China looks to increase its role in tackling global terrorism

China looks to increase its role in tackling global terrorism

As China’s military capabilities increase and with the rising risks terrorist groups pose to strategic areas of interest, Beijing is seeking to ensure its presence is felt further afield within the global effort to tackle terrorism.

An expression of intent to get more involved

In 2015 China passed controversial counter-terror legislation that permitted Chinese military and paramilitary forces to undertake operations overseas. Other laws included communications companies being required to cooperate openly with public security agencies. This sparked significant concern within Western governments with some claiming that it was another sign that Beijing was ignoring international norms and attempting to broaden its military might by increasing its presence abroad. Conversely, Beijing retains that the measures were to enable China’s various security and armed forces to be able to combat legitimate terror threats worldwide, meeting the expansion of the country’s strategic interests.

Since the law was passed there has been increased military activity conducted by Chinese forces, both domestically and on the international stage.  Examples include that of paramilitary police forces cracking down on Uighur extremists in Xinjiang (and now parts of Central Asia), and that of counter-piracy taskforces tackling security threats to shipping routes throughout the Indian Ocean. Terrorism, therefore, has become a serious focal point for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Not only does it perceive terrorism as a serious threat to national unity, but also as a threat to its strategic interests abroad, whether they be political, economic or security interests.

Protecting national interests outside of China

What were once military forces designated to dealing with militarists and separatists domestically, are now forces that can operate against groups internationally. This allows China to protect and secure national security interests more effectively. Crucially, it means that the Chinese military and paramilitary forces are now going to interact with other countries’ counter-terrorism forces through joint operations. It also means they will face a wider range of terrorist organisations in locations Chinese forces have never operated in before. This highlights a drastic change in the use of Chinese military power.

The introduction of Chinese military forces being deployed at their base in Djibouti provides a good example of how China is increasing its military’s operational utility in strategic localities. Despite international actors’ fear of China using Djibouti as a base to launch hostile military operations, so far, it has been used to aid other security and anti-piracy missions around the Gulf of Aden since 2008. This demonstrates that Chinese forces are actually collaborating with other state forces and international organisations in order to combat shared terrorist and piracy threats to critical commercial shipping lanes.

What must be noted is that the more deployments that Chinese counter-terrorism units complete, the more experience they gain in dealing with violent terrorist and extremist organisations. It also means they are further integrated into the global counter-terrorism network. The People’s Armed Police are China’s main counter-terrorism unit, within this force exists the elite Snow Leopard Commandos who have soon become a competent force after sweeping reforms in March 2018. The forces have shown a degree of competency during deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq guarding diplomatic missions. This shows the intent Beijing has to assume more military capabilities to ensure its interests are protected but also more responsibility in trying to achieve global peace and security.

However, the most prominent example of China using military means to protect its interests is in the South China Sea (SCS). The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the China Coast Guard have both displayed aggressive tactics in order to ensure their claims to the islands and atolls remain undisputed and under their control. The media attention on the SCS disputes have shed light on the tactics Chinese forces are willing to take to secure what they deem as a core strategic and national interest. Many officials and commentators fear that an increased presence of Chinese counter-terrorism forces worldwide could be used to the same effect as the PLAN and China Coast Guard have been within the SCS.

Significance of countries included in the Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) represents a vast investment and infrastructure network in which Xi Jinping and the CCP is heavily invested in. Therefore, China now perceives any security risks posed to the investment projects within the countries where the BRI is being implemented as a direct threat to China’s national interest. Such countries as Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Central Asian and MENA regions, are posed with significant instability, where terrorist threats could jeopardise the success of Chinese infrastructure and investment.  This suggests that now China has undergone sufficient militarisation Beijing will have the capabilities to protect and oversee the successful implementation and functioning of Chinese investment and infrastructure projects throughout localities associated with the BRI.

Future Prospects

It is clear that China is attempting to align its economic strength with the amount of influence it has in global governance. This has led to a foreign policy shift to a more assertive and interventionist approach to dealing with national interests but also with the interests of the international community.

This translates into a political environment in which actors can be assured that Beijing will be doing its upmost to protect Chinese investment and assets domestically and abroad. Importantly, China is willing to use counter-terrorism forces if necessary. The BRI is of major importance to China’s economic development and therefore military forces could be more frequently used to protect the implementation of the initiative.

Yet, given the historical trends of China’s foreign and security policies, it is more likely that China aims to gradually become a more established actor within the global effort to mitigate and tackle the risks and threats posed by domestic and international terrorism. This will likely result in China playing a more proactive role in joint counter-terrorism operations around the globe in the medium to long term.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Charles Williams

Charles Williams is from the UK and graduated from Loughborough University with a BA in International Relations and has just completed his MA in International Political Economy from King’s College London. He is a keen traveller and having studied and travelled in China and Taiwan specialises in China’s international relations with a particular focus on the Belt and Road Initiative.