China’s counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks on the United States has increasingly been pursued in the context of the global war on terror. Exhibit number one is its preoccupation with terrorism in the troubled Xinjiang region of northwest China inhabited primarily by the Muslim Uighur people. China underscored this concern following the 28 October 2013 vehicle crash in Tiananmen Square. Chinese officials said the incident was a terrorist attack perpetrated by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group linked to Xinjiang. The United States listed ETIM in 2002 as a terrorist organization. In October 2013, Pakistan, at China’s request, banned ETIM and two other organizations that are active in Xinjiang.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, speaking at the United Nations in January 2013, identified four themes in China’s international counterterrorism cooperation. First, China fully respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries that are combatting terrorism. Second, China seeks to leverage the UN and the Security Council as the main channel of cooperation and welcomes the establishment of the UN Counterterrorism Center. Third, China believes in a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes as well as the symptoms of terrorism. Fourth, it argues there should be no double standard; all terrorist organizations including the ETIM must be condemned and defeated.
This policy seems to be playing out in Africa, which is not a center of China’s concern, but is growing in importance. Designated terrorist organizations and others that simply use terrorist tactics pose a growing threat to China’s presence in Africa. Chinese economic interests are increasing rapidly and the number of Chinese nationals residing in Africa is rising. There are an estimated one to two million Chinese, including some whose roots go back a century or more, now living in the 54 African countries. China has diplomatic relations with 50 of these countries and an embassy in 49 of them. Almost half of Africa’s population is Muslim; the plight of the Uighur people in Xinjiang complicates China’s situation in those parts of Africa where Islamic terrorist groups are active.
So far, the only attack by a designated terrorist organization, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), targeting Chinese interests occurred in 2009 following unrest in Xinjiang. AQIM announced it would attack Chinese workers in North Africa and then launched one on a convoy of Chinese construction workers in Algeria. AQIM killed 24 Algerian paramilitary police officers escorting the workers but killed no Chinese. Two extremist Islamic websites affiliated with al-Qaeda called for the killing of Han in Algeria. In 2010, a suicide bomber killed a Chinese driver in Algeria.
Chinese nationals have experienced other attacks by groups that oppose current African governments. Some have been designated as terrorist groups by the African government under attack but have not been so designated by the international community. A dozen or more Chinese nationals were kidnapped and subsequently released by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta in Nigeria’s oil-rich southeastern region. The Justice and Equality Movement in Sudan attacked Chinese oil company personnel on several occasions, kidnapping and killing a number of them. In 2007, the Ogaden National Liberation Front in Ethiopia attacked a Chinese oil exploration base, killing nine in a shootout with Ethiopian soldiers protecting the Chinese, and kidnapping others who were eventually released.
The growing number of Chinese living in Africa increases the chances that they will occasionally be at the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2013, for example, a Chinese woman died and her son was injured in the terrorist attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The terrorist organization based in Somalia, al-Shabaab, carried out the attack.
Counterterrorism has been a regular part of China’s dialogue with Africa in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). At the most recent FOCAC ministerial conference in 2012, China and Africa agreed to “strengthen communication and cooperation on fighting all forms of terrorism.” They supported a holistic approach that addresses both the symptoms and root causes of terrorism. They agreed that the UN and Security Council should play the lead role in counterterrorism cooperation and in helping African countries build counterterrorism capacity.
He Wenping, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, often reflects China’s position on African issues. Following the Westgate Mall attack, she commented in China Daily that the international community bears the responsibility to provide practical and effective assistance to support counterterrorism efforts in Africa. The support should include funding and technical guidance, equipment and training, and, especially, intelligence and information sharing. He Wenping concluded that the attack in Nairobi emphasized “that extremist organizations know no borders, and countries must work together and strengthen their cooperation to combat terrorism.”
China has quietly been ramping up its efforts to confront terrorism in Africa. The Foreign Ministry is more aggressively issuing security alerts concerning potential terrorist attacks in Africa. In recent years, China has provided more soldiers to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa than any other permanent member of the Security Council. Until the recent mission established for Mali, these operations had little to do with countering terrorism and China had not previously sent combat troops to the missions. The mission in Mali is a direct response to several terrorist groups, including AQIM, and China, for the first time, is including some combat troops in its contingent.
China has in recent years provided significant financial support for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), whose task includes combatting the al-Shabaab terrorist organization. In 2012, China engaged more directly by pledging $2.4 million for training and equipping the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces. Uganda provides the largest number of troops to AMISOM. In 2013, China donated $2.6 million worth of security communications equipment to Kenya, which also has troops with AMISOM.
China is moving cautiously with its counterterrorism support in Africa, working closely with the UN, African Union and individual African governments. It has shown much less willingness to collaborate with Western governments. But as threats to Chinese interests in Africa increase, there has been a steady strengthening of its willingness to cooperate with others to counter this scourge.
David Shinn is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, co-author of “China and Africa: A Century of Engagement”, and former ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.