Can the US and China Cooperate on Counterterrorism?
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Can the US and China Cooperate on Counterterrorism?

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Amidst a relationship that is expected to define international relations in this century, efforts are underway to find ways for the United States and the People’s Republic of China to cooperate on counterterrorism. As powerful states that thrive in part because of their entanglement within the global economic system, both the U.S. and China are disproportionately threatened by the emergence of instability within that same system.

While it is true that the U.S. and China have different methodologies through which they interact with the larger world – the U.S. prefers multinational partnerships backed by American security guarantees while China favors a system of bilateral relations and the pursuit of regional hegemony in East Asia – both recognize that terrorism is a trans-border threat. Moreover, as both countries are potential targets of terrorist organizations and both are economically tied to regions regularly destabilized by terror, it follows that the U.S. and China would have a shared interest in combatting global terrorism. However, they have yet to cooperate. The reason for this is political, not strategic.

A Shared Threat

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In an age of globalization, the non-state actor is more important than ever before. One reason for this is that states in today’s world partially thrive because of an international commercial network that, once disrupted, has immediate and substantial effects. Thus, while a group like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines is not a direct threat to the U.S., or even the government of the Philippines, its violence can disrupt the political stability of a specific locality, creating a safe haven for a host of illicit groups. These groups, involved in drug smuggling, kidnapping and piracy, among other activities, become a regional problem that can disrupt the interests of states as far away as the U.S.. This was, in part, the lesson learned by the U.S. after 9/11 and one currently resonating in China in the wake of a series of attacks by radical groups.

The domino effect that terrorism creates is of particular importance in two regions: the Middle East and South Asia. The Middle East, a region beset by economic stagnation and sectarian tension, has begat a variety of radical groups with a penchant for violence and unforgiving ideologies. These groups, using the cleavages wrought by political and economic failings, emerge alongside other criminal forces, further weaken regional states, and disrupt international commerce. Particular cases include Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has used a weak state to further destabilize the country; Syria, where the civil war features Assad-allied Hezbollah fighting against, among others, the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra front; and Iraq, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which now calls itself simply the Islamic State (IS), operates within the context of the Syrian civil war to lead successful attacks against the Iraqi state.

Like the Middle East, South Asia is a region where most states underperform economically and where sectarian differences often define both domestic and regional politics. Terrorist organizations have used this environment to their benefit in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and even the region’s powerhouse, India. Yet, it is the Afghanistan-Pakistan region where the most powerful and violent terrorist organizations operate. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operates along the northern Afghan border regions and is continuing its pattern of violence supplemented by the narcotics trade. After the Taliban, the former government of Afghanistan, was dislodged from power in 2001, it was transmogrified into a full-fledged insurgency. While al-Qaeda’s footprint has largely disappeared from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, other groups have emerged, such as the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network. Each of these violent organizations have used the absence of strong governments on one or both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to facilitate their activities and in many cases, etch out autonomous territory from which they can base their operations.

Since September 11, 2001, combatting terrorism has been a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. That objective led to the invasion of Afghanistan, the removal of the Taliban from power, and a global campaign against al-Qaeda. It remains a priority today, with the Obama administration reaffirming the danger of terror, seeking to combat the growing influence of ISIS, and working to mitigate the influence of violent extremism throughout the Middle East and South Asia.

Combatting terrorism has only recently become a core national priority in China. Tensions have long existed between the People’s Republic and ethnic minorities, particularly Tibetans and Uyghurs, but these tensions primarily took the form of peaceful political movements challenging the policies and power of Beijing. With an attack in Tiananmen Square last year and the Kunming railway attack in March, radical elements within China who identify with the Uyghur cause for autonomy have taken to violence and targeted areas in or near metropolises. Beijing has made combatting this radicalism a national priority and for the first time is prominently indicating that terror in China is affiliated with terror organizations operating outside Chinese boundaries.

No to Cooperation

Both the U.S. and China view combatting terror as an essential duty. Thus, should not the 21st century’s two dominant powers use this shared interest as a platform for cooperation when possible? Quite simply, they should – but quite honestly, they won’t.

For starters, the People’s Republic is not transparent when it comes to law enforcement or military affairs and there is a fear within the U.S. that counterterrorism efforts with China would put American security personnel in a scenario where they help to target dissidents, not terrorists. China can object to this characterization, but this is a real fear among American security professionals, and not without cause given both China’s record on political dissent and a general unwillingness to share specific information on terrorism.

On the other hand, the U.S. has been inconsistent with classifying attacks in China as evidence of terrorism. Concerns over human rights abuses and the general status of ethnic minorities in China led to waffling statements that offended Chinese security personnel and inflamed sentiment against the U.S.. The label of terrorism must not be haphazardly cast around in any context, but when evidence shows terrorism then it should be called terrorism (though this absolutely requires the Chinese government to be more transparent when it comes to evidence).

Another consideration is that neither China nor the U.S. can separate the issue of counterterrorism from the overarching bilateral relationship. Tensions between Beijing and Washington have increased over the past several years, particularly in relation to territorial claims made by Beijing in the East and South China Seas. Beijing’s provocative maritime acts has pitted it against U..S allies in East Asia and further complicated relations with Washington. Added to territorial disputes in East Asia, cyber security has become a major source of friction between the two countries. These are but two examples from a large and extremely complex relationship that does not feature substantial mutual trust. To take steps towards joint counterterrorism efforts, both countries will have to recognize that trust is not necessary when interests align and that a relationship so large and complex will have elements of cooperation and contestation.

However, the single most powerful element keeping joint counterterrorism operations from developing are the views surrounding China’s role as an international stakeholder. Within Beijing, Chinese foreign policy has long subscribed to the ideas of non-interference in the affairs of foreign states and a respect for the sovereignty of foreign states. These principles have been the cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy for sixty years. Yet, China’s growing importance within the international system and the increasing number of disputes it has with foreign countries has strained the continued power of these principles. Additionally, China has been able to use the current international system to its great benefit without contributing to the maintenance of that system. In short, China has been and remains a free-rider. Cooperating with the U.S. on counterterrorism activities, particularly within the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, would force Beijing to at least partially abandon some core principles and to open the door to more responsibility within the international system. Many within China’s diplomatic and security sectors do not wish to walk down this road, even if the journey is inevitable. Thus, China proposes confidence building measures and cooperative economic development with the argument that such steps will lead to cooperation on a larger scale. It has not worked so far.

From the American perspective, cooperating with China on counterterrorism is seen by some within the foreign policy community as a signal of approval for China to increase its sphere of influence. Given China’s expansionist moves in the East and South China Sea and its long-term strategy of a continental trade and energy corridor, concerns about a rising China are not misplaced. Yet, China’s rise is in part the result of it not being a stakeholder, which means it does not incur the costs others do. By cooperating when possible in the realm of counterterrorism, China takes on the role of a responsible power – a country invested in the enhancement of international security that brings new benefits and costs. Through cooperation, the U.S. gets China to selectively share in the burden of mitigating a threat and China, by being more firmly invested in regional security, better understands both the perspective of the U.S. and the limits of its own power.

Power of Politics

Taken altogether, the factors surrounding counterterrorism cooperation between the U.S. and China make the likelihood of cooperation unlikely. Cooperation could help weaken international terrorist organizations and the networks they sustain. It could enhance regional security in South Asia and the Middle East. Yet, political hang-ups will sabotage efforts at cooperation. China will remain a free-rider, content to criticize the U.S. without investing its own blood and treasure. The U.S., concerned with China’s intentions, will go on shouldering much of the burden of counterterrorism alone.

Jeffrey Payne is Manager of Academic Affairs at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.      

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