Updated: Feb 1
Image Courtesy: The New York Times
C3S Paper No. 0202/2015
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks at Paris on November 13 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a statement to French President Francois Hollande denouncing the “barbaric” act. He condemned the attacks “in the strongest terms on behalf of the Chinese government and people.” He added that “China always opposes all forms of terrorism and is willing to work with France and the international community to enhance cooperation in security, combat terrorism and ensure the safety of people in all countries.” Xi Jinping continued to assert China’s firm stance as seen by his comments when addressing the routine informal meeting of leaders from BRICS nations in Antalya, Turkey. He said that there was a need to address both the “symptoms and root causes” of such attacks and that there should be “no double standards.”
On similar lines, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated, at the G20 Summit on November 15 at Antalya that “China is also a victim of terrorism. The fight against the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’… should become an important part of the international fight against terrorism.” He emphasized that the United Nations should play a leading role to form a “united front” for anti-terrorism efforts.
How will the world respond to China’s foreign policy on anti-terrorism efforts? What is the current Chinese stand on intervention in Syria? What do these statements indicate about China’s foreign policy towards Syria and the larger region of the Middle East? How does the emphasis on the Asia-Pacific reflect on China’s future directions?
Global Skeptism vs. Solidarity on ETIM
This is not the first time China has focused through a domestic lens on international terrorist attacks. Beijing sought Western support for anti-terror cooperation in Xinjiang after the September 11 2001 attacks in U.S.A. Li Wei, a terrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a think-tank backed by the secretive Ministry of State Security, wrote in the official China Daily that it was “urgent” that China should increase cooperation, such as joint drills, with Western countries. Wei adds that “China is facing the same threats from IS as France and must prepare for similar terror attacks.” Interestingly this is the only, albeit indirectly official, mention of the term ‘IS’ (Islamic State). No Chinese leader has condemned the IS by name openly. Perhaps China wants to avoid the ‘risk’ of provocating IS.
However, Li Wei’s statement on anti-terror cooperation may not carry much weight in the Western world. It is to be noted that the ETIM is not placed on the list of terrorist organizations by U.S.A and the U.N. A significant analysis of the Western stand on the ETIM was given in a Reuters report: ‘Many foreign experts doubt ETIM exists as the coherent group China portrays, or even exists at all. Western countries have long been reluctant to share intelligence with China or otherwise cooperate, saying China has provided little evidence to prove ETIM’s existence and citing worries about possible human rights abuses in Xinjiang.’4 This Western attitude may be what Xi Jinping is referring to when discouraging “double standards” on anti-terrorism cooperation.
China’s recent statements on its policy of non-intervention in Syria may also be a factor in the West’s reluctance over lending anti-terrorism support against ETIM. Besides, China’s position on refugees may not be well received by the Western world and the Middle East. For instance, an editorial in China’s officially backed newspaper, Global Times, denounces terrorism as a cancer in modern society, but also describes the Middle East refugees as responsible for bringing problems to Europe. While China takes an opinionated stand on the refugees’ issue, it presents a different perspective on intervention in the Middle East.
A ‘Look Over Assad’s Shoulder’ Policy
Reports in October 2015 aired Chinese scholars’ stand which refuted rumors about China’s military intervention in Syria. The report described that China’s core interests are in Asia-Pacific rather than the Middle East. Secondly, the scholars add, the UN didn’t authorize any military operation against the IS in Syria. Third, the internal issues in the Middle East and their external implications are extremely complicated, and military intervention is the most in-depth involvement. While it’s easy to dispatch troops there, it requires a huge supportive system to withdraw them. Fourth, the situation in Syria isn’t caused by China, so it has no reason to engage in the conflicts there.
Treading on a Tightrope
China has reportedly armed Syria in the past, despite U.S.A’s protests. However there have been no direct engagements during the Syrian conflict. China does not want to incur the wrath of IS by getting involved in the quagmire. Besides, doing so would mean worsening the situation of the Uyghur separatists in China, with whom IS could link if provoked. Beijing is keen to eradicate the “3 evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Therefore its refusal to get entwined in the Syrian war does not mean it has no stand on the issue. China prefers that a political solution be reached to resolve the issue. It firmly espouses that outside actors should not meddle in Syria’s internal affairs. This demonstrates China’s own concerns about Tibet and Xinjiang.
China also considers, while dealing with Damascus, the role of relations with other actors in the region, namely Iran and Israel, the former a staunch Syrian ally, the latter a cold and distant neighbour of Syria. China may be supporting Syria’s regime as seen by Beijing’s positive Tehran policy. On the other hand China is yet to fully consolidate ties with Israel. China does not have arms trade with Israel, due to U.S pressure on Tel Aviv. This may a factor that tilts China towards the Syrian angle.
Chinese scholars have declared that when China does take action on the Syrian conflict, it should “exert its advantages while giving the world the right message, which requires great wisdom.” It would be interesting to interpret this assertion. As usual, China is “biding its time and hiding its strengths”. The advantages mentioned in this statement must be recognized: History has provided one ace card for China, as the rising power has never been involved in any Middle East conflict. Additionally, its position as a UNSC member gives it enviable veto power. It is also a close ally of Russia and Iran, both forces to be reckoned with. China is perhaps also awaiting conflict resolution in Syria in order to integrate the country with its Silk Road initiative. Beijing may desire that that it demonstrate to the world that the only ‘wise’ engagement is that of trade.
This shows the other advantage in the Syrian-China sphere – deep business ties. In 2011, China ranked as Syria’s top trading partner, ahead of Russia. Perhaps more importantly, China has large stakes in Syria’s oil industry.
Energize Today from the West, Tomorrow from the East?
While China has energy links with Syria in the present, its statement that its core interests are in the Asia-Pacific send out a powerful message that Beijing will not compromise on its claims of sovereignty in South China Sea and East China Sea. In other words, China is mindful of the Malacca Dilemma and seeks to protect its interests in the oil and gas resources in the disputed territories.
The mention of Asia-Pacific also delivers a warning to U.S.A: that China may not clash with Washington in the Middle East/West Asia but it will stand tall while protecting its Asia-Pacific interests in light of the American Pivot. China’s rise will therefore cast a shadow on the Asia-Pacific and not on the Middle East which is a stronghold of the militarily powerful U.S.A. This is perhaps China’s biggest advantage: that of having in the Asia Pacific an economic and military presence that can compete with America’s influence in the region. The region has no manifest conflicts as compared to the Middle East. This relatively peaceful zone is also right in Beijing’s backyard and is rich in energy resources.
Hence it is observed that China will not get embroiled in the Syrian conflict despite the call for “global unity”, as it not only has greater gains in the East, but because it has more to lose if it places boots on Western ground. Taking military sides with Syria’s Assad would jeopardize China’s relations with the rest of the world which condemns the present Damascus regime. It would risk confrontation with U.S.A. It will also damage relations with other Middle East countries which supply energy to China. It would, most significantly, dent China’s image as a ‘responsible’ rising power. Therefore, China’s stance on Syria is seen as a long-sighted one in terms of Beijing’s interests. China may choose to look over Assad’s shoulder, but it is actually placing sights on the Asia-Pacific, where the 21st century will bring in an era of Eastern economic power and prosperity. This priority dictates that China will remain distant from the Middle East crises, but at the same time China expects that the Western world should pay attention to its own internal terrorist threats.
To conclude, China may make declarations in the spirit of ‘Je Suis Global Unity’ but it remains to be seen how far its policy of non-intervention in the Middle East can garner support for anti-terror cooperation in Xinjiang. Besides, China’s alleged record of human rights abuses in the Muslim province, and implementation of stringent laws to restrict traditional religious practices of Uighur Muslims, may not blend with the Western approach. The West relies more on intelligence, whereas China also seems to focus on addressing the ‘root causes’, i.e. religious practices. Perhaps Beijing must prove itself to be ‘Je Suis Equal China’ before calling for a united world response to tackle the global threat of terrorism.
 ‘Spotlight: China condemns Paris attacks, warns nationals in France to stay alert’, Xinhua, November 14 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-11/14/c_134816015.htm
 ‘Xi calls for global unity to combat terrorism’, China.org.cn, November 16, 2015, http://www.china.org.cn/world/2015-11/16/content_37072372.htm
 Zheping Huan, ‘China is using the Paris attacks to tout its anti-terror efforts at home’, The Quartz, November 16 2015, http://qz.com/550829/china-is-using-the-paris-attacks-to-tout-its-anti-terror-efforts-at-home/
Ben Blanchard, Michael Martina, ‘After Paris, China calls for world’s support in Xinjiang’, Reuters, November 16 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/16/us-france-shooting-china-idUSKCN0T506K20151116#Tko0KebpfWqfSvVv.97
 ‘Scholars refute rumor about China’s military intervention in Syria’, Ministry of National Defense, The PRC, October 14 2015, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Opinion/2015-10/14/content_4624240.htm
 David Volodzko, ‘China’s Role in the Syria Crisis, Revisited’, The Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2015/09/chinas-role-in-the-syria-crisis-revisited/, Accessed November 3 2015.
 See note 6 above
 Joel Wuthnow, ‘Why China would Intervene in Syria’, The National Interest, July 16 2012, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/why-china-would-intervene-syria-7197
 See note 9 above