As the Obama administration hosts a summit on “countering violent extremism,” China is taking the opportunity to turn a critical eye on the U.S. “war on terror” thus far. With the White House looking to bolster international unity in the fight against terrorism, Chinese media made it clear that Beijing does not completely buy into Washington’s strategy.
According to the White House, the summit aims “to bring together local, federal, and international leaders … to discuss concrete steps the United States and its partners can take to develop community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies that radicalize, recruit or incite to violence.” Aside from more standard counterterrorism, the White House envisions this summit as way to “address the root causes of extremism through community engagement.”
This would seem to be an area where China and the U.S. could cooperate. Beijing is seeking greater counterterrorism cooperation with many of its neighbors, and also seeks to deal with the problem at the root by targeting those who spread extremist propaganda (a fact made clear by China’s new draft terrorism law). As Obama put it in a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “We also have to confront the violent extremists — the propagandists, recruiters and enablers — who may not directly engage in terrorist acts themselves, but who radicalize, recruit and incite others to do so.” That seems to be perfectly in line with China’s own goals.
And yet Chinese media is having none of it. One op-ed in Xinhua noted that “observers” from the U.S. and around the world “believed that the U.S. administration has no efficient security policy against terrorist groups” — despite the fact that Washington “would like to consider itself as the leader of the anti-terrorism alliance.” As evidence, Xinhua cites public opinion surveys that show most Americans disapprove of the way Obama is handling the rise of Islamic State (IS). Xinhua also quotes Andrey V. Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, as saying that U.S. military actions “destroy states” and “unleash radical forces.”
Another Xinhua commentary makes its point even more clearly, asking whether “Uncle Sam” is an “anti-terror leader or terrorist breeder.” This article acknowledges the “right and proper” goals of the CVE summit, but argues that “the key to realizing the goal … is missing.” According to the Xinhua piece, the “root cause” of terrorism is often U.S. military action – with the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as the most telling example. “Uncle Sam has effectively played the role of a terrorist breeder, when the war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria turned the region into a burning battleground with no peace, security and stability in sight,” author Luo Jun writes.
It’s clear from these pieces that China is not opposed per se to the general U.S. strategy on display during this week’s summit — countering violent extremism by “building awareness,” “countering extremist narratives,” and “emphasizing community led intervention.” However, China is adamantly against U.S.-led military intervention on foreign soil, even in the name of counterterrorism. Yet another Xinhua piece gives a laundry list of “terrorists that were once ‘friends’ of the United States,” citing U.S. training and other support for militants who went on to join Al Qaeda and even IS. The message is clear: military intervention only makes the problem worse.
In the current context, this is China’s way of arguing vehemently against the idea of sending U.S. ground troops to join the fight against IS. As Luo Jun’s piece put it, in Iraq and Afghanistan “The U.S. military operation might be clean and swift, but its political plan for those states … backfired and created dangerous swamps of turmoil that provided breeding ground for terrorism.” China fears a repeat should U.S. troops move in Iraq and Syria to fight IS. For now, at least, those concerns are overshadowing the areas where the U.S. and China could cooperate to prevent the spread of extremist ideology.