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Will China-US Counterterrorism Cooperation Continue Under Trump?

Feb 27 , 2017
  • Wang Zhen

    Director of Security Studies Program, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

Since political novice Donald Trump won the US presidential election, the international community has been unable to shake off a Trump anxiety disorder. On the issue of China-US relations, many observers worry that Trump’s far-fetched remarks about China during his campaign, coupled with the appointment of a number of hawks against China to his cabinet, mean that China-US cooperation will no longer be feasible in a number of fields, and that the two sides may even come into direct conflict in some areas. The course Trump’s policies will take is as unpredictable as his election campaign, and any attempt at guessing what the future might hold is risky, at best. Even so, we have reason to believe that China-US counterterrorism cooperation will continue as before.

Although Trump and his team have repeatedly criticized the counterterrorism policies of the Obama administration, there are distinct similarities in the policies of the two presidents. From Trump’s campaign speeches and preliminary policy agenda, it appears that his future counterterrorism strategy is twofold. First, he plans to strengthen counterterrorism efforts on US soil while adjusting objectives and tasks on the global counterterrorism front. Second, he intends to strike hard at key counterterrorism targets. However, the Trump administration is unlikely to achieve these two objectives without China’s cooperation. Indeed, as a result of the US policies of strategic suspicion and double standards, there is still a lot of potential for counterterrorism cooperation between the two nations.

After 9/11, the US reorganized its national counterterrorism mechanisms, which greatly reduced the probability of another attack by international terrorist forces in the homeland of US. Nevertheless, strengthening protection of its own territory did not alter the fact that the US is the primary target of jihadi militants around the world. Similarly, President Obama’s efforts to promote reconciliation with the Islamic world failed to eliminate global anti-American sentiment inspired by US counterterrorism efforts following 9/11, and this feeling is on the rise again due to Trump’s recent immigration policy. In other words, even if the new US administration intends to rid itself of the burden of a global counterterrorism strategy, it will be unable to shut itself off given that terrorist activities are continuing to spread further around the world. 

Because the international War on Terror has obviously “depression effects”, a lack of cooperation with any one side makes it impossible to achieve effective governance. Within a certain geographical range, terrorists are like water: They find their own level. They gravitate to people with the most extreme thoughts and places where they have large numbers of sympathizers and supporters. With globalization and the proliferation of information technology, any country in the world, regardless of whether it has homegrown terrorists, can become a crossing point, hiding place, launch pad or other link in the global terrorism chain. For a free and open industrialized country like the US, which has interests all over the world, strengthening local defenses does not guarantee that another 9/11 won’t happen, much less guarantee the security of its overseas interests. Ignoring this displacement of international terrorist activities, letting international terrorist forces commit atrocities across the world and adopting a “wait-and-see” attitude, is like drinking poison to quench a thirst – it will bring only temporary respite before more dire consequences ensue. We need only look back to the Cold War for a lesson of what can happen, when al-Qaeda expanded rapidly under the leadership of Osama bin Laden and turned against the West.

As far as the new US government is concerned, to quickly withdraw from its global counterterrorism activities and turn attention toward rebuilding the economy, still needs cooperation with China. However, in the fight against so-called Islamic State in Syria, the US may choose to engage in military cooperation with Russia, and China will be involved in any political arrangements following a ceasefire. Given its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China’s influence cannot be overlooked, and any solution without its participation would lack authority. China’s role will be even more important in any UN peacekeeping efforts following a ceasefire, as China is the only major country that could mediate between and would be accepted by all parties. Meanwhile, regardless of whether Trump chooses to continue the Obama administration’s policy of withdrawal in Afghanistan, China’s role there is also difficult to ignore. On the one hand, the Afghan Taliban still refuses to talk directly with the US and opposes the local US military presence, which is why the four-party talks (involving the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan) were established, and on the other hand, Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction would falter without China, as very few Western companies are willing to invest in the country or participate in local reconstruction efforts.

Finally, if Trump wished to defeat entirely the new generation of terrorist forces represented by so-called Islamic State, he would need China’s cooperation. This is because so-called Islamic State advocates a jihad ideology that is anti-secular, anti-modern and anti-Western religion, and challenges values shared by human societies. It is also because, as it faces greater military pressure in Syria and Iraq, so-called Islamic State will seek a new round of expansion on a global scale, which will require the international community, including China, to work together. Lastly, it is because, although China will not provide direct military assistance to the international War on Terror, it has experience and capabilities in the areas of counterterrorism and social reconstruction.

Whether or not President Trump and his team are prejudiced against China, as long as the fight against international terrorism remains one of the US government’s priorities, China’s cooperation and potential value in this area will be difficult to ignore. In this case, the notion of a “global village” means we are all in this together.

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