China's Counterterrorism Campaign Goes Global
Attendees of the 2014 SCO Summit
Image Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

China's Counterterrorism Campaign Goes Global

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The nature of terrorism in China is changing, as is the Chinese government’s response to the threat. Despite the importance of the issue for China and the world, there is little understanding in the West about the facts concerning terrorism in China. This is the final article in a four-part series dealing with the threat of terrorism in China – its origins and changing nature – as well as the central government’s response. See part one (“The Terrorist Threat in China”), part two (“Beyond Doubt: The Changing Face of Terrorism in China”), and part three (“How the Chinese Government Fights Terrorism”).

China still focuses on bilateral cooperation to fight terrorism as a transnational phenomenon, including extradition treaties and police and intelligence exchanges. So far China has signed 36 extradition treaties (for instance with Pakistan, Thailand, and Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan) to facilitate the exchange of prisoners and suspected terrorists. The latest treaties, with Afghanistan and Iran, came into force in December 2014. In January 2015 Afghanistan extradited to China several Uyghurs suspected of having been trained in terror camps in Pakistan.

Interactive map of terrorism in China (2010-2015)
Image Credit: Mercator Institute for China Studies

Additionally, in February 2015, China and Indonesia signed an agreement to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation following the arrests of Uyghur extremists by Indonesian forces.

Multilateral Forums: The SCO and Beyond

While traditionally reticent to coordinate its anti-terrorism agenda in multilateral forums, in recent years, Beijing has become more willing to engage in and even set up multilateral frameworks to respond to terrorism.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) serves as the main multilateral body for China’s commitment to fight against terrorism. The SCO was initiated by China and formally established in 2001 together with Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to coordinate efforts to fight “terrorism, religious extremism and separatism” in the region. Besides joint military drills (so called “Peace Missions”), which often have a counter-terrorism focus, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) provides the SCO’s anti-terror efforts framework. RATS serves as a meeting platform for SCO member states’ counter-terrorism agencies and facilitates intelligence sharing in the form of a joint database and blacklists of individuals and groups linked to terrorism.

However, funding, operational competence, and human resources are still comparatively underdeveloped. For instance, the fight against drug trafficking (a source of finance for terrorist organizations) and the monitoring of terrorist networks and recruiting methods online would require more technical and human support.

The potential enlargement of the SCO to include India, Pakistan, and possibly Iran in the coming years could help the organization to become an even more important player in the fight against terrorism in Eurasia under Chinese leadership. However, the extension to South Asia might also become a major obstacle to effectively fighting terrorism due to the complex and often difficult relationships between Pakistan, India, and China.

Besides the SCO, China is also increasingly committed to the Istanbul Process which seeks to stabilize Afghanistan. In the long run, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) might develop into China’s preferred multilateral body for coordinated anti-terror efforts in Asia. Established in 1999, the heads of the 24 member states from all across Asia and the Middle East meet every four years. From 2014 to 2016, China holds the presidency of CICA and will use this period to deepen counter-terrorism cooperation in Asia. Probable outcomes are the establishment of a forum for security cooperation in law enforcement and an emergency response center.

Potential Cooperation With the West

With China developing into a more proactive player in Asian political and economic affairs, China and its citizens both at home and abroad will increasingly be targeted by Islamist terrorism in the years to come. With higher stakes at play in volatile regions such as Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, China is forced to become more active in the global fight against terrorism. Beijing’s recent attempts to mediate between Afghanistan, the Taliban, and Pakistan not only underline its expanding reach and growing maturity in global affairs but also its potential weight in crucial international anti-terrorism efforts.

As China and the West face a similar threat from trans-regional Islamist terrorist networks, areas of cooperation should be identified and actively pursued. Apart from exchanges of information on terrorist groups, many European countries also have their own experiences to share with regard to fighting terrorism, emphasizing milder forms of policing and surveillance as well as cultural and educational methods of prevention.

However, there are limitations to substantial cooperation with China on anti-terrorism. Although China is attempting to put its anti-terrorism policies on a legal footing with the new anti-terrorism law, this could also serve to legitimize arbitrary policies against its own citizens. The main obstacle for meaningful cooperation between the West and China remains the unconstrained and non-transparent way in which Beijing handles terrorism within its borders.

Moritz Rudolf is a Research Associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), Berlin. Marc Julienne is a Visiting Academic Fellow at MERICS and Johannes Buckow is a Research Associate at MERICS.

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