A U.S.–China Counterterrorism Partnership?
Twelve months ago in the Pentagon’s first new National Defense Strategy since 2008, President Trump quietly replaced terrorism with interstate competition as his top national security concern, thus relegating the threat of terrorism to pre-9/11 levels.
Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of state rivals like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. However, even in the midst of the justified media frenzy surrounding allegations of Russian U.S. election meddling and other foreign influence operations, Washington’s growing complacency regarding terrorist activity should be troubling. Global terrorism peaked in 2014 but may spike again as Trump begins to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan. While most terrorist attacks occur in the Middle East, these attacks are perpetrated by ISIS and Al Qaeda, which target the U.S. homeland, as well as by other regional terrorist groups like the Taliban and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which undermine U.S. allies and partners in Europe and Asia. Accordingly, terrorism should continue to rank high in America’s order of national security priorities.
China––though a strategic rival––shares America’s broad strategic concern about terrorism and other transnational threats to stability in Asia. To date, however, China’s contributions to the War on Terror have been limited by its self-proclaimed attitude of noninterference in the politics of other nations––particularly those the United States might consider illiberal––and by its reluctance to adopt stricter counterterrorism (CT) measures that might cause it to suffer a terrorist backlash. China’s contributions also serve an ulterior purpose, justifying the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s repression of political dissidents and ethnic minorities. China’s legal definition of terrorism is unspecific and sweeping, giving its government a convenient means to prosecute both real and imagined political opponents. Notably, for instance, Beijing has continued to deploy the charge of terrorism against the Turkistan Islamic Party, a separatist organization, in a brazen defense of the economic marginalization and mass detainment of Uyghur Muslims, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities in China’s western province of Xinjiang. Beijing’s aggressive policies in Xinjiang reflect the growing influence of a new cadre of CCP bureaucrats like Chen Quanguo, who first gained international notoriety for suppressing political and cultural subversives in Tibet.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Pakistan, China continues to turn a blind eye to Islamabad’s well-known ties to terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba in the interest of deepening bilateral cooperation on infrastructure, arms, and other technology exports. Such actions, which elevate Beijing’s international profile to the detriment of liberal governance in central and southern Asia, make it difficult for the United States to support China’s CT activities in good faith.
Despite Beijing’s exploitation of CT for domestic political gain and strong anxiety about committing to measures that could make it a target of violent extremists, China has tremendous potential to become a capable ally in U.S. international CT efforts as the world’s second-largest military power. Therefore, as Washington and Beijing appear headed for a period of sustained economic competition, the United States should consider developing a combination of economic pressures and incentives to engage China on CT operations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Before the United States could attempt to bring down hostilities by cooperating on this area of shared interests, however, China must be restrained from using CT as a pretext for suppressing its domestic civil society and for exporting a Chinese model of development that undercuts the U.S.-led liberal rules-based consensus.
Since 2013, China has invested in an economic corridor stretching across Pakistan, which promises to extend access for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) west of the Indian peninsula––part of China’s hemisphere-wide Belt and Road Initiative. In 2015, China passed far-reaching legislation allowing its military and police to conduct overseas operations against terrorists.
In 2017, China established a military base in Djibouti, ostensibly to strengthen its peacekeeping operations in Africa. Also in 2017, China acquired a 99-year lease on a port in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, giving it a toehold near an important commercial and military juncture in the Indo-Pacific.
According to Xi Jinping, these and other actions strengthening the PLA’s international military footprint are necessary for protecting Chinese nationals on foreign soil, overseas development projects, and other foreign investments from global terrorists. For American policymakers, however, Beijing’s failure to articulate a clear and objective role in the War on Terror introduces doubt about China’s motives and commitment to global CT. Additionally, the CCP’s inclusion of CT in a broader program of influence operations seemingly directed at challenging America’s strategic preeminence on every level––diplomatic, economic, military, and cultural––raises further alarm. As a first step, therefore, the United States should consider a complimentary comprehensive strategy, applying a creative mix of diplomatic, economic, and military incentives and pressures to turn China into an acceptable CT partner.
While a comprehensive 'whole-of-government’ approach is often mentioned in CT policy discussions, harnessing the entire U.S. government in a coordinated pressure campaign against China could limit the CCP’s repressive tactics in Xinjiang and clear a path to a bilateral consensus around the legal definition of terrorism. In other areas of the bilateral relationship, the Chinese leadership has been unexpectedly responsive to demands from Washington … at least for now.
On the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Argentina early last month, Xi and Trump agreed to a temporary suspension of their tariff war. In the weeks since, Beijing has signaled that it might permit certain concessions for foreign companies operating in its marketplace––a nod to the Trump administration’s insistence on structural economic changes in China. Beijing’s allowances have persisted despite Canada’s arrest in December of a top executive for Chinese telecom giant Huawei––part of a broader U.S. Justice Department crackdown on illicit technology transfers.
While Trump’s aggressive efforts to open China’s economy to American investment may be hobbled by his misgivings about destabilizing the global economy, Beijing, too, appears ready to compromise when U.S. demands endanger its short-term economic fortunes. Accordingly, U.S. policymakers could be more assertive about disrupting China’s economy and thereby forcing the CCP to risk a greater degree of political capital on its ethnic suppression in Xinjiang and regarding CT more broadly.
For the most part, China’s domestic CT activities thus far have only alienated minorities and crushed individual freedoms, undermining the integrity of global institutions. Pooling CT resources with China risks pulling U.S. policymakers into the unsanctioned suppression of local minorities like the Uyghurs, compromising America’s moral authority in Asia. Therefore, only after taking China to task for Xinjiang, narrowing the CCP’s legal definition of terrorism, and periodically re-clarifying the scope of China’s CT activities through existing bilateral mechanisms, may the United States finally deepen the functional areas of its CT cooperation with China.
Though Trump may be hard-pressed to muster the sort of large-scale political willpower needed for such a comprehensive endeavor given his administration’s increasing vulnerability after the congressional midterm elections, the United States should at least remain clear-eyed about China’s motives for fighting terrorism, and reposition over time to seek common bilateral ground on this still critical issue.
Elliot I. Silverberg is an international relations master’s candidate at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is an editor of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and has worked in strategy consulting, journalism, the legal industry, and think tanks across Japan and the United States.