General Liang Guanglie, China’s former Minister of National Defense speaking in a joint press conference with former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at the US Pentagon in 2012.
Agreeing that terrorism is a global scourge that needs a united effort to be defeated is just about the only thing that China and the West see eye to eye on. After the execution of the first Chinese citizen, Fan Jinghui, by the Islamic State, and the deaths of three Chinese Executives in the Mali siege, some may think that the time is ripe for China to take a larger role in the War on Terror and in particular against ISIS.
As I argued recently in an article published in the Huffington Post, this is unlikely due to the importance Chinese foreign policy places on maintaining territorial sovereignty. I think another important consideration, however, is whether or not the West would even readily accept Chinese intervention.
At first glance, it seems logical that the West might welcome Chinese support. For one thing, citizens in the West are tired from over a decade of drawn out and ultimately unsuccessful conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is very little appetite for another full-scale invasion, even in the wake of the Paris attacks. The bellicose rhetoric coming from politicians throughout Europe is a reaction to those events, not a true reflection of the sentiments of those populations. If China were willing to provide assistance, be it in the form of air support or a more expansive ground presence, then surely this would be in everyone’s best interest; the West can foster better relations with China while simultaneously relieving the pressure to take on ISIS unilaterally. This may then have the added bonus of easing tension in the Pacific as China and the US may gain a better understanding of one another and mutual respect through working together to defeat ISIS.
The reality, however, is that the West would want to keep China as far away from the present Syrian conflict as possible.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, we can take a realist IR standpoint and argue that the international system is a zero-sum game. That means that anything that is to the benefit of one nation comes at the cost of another. So for the US and Europe, letting China intervene against ISIS could potentially mean ceding ground and influence in the Middle East. This is especially true if China were to successfully eliminate ISIS or broker some kind of settlement to the Syrian crisis. While it is extremely unlikely that China has the capacity to do this, to say nothing of the willingness, it is certainly true that the US and European allies would not want to risk being sidestepped. Moreover, considering Russia’s present involvement in Syria, the whole theatre is becoming a geopolitical quagmire. Adding the Chinese into the mix is only going to exacerbate the unpredictable nature of this conflict and risk it expanding into a much more intractable regional conflict or worse.
Secondly, whether or not Chinese intervention was successful, it would give China an opportunity to test its forces and gain combat experience. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), despite being the world’s largest army at roughly two million strong, has very little combat experience, and certainly not much fighting the kind of asymmetric conflict that typifies contemporary warfare. This is part of the reason why China contributes the highest proportion of UN Peacekeeping troops of any of the permanent UN Security Council members, with a total of 3040 men and women providing active service. Aside from being able to point to its role in peacekeeping as an example of China being a responsible global citizen, the fact remains that it is a good forum for the PLA to test special units in combat zones where it currently lacks first-hand experience. Syria would be a far better test of its mettle and really give Beijing an idea of how to construct a truly world class army befitting the world’s second largest economy.
Third, China and the West have very different definitions of terrorism, which makes China’s inclusion in a global “War on Terror” awkward. There are countless definitions for terrorism. As stated in his book Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Databases, Theories, and Literature, Alex Schmid noted in a survey of the definition used by over 100 terrorism experts that the term “terrorism” was diffuse to the extent that no single definition existed. Broadly speaking, however, the Western conception of terrorism is along the lines of “politically motivated violence or the threat of violence against non-combatants by sub-state actors.” This is the exact definition used by the Department of Defense since 2002.
In China, however, the definition of terrorism is much broader. As Josh Chin noted in The Wall Street Journal in 2013, “the word for terrorism in Chinese strongly implies ideological motivations, while in English, the term is defined primarily in terms of actions.” The Chinese term for terrorist, 恐怖分子 kôngbù fèn zi, literally translates as “those who frighten.” The Chinese government is most frightened by anyone who fights the status quo as promulgated by Beijing, which is why actions that the UN, US, EU, and human rights organizations have deemed as “activities for national liberation or freedom and human rights actions,” the Chinese government has since 2001 labeled as “terrorism.”
The blurred definition China applies to terrorism makes it hard for Beijing be a credible actor in the “War on Terror.” The West would struggle to sanction any involvement by Beijing that could then be leveraged domestically for political aims. The worry would always be that the fight against “terrorism” could see further suppression within China of ethnic minorities, religious groups, or human rights activists.
In an ideal world, China and the West could overcome their differences and unite against a common enemy. The reality is never so simple. The West will be quietly relieved that China has no plans to intervene against ISIS.
Photo is public domain.