Now that the U.S. has decided to bomb ISIS and assembled an international coalition to do so, the key question for China is what should it do? Should China join the international coalition in one way or another? Although the Chinese government seemed to decline the U.S. offer to join the coalition, there are actually multiple reasons China should join. I’ve outlined five benefits that China can reap by joining the U.S. coalition against ISIS.
First and foremost, it is in China’s security interest to destroy ISIS, which is already a threat to China’s national security and could become a very serious threat if it gains more power and influence. ISIS has proven to be a brutal regime, willing to kill innocent people who do not share their radical religious views. After beheading two innocent American journalists, it is not inconceivable that one day ISIS could do the same to Chinese nationals. ISIS also has territorial ambitions toward China’s Xinjiang province and unconfirmed reports suggest that it might have recruited Chinese nationals already. If true, then this is a serious problem as it shows that domestic terrorism in China is now closely connected to international terrorism. In any case, it is not an exaggeration that ISIS already poses a serious threat to China.
A second reason for China to send its troops to fight ISIS is the invaluable combat experience that Chinese military can gain in doing so. Despite the quick increase of China’s military power in recent years, many questions still remain when it comes to the PLA’s actual fighting capabilities because the PLA has not fought a real war in about 30 years. If “the Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle, and win,” as China’s minister of defense recently said, then it desperately needs better training in areas like logistics, coordination, intelligence, and so forth. How can you gain real combat experience if you never participate in war? Although fighting pirates has some useful functions, fighting a real war is what matters the most for the PLA.
The third benefit for China is that joining the fight against ISIS would engage it more deeply in the Middle East. Now that China imports more oil from the Middle East than the U.S. does, it cannot sit on the sidelines even if it wants to. Even if China does not want any part of the trouble in the Middle East, the trouble there will eventually find its way to China. Given China’s heavy dependence on the Middle East for its energy security, it is imperative that China begin to have a military presence there to protect its expanding economic interests.
The fourth benefit is that fighting ISIS is good for China’s leadership role and global image. The good thing is that ISIS is hated by almost everyone. So the reputational risk for China once it gets involved is limited since fighting ISIS is essentially providing a global public good. The international community has complained that China is not doing enough in terms of its international responsibility. Although this view is unfair, what matters most are perceptions (or misperceptions, as the case might be). Fighting ISIS would give China a good opportunity to clarify its position and enhance its international image and reputation.
Last but not least, fighting ISIS can improve U.S.-China relations, particularly in a time when tensions are rising in this relationship. The U.S. is limited in fighting ISIS fully (for example, with boots on the ground) because of domestic political factors and past failures in Iraq; thus Washington needs greater help from other powers. As the most important bilateral relationship in the world, the Sino-U.S. relationship needs stability and cooperation. Fighting ISIS together precisely provides such an opportunity.
In the end, whether or not to it will send troops overseas to fight ISIS will be a tough decision for Chinese leaders to make, particularly given the complexity of the situation. A good balance needs to be maintained between sovereignty and humanitarian protection, and there are costs, concerns, and uncertainties for China. Above all, China should recognize that this is one a rare opportunity to flex its military muscles without much (or any) international criticism.
To not seize this opportunity would be a mistake for Chinese foreign policy.