Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road, or Belt & Road, to help integrate and stabilize the greater Middle East and thus reduce ungoverned spaces for terrorist groups to thrive.

Just as China is committed to the international  Istanbul Process to stabilize Afghanistan, by appointing a special envoy to the Syrian crisis in March, it is equally committed to a political solution to end the war and stabilize Syria. This is especially pressing given TIP has become a more powerful and experienced fighting force throughout the past year of the Syrian war, with support from Al Nusra/JFS and as part of the Army of Conquest (Jaish al Fatah) backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

While many countries are currently faced with the problem of returning foreign terrorist fighters, this is not yet as much of an issue for China, though the risk increases as terrorist groups in Idlib continue to fester and grow.  Security experts warned the TIP may also resort to attacking Chinese abroad if they face difficulty gaining access in China.

This is a grave challenge for Beijing with over two million workers in the Middle East and yearly outbound tourists exceeding 100 million. According to the China National Tourism Administration, there were 1,300 Chinese tourists in Paris on the day of the ISIS terrorist attack last November and an estimated two million Chinese visited France in 2015.

In order to protect Chinese citizens overseas, Beijing is thus approaching anti-terrorism as long-term cooperative security and crisis management. It is increasing bilateral cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence sharing, and extradition treaties, as well as utilizing multilateral bodies for coordinated anti-terror efforts in Eurasia.

Besides coordinating via the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, Beijing is also using its 2014-2016 presidency of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) to explore law enforcement cooperation and establishing an emergency response center. Another forum for engagement is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that has overlapping member states with SCO and CICA.

Faced with similar threats from Syria-based transnational terrorist networks, this is an opportunity for China and the West to identify and actively pursue areas of cooperation.  If this cooperative template is successful, it could eventually be enlarged to address other security challenges.

The Author is Christina Lin

Dr. Christina Lin is a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane's. 

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