Rachel Brown is a research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In November, when the Islamic State group executed Chinese hostage Fan Jinghui, a Chinese advertising consultant and self-identified “wanderer,” Chinese netizens quickly vented their frustration over the government’s limited response. One Weibo user wrote, “It’s time for China as a big power to stand up and act.” Although Chinese censors temporarily blocked keywords such as “hostage” and “IS,” the burst of online sentiment raised questions about how the Chinese government would react to the mounting threat posed by terrorism both abroad and within its borders. In particular, would the specter of the Islamic State lead China to change its regional security strategy as it expands its trade and investment presence under its “One Belt, One Road” initiative?
China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) policy is an ambitious effort to link the country through infrastructure, telecommunications, and finance to Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Over the next ten years, Beijing aspires to achieve 2.5 trillion dollars in annual trade with the nations involved in OBOR. Chinese policy analysts are well aware of the security concerns posed by the project. Tsinghua University professor Zhao Kejin has noted, “As China becomes more involved in economic globalization and closely integrated with the world – especially with the ‘Road and Belt’ initiative and its underlying projects – ISIS is not an issue the country can get around.”
China has long claimed that it faces an externally supported terrorist threat inside its borders, particularly in the predominantly Muslim autonomous region of Xinjiang. With approximately 70 percent of the trade between China and Central Asia passing through Xinjiang, its stability is vital to the success of the Silk Road Economic Belt. Yet the region has been the site of significant ethnic violence. After the Paris attacks, leaders cited a September attack on a mine in northwest Xinjiang that killed fifty people as evidence of China’s domestic terrorist threat and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stated, “China is also a victim of terrorism.” However, a debate persists between foreign observers and Chinese officials over the sources of regional unrest and what constitutes terrorism.
These domestic concerns over violence and instability have led Beijing to collaborate closely with its Central Asian neighbors on antiterrorism efforts since the 1990s. Historically, this collaboration has occurred through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose members already exchange information and practices through the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. Since 2002, China has also participated in fifteen military exercises and drills with the SCO and according to one report, “all but one of these exercises have focused explicitly on counterterrorism.” While these are not highly complex drills, they nonetheless help Chinese troops prepare to operate in foreign contexts and improve battlefield capacities, essential skills were China to adopt a more active military presence abroad. At an SCO meeting in mid-December, Chinese premier Li Keqiang advocated that the group collaborate even more closely in addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State. Separate from their SCO activities, China and Kazakhstan also made defense pledges in October that could help the two nations cooperate to fight terrorism, including through Chinese training of Kazakh special forces.
Yet OBOR will significantly raise the stakes for Chinese counterterrorism efforts. Much of the land-based portion of OBOR will pass through Central Asia. New infrastructure and energy projects travelling through Xinjiang and Central Asia will increase both the number of Han Chinese workers in the region and the attendant security risks. Protection of Chinese laborers abroad has become a growing concern for the Chinese government. For example, three executives from the China Railway Construction Corporation were killed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb during the hostage crisis at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali. Recent propaganda released by the Islamic State such as a Mandarin chant calling on Muslims to “take up weapons to fight” has intensified fears of terrorism targeted at Chinese nationals.
The implementation of OBOR will also likely reveal critical gaps including a lack of “military reach and experience on the ground dealing with complex security” writes Andrew Browne in the Wall Street Journal. At present, China depends on local militaries and in some instances Russian troops to ensure the safety of its projects. The evolving military presence of both Russia and the United States in Central Asia will also affect China’s security needs in the region. As the United States reduces its presence in Afghanistan in the coming years, China will be forced to consider new options to help secure its investments in ventures such as the Aynak copper mine.
Beijing has taken some steps to meet these gaps and protect China’s interests abroad. Article 7 of the newly approved counterterrorism law permits members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and other Chinese security forces to conduct counterterrorism missions abroad if granted approval by the relevant host nation. PLA reform proposals would also establish the largest of five new military zones (hosting over one-third of China’s ground-based forces) in the nation’s far west, which could enhance their ability to address instability close to Central Asia. PLA members have proposed additional ideas such as supporting private military firms to play a role in providing security if Chinese troops are not permitted to do so, and pushing the SCO to assume more responsibility in addressing the dual priorities of security and economic development.
The confluence of perceived domestic threats in Xinjiang and the need to protect large investments in neighboring countries could lead China to pursue a more aggressive counterterrorism effort, linking cooperation with other countries to an expansion in the capabilities of the PLA. While China’s rise as a regional and global power brings new opportunities, it also introduces new challenges including more targets for terrorists and concern over the intentions surrounding Chinese economic projects. Such risks, however, are often the price a “big power” pays to trade and invest around the world.