In mid-August, approximately 6,500 soldiers from six countries wrapped up the largest joint military exercises held by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). With roughly 1,600 troops participating, Chinese forces made up the second-largest contingent, just behind the 2,000-man Russian contribution. Soldiers from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan rounded out the rest. Peace Mission 2007 was precedent setting: it was the first time troops from all six members of the SCO took part in joint anti-terror maneuvers. Hailed as a solid success in the Chinese press, the exercises are reported to have achieved all of their objectives. Participants successfully coordinated planning, integrated forces during combat operations and gained a clearer understanding of each other’s capabilities.
Yet Peace Mission 2007 also generated confusion and unease, particularly over the unclear ambitions that stoke Beijing’s interest in such activities. In the context of consistent improvements in PLA’s capabilities, Peace Mission 2007 has been construed as evidence of a China bent on expanding its military influence. The activities and scope of the exercises, however, provide only partial insight into the thinking and assumptions that led to Peace Mission 2007 in the first place. Understanding the objectives that motivated Peace Mission 2007, as well as how the leadership in Beijing and the PLA define and analyze terrorist threats, offer additional insight that should help to place the recent anti-terror exercise in context.
Peace Mission Aims
On the record, Peace Mission 2007 was for China a move toward shoring up defenses against several types of threat. Most pressing, according to Ou Yangwei, a professor at the Chinese National Defense University’s Crisis Management Center, are the “three evil forces”—terrorism, separatism and extremism—that continue to sap stability and undermine CCP control in China’s restive western provinces (Xinhua, August 10). In an interview with Xinhua reporters, Ou argues that these elements receive training and support from beyond China’s borders, which frustrates unilateral PLA efforts to stamp out the threat. Cao Gangchuan, vice-chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) and defense minister until the 17th Party Congress this month, echoes this sentiment. He argues that Peace Mission 2007 was aimed at demonstrating SCO member countries’ determination and capacity to strike these rogue elements (PLA Daily, August 16). To this end, the exercises provided a venue for SCO members to coordinate training, learn from each other’s tactics and frighten the three evil forces.
The maneuvers advanced other anti-terrorism objectives as well. PLA and Russian officials have indicated that Peace Mission 2007 will serve as a template for future anti-terror coordination efforts, and that the lessons learned over the eight days of drills will play an important role in developing an effective framework for combating cross-border terrorism (PLA Daily, July 29). PLA leaders also learned various logistical lessons. Lu Chuangang, a PLA senior colonel, emphasized that the exercises allowed the Chinese military to evaluate its ability to conduct long-range operations. Though not mentioned specifically by Lu, such training is relevant to both traditional military campaigns as well as potential anti-terror operations in far-flung Western China (PLA Daily, July 30).
On the level of more traditional international security considerations, Peace Mission 2007 may have been intended also to defend against a less immediate threat. Improved military-to-military relations not only demonstrate capabilities and regional inter-governmental cohesion to potential terrorist threats, they also broadcast a deterrent to non-SCO states in the region and their allies. Wang Xinjun, a researcher with the Strategic Studies department at the Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing, acknowledges this value obliquely in an early-August editorial in the PLA Daily when he notes that world powers and regional blocs often use joint military exercises to display national power, expand influence and bolster national security (PLA Daily, August 7). Chen Xuehui, another scholar at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, characterized Peace Mission 2007 as an important strategic-level activity that received close attention from SCO member states’ strategic policy makers (PLA Daily, August 10). Despite these considerations, official Chinese sources stress that the maneuvers in no way “targeted” any third state (China.org.cn, August 10). Instead, they emphasize the value of the exercises as a deterrent against non-traditional security threats. Yet the scale of Peace Mission 2007 appears out of sync with the needs of a country contending with relatively little terrorist activity. A closer look at the PLA’s interpretation of terrorism, however, reveals a PLA readying itself, at least rhetorically, to face perceived “terrorist” threats on a scale that bears at least some resemblance to the stated aims of Peace Mission 2007.
China’s Traditional Non-Traditional Threat
In the past few years, several Chinese scholars and analysts have offered definitions of terrorism, many of which resemble the definitions used by U.S. government agencies. The Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of—or threatened use of—force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives” .
In 1999, Wang Guoqiang and Hu Fan, both affiliates of the Chinese National Defense University’s Institute for Strategic Studies, offered a similar characterization when they described terrorism as “a form of goal-oriented, sudden, and violent behavior; terrorism uses violent incidents to generate an impact on society …Terrorism’s violent acts contain political significance. They also violate human morality as well as the Party’s legal order” .
He Bingsong, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, defined terrorism in 2001 as any instance in which an “individual, group, or country uses violence or other destructive methods, harms innocent [victims], [or] creates terror in order to achieve a certain political aim” .
In 2006, scholars at the National Defense University established a more precise, functional interpretation of terrorism in an updated edition of the authoritative volume Zhanyi Xue (Military Campaign Studies). In a new chapter on anti-terror campaigns, Zhanyi Xue describes several non-traditional threats to China’s national security, all of which are grouped together as “terrorist organizations” because they employ similar tactics to achieve their aims. These organizations, according to the authors, often operate under the guise of religious freedom, democracy and human rights .They are typically concentrated into certain autonomous political regions, which allows members to take advantage of special administrative leeway. Among these groups, the authors argue, the most formidable threats to China include the East Turkistan movement and the “radical forces” associated with the Dali Lama .
In analyzing the threats presented and tactics used by these organizations, many of the issues discussed in Zhanyi Xue resemble U.S. analyses. Similarities include concern over the proliferation of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons; protecting key national sites of symbolic value from terrorist attacks; hostage scenarios; and the importance of coordinating domestic law enforcement agencies with military and international resources . Regardless of whether these issues reflect genuine CCP concerns, their inclusion in the text indicates that the PLA is framing its own terrorism challenges in roughly the same manner as the United States and other nations. Despite this common starting point, Chinese thinking on anti-terror campaigns contains many distinctive approaches and interpretations, in addition to the qualities ascribed to terrorist organizations and their tactics mentioned in the paragraph above.
Perhaps the most fundamental distinguishing characteristic of Chinese thinking on terrorism as expressed in Zhanyi Xue is the broad scope of responsibilities that falls under anti-terror campaigns. The text explains that the central aims of anti-terror campaigns include preservation of national unity (guojia tongyi), protection of social stability (shehui wending) and—lastly—the protection of the lives and welfare of Chinese citizens . The text refers to anti-terror military campaigns as “anti-terror, stability preservation” operations (fankong weiwen) . The “stability preservation” (weiwen) element appears to be a melding of the CCP’s traditional sensitivity to domestic security concerns with the current international and widespread focus on non-traditional security threats. In preserving stability, the PLA is tasked with putting down any attempts, foreign or domestic, to usurp the CCP or challenge its claims to sovereignty over historically contentious regions. In a sense, anti-terrorism in China functions as a conceptual repository for an assortment of longstanding domestic national security concerns.
Another distinctive feature of Chinese thinking on anti-terrorism is that PLA analysts link the success or failure of individual anti-terror campaigns to broader domestic and international security concerns. The authors of Zhanyi Xue argue that once an anti-terror campaign is lost, the negative repercussions can extend far beyond the losses of the individuals caught up in a local conflict. A terrorist organization’s successes can cause the level of trust the people hold for the government and the military to drop significantly (dada xiangdi), which further undermines CCP authority and contributes to local and regional instability . Such an event could also significantly damage China’s international image and standing .
These interpretations of the terrorist threats facing China lead to a series of tactical considerations in Chinese anti-terror efforts that explain somewhat the scale of Peace Mission 2007. The size and scope of actual anti-terror operations anticipated by the PLA range from simple search-and-destroy missions to putting down large-scale armed rebellions and conducting regional blockades . If Zhanyi Xue is an accurate depiction of anti-terrorism analysis and planning within the PLA, then the Chinese military is preparing for potential anti-terror campaigns on a scale similar to those conducted by Russia in Chechnya. As a case in point, Zhanyi Xue includes in its anti-terrorism analysis a section on regional blockade missions, in which the PLA is up against large, well-supplied and firmly entrenched terrorist camps . These scenarios match up closely with many of the maneuvers conducted during Peace Mission 2007. One of the main exercises, for example, involved joint forces retaking a town that had been overrun by militants .
Deterring a Different Kind of Terrorist
Regardless of whether certain “terrorist organizations” within China constitute a serious national security threat to the leadership in Beijing, public pronouncements by PLA officers and scholars as well as analytical writing on Chinese anti-terror military campaigns indicate that the Party and the PLA believe they are facing significant, potentially large-scale domestic national security threats. Observed by some analysts, perhaps correctly, as evidence of China’s efforts to demonstrate its growing military might to potential East Asian adversaries, Peace Mission 2007 also reflects largely an effort to preserve the status quo by developing the capabilities necessary to squelch would-be domestic challengers to the Party’s authority. At the same time, the lessons learned and capabilities developed from large-scale exercises like Peace Mission 2007 could be applied to a scenario in which the PLA is charged with bringing Taiwan under control after having established a foothold on the island.
These considerations notwithstanding, China’s anti-terrorism planning clearly extends beyond Chinese border areas, a reflection of the fact that the PLA is concerned about foreign influences on China’s domestic stability as well. Real potential exists for the Chinese interpretation of terrorist threats to serve as a catalyst for increased tension between China and non-SCO states. For instance, Chinese concern over possible ties between organizations identified by the CCP as terrorists and other countries could become a significant source of friction between China and non-SCO states. This potential is alluded to quite directly in Zhanyi Xue: “sometimes it is possible that [terrorist organizations] receive support from certain Western nations or specific border states”. In the wake of the Color Revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the CCP and the PLA have clearly taken note of U.S. “transformational diplomacy” and are readying themselves to face “terrorist” threats of all different stripes.
1. As quoted in O’Brien, Kevin A., Information Age Terrorism and Warfare. Globalization and the New Terror: The Asia Pacific Dimension. Ed. David Martin Jones. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2004, p. 135.
2. Wang Guoqiang and Hu Fan, International Terror and Anti-terrorism Struggles [Guoji Kongbu Yu Fankongbu Douzheng], Beijing: National Defense University Press, 1999, p. 5. As quoted in Anti-Terrorism Studies [Li Huizhi, Fankong Xue], Beijing: People’s Press [Renmin Chubanshe], 2003, p. 51.
3. Terrorism, Deranged Religious Sects and the Criminal Underworld He [Bingsong, Kongbuzhuyi, Xiejiao, Hei Shehui], Beijing:Masses Press [Qunzhong Chubanshe], 2001, p. 83. As quoted in Li Huizhi, Fankong Xue, p. 52.
4. Zhang Yuliang (Chief Editor), Zhanyi Xue [Military Campaign Studies], Beijing: Guofang Daxue Chubanshe, [National Defense University Press], 2006, p. 461.
5. Ibid., p. 460.
6. Ibid. p. 460; p.462; p.476; pp.480-485.
7. Ibid., p. 460.
9. Ibid., p. 462.
11. Ibid., p. 460, p. 468.
12. Ibid., p. 469.
13. Adam Wolfe, Peace Mission 2007 and the S.C.O. Summit, available online https://www.pinr.com/report.php?ac=view_report&report_id=672&language_id=1
14. Zhang Yuliang (Chief Editor), Military Campaign Studies [Zhanyi Xue], Beijing: National Defense University Press, [Guofang Daxue Chubanshe], 2006, p. 462.