Can the U.S. and China Cooperate to Fight Terrorism?


On April 30, the U.S. State Department released its annual country reports on terrorism, including an assessment of each country’s efforts to fight terrorist activities. The part of the report dealing with East Asia and the Pacific concluded that “China’s cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism issues remained marginal, with little reciprocity in information exchanges.”

The report also said that China’s government “did not provide detailed evidence of terrorist involvement” in incidents of violence involving Uyghurs in 2013 (it should be noted that the report only covered the events of 2013, and thus did not mention the March attack at Kunming Railway Station or the recent bombing in Urumqi). Regarding 2013’s most infamous attack, the fatal car crash in Tiananmen Square, the State Department concluded “there was no independent evidence to suggest ETIM involvement.”

Comments calling into question the legitimacy of China’s descriptions of terrorism will never play well in Beijing. This year, the timing, while coincidental (the U.S. report is released April 30 each year), was particularly bad. April 30 saw the latest terrorist attack on Chinese soil, with suspects reportedly attacking bystanders with knives before detonating explosives at Urumqi’s South Railway Station.

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China’s Foreign Ministry responded angrily to the State Department report. “We are dissatisfied with the misstatement relating to China,” spokesman Qin Gang said in a special statement. Qin stressed that “China is a victim of terrorism, and is consistently and resolutely opposed to any form of terrorism.” He added, “Terrorism is a common enemy of human kind, and the international community should form synergy in combating terrorism.”

However, despite China’s reaction, the State Department report was not all bad. It noted advances in China’s use of asset freezes and other financial methods to combat terrorism. The report also pointed to China’s global and regional involvement in counterterrorism activities, including joint military exercises with Russia, India, and Indonesia. The report makes it clear that China has actively been increasing joint counterterrorism activities — just not with the U.S.

As noted in a 2010 Congressional Research Service report, U.S.-China counterterrorism cooperation was at its peak during the early 2000s. Even then, the report described such cooperation as “limited.” During this time, however, “the tone and context of counterterrorism helped to stabilize — even if it did not transform — the closer bilateral relationship” between the U.S. and China, a hint of how cooperation against terrorist activities could increase mutual trust and confidence between  Beijing and Washington.

Since the heyday of the early 2000s, though, counterterrorism has become less of a bright spot in the relationship. The CRS report notes that in 2005 the U.S. began to publicly express frustration with the amount of U.S.-China cooperation on counterterrorism. As evidenced by this year’s State Department report, these complaints persist today.

Common sense would indicate that Beijing and Washington have much to gain from working together to combat terrorism. For example, the State Department’s report listed Afghanistan and Pakistan as “terrorist safe havens.” Areas of Pakistan in particular (including the tribal areas and Balochistan province) were described as “a safe haven for terrorist groups seeking to conduct domestic, regional, and global attacks.”  Though the report did not list Xinjiang-linked terrorist groups specifically, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) reportedly operates out of Pakistan’s tribal belt. The persistence of militant groups in areas of Pakistan is of great concern to the U.S. and China, as groups hostile to both countries operate in these regions. So why aren’t we seeing more cooperation on counterterrorism operations?

From the U.S. perspective, the main hang-up is concern about China’s definition of terrorism: specifically, what a 2011 CSIS report called “differences over what is considered terrorism and what is a legitimate expression of peaceful political dissent.” The U.S. has reservations that some of the activities China classifies as counterterrorism amount to the persecution of Uyghurs. These fears have been highlighted repeatedly by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The Uyghurs detained at Guantanamo Bay provided the most visible symbol of this concern. The men were reportedly detained “in the course of hostilities” against U.S. forces. However, a U.S. court ruled they did not pose a threat and should be released. Despite Beijing’s urging, Washington refused to repatriate the men to China out of fears that they would be subject to mistreatment by the Chinese government.

Under this framework, the brutal attacks in Kunming and Urumqi could actually be beneficial to U.S.-China cooperation on counterterrorism. These attacks clearly fit the U.S. legal definition of terrorism:

“activities that — (A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life … (B) appear to be intended — (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

As such, the recent attacks could provide an incentive for increased U.S.-China counterterrorism cooperation. China could facilitate this through increased information sharing, particularly by sharing the results of its investigations into these attack and their connections with TIP and/or the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

China, meanwhile, does not want to see an increased U.S. presence near its western borders, even if this presence is ostensibly meant to combat terrorist activities. However, China also benefits from U.S. efforts to root out terrorism — ETIM’s former leader, Abdul Haq, is presumed to have died in a U.S. drone strike in 2010. China would likely be more willing to consider close cooperation with the U.S. if it could be assured the increased counterterrorism activities would not lead to an increased U.S. troop presence.

It would also be helpful for the U.S. to indicate more concern over the increase in terrorist activities in China. It was obvious from the State Department report that the U.S. does not consider Xinjiang-linked terrorist groups to be a major focus for counterterrorism operations in the Asia-Pacific. The State Department list of “ongoing concerns” for the region included terrorist activity in Indonesia and the southern Philippines, with no mention of Xinjiang. The U.S. also does not include ETIM or TIP on its official list of designated terrorist organizations. Again, increased information sharing on Beijing’s part may convince the U.S. to change this position, but the U.S. should also refrain from implying (as the 2010 CRS report does) that such groups are not worthy of attention because they don’t pose a direct threat to U.S. interests.

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