Counter-terrorism, Syria and Military Intervention: A Chinese Perspective

Dean Chen is a first-year BA International Relations student at King’s

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As the British Parliament has authorised air strikes in Syria, we are coming to a very interesting situation: four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are currently carrying out military action against a common enemy. The last time when this happened was during WWII. The only missing one, China, which was widely regarded as a rising world power, seems to be mute about the situation in Syria. This piece will try to offer readers a Chinese perspective on counter-terrorism and the situation in Syria. It believes that China is not ‘mute’, but rather playing a constructive role in these issues, although her ways and underlying logic might not be well understood by many. By the end of this piece, it is hoped that readers will have a more comprehensive understanding of China’s stance and policy concerning the above issues.

China is not immune to terrorist threat. In November 2015, a Chinese citizen was beheaded by ISIL. In 2014, a terrorist attack in Kunming (a city located in Southwest China) resulted in 33 deaths. In 2013, a suicide attack at Tiananmen Square in Beijing (widely regarded as the political heart of China) killed 5 people. Domestic terrorist organisations have long been present in China. The most famous ones are the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’ and ‘East Turkestan Liberation Organisation’ whose main sphere of activity is Xinjiang Province in Northwest China. Xinjiang has a large Muslim population and these organisations aim to establish a fundamentalist Islamist state in Xinjiang. Since their establishment, they have claimed responsibility for hundreds of terrorist attacks. In addition, it is believed these organisations have connections with Al Qaeda, and several hundred jihadist fighters from China have joined ISIL. The counter-terrorist situation China faces, is one that combines the threats of violent terrorism, religious fundamentalism and separatism, linked to international terrorism network.

The Chinese government is taking strong measures to combat terrorism. According to Chinese media, Chinese military and police have successfully destroyed 181 ‘violent terrorist groups’ in Xinjiang. [1] Actions are taken to cut connections between domestic terrorist organisations and international terrorist networks, especially stopping radicalised individuals from joining ISIL. By tackling domestic terrorist groups and stemming the flow of fighters joining ISIL, China is making her own contributions to international counter-terrorism. The underlying logic of China’s approach is consistent in her foreign policy: by solving her own problems and advancing China’s development, China is effectively contributing to solving international problems and fostering global development.

Needless to say, terrorism is benefiting from the chaos in Syria. If terrorism is to be eradicated, the coordination of counter-terrorism policy with conflict-resolving policy in Syria is essential. The following part of the essay will look at China’s policy regarding Syria.

Peaceful means of conflict-resolving, dialogue, political solution, non-intervention are key words of China’s policy towards the Syrian conflict. China vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions proposing sanctions and military intervention targeting Syria. China has consistently supported UN-led peace initiatives, including the Geneva Communique, the second round Geneva dialogue and the Arab League-UN joint special envoys. These actions are reflections of the stance that China has consistently upheld, which can be illustrated by the following statement:

‘Our fundamental point of departure is to safeguard the purposes and principles of the UN Charter as well as the basic norms governing international relations, including the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference in others’ internal affairs, to safeguard the interests of the Syrian people and the Arab states, and to safeguard the interests of all countries, small and medium-sized in particular. This is China’s consistent stance in all international affairs. It is not targeted at a particular issue or time.’ [2]

These actions and statements strongly suggest China’s highly principled views of resolving the Syrian conflict: (1) the conflict should be resolved through peaceful dialogue involving both sides, and military means should not be adopted; (2) the principle of non-intervention and sovereign equality should be the number one principle of international relations, and no other principle should be above it. [3]

In light of new developments of the Syrian conflict, especially the unexpectedly swift rise of ISIL, China’s attitude is undergoing changes. The beheading of a Chinese citizen by ISIL earlier this year has invoked louder calls for the Chinese government to adopt more proactive policy regarding Syria. On November 20th 2015, China voted in favour of UN Security Council resolution S/RES/2249 (2015) in support of UN member states’ action to ‘redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL’. [4] However, this change in attitude should not be exaggerated. The deep concerns of China have not yet changed: she is concerned that military intervention in Syria could establish a dangerous precedent for military intervention against sovereign states; she is also concerned about the abuse of power by certain states to promote regime change for geopolitical purposes. [5]

In conclusion, regarding counter-terrorism and the Syrian conflict, China adopts a relatively restrictionist policy: she is largely focused on tackling domestic terrorist threats, and consistently advocated the principle of state sovereignty and political solutions to the Syrian conflict. The underlying logic of China’s policy is that by solving her own problems and exercising restraint in international relations, China is effectively contributing to solving international problems and maintaining international peace. China is often criticised for dodging international responsibility, but perhaps her approach might provide different perspectives for considerations.

[1] See “新疆反恐:一年已打掉181个暴恐团伙” [Counter-terrorism in Xinjiang: destroying 181 violent terrorist groups in one year] November 20, 2015 http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2015-11-20/1124844389.html

[2] Explanatory Remarks by Ambassador Wang Min after General Assembly Vote on Draft Resolution on Syria, Permanent Mission of the People‘s Republic of China to the UN, August 3, 2012, http://www.china-un.org/eng/hyyfy/t958262.htm

[3] Swaine, M.D., 2012. Chinese Views of the Syrian Conflict. [online] Available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/files/swaine_clm_39_091312_2.pdf

[4] Security Council resolution, Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts, S/RES/2249 (November 20, 2015)

Available at: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2249(2015)

[5] Swaine, M.D., 2012. Chinese Views of the Syrian Conflict. [online] Available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/files/swaine_clm_39_091312_2.pdf

 

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