Chinese Foreign Policy And The War On Terror

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 2

Beijing has several global security concerns regarding terrorism. Foremost among these are China’s relations with the United States, and since September 2001, the U.S.-led War on Terrorism. Beijing is also worried about the Islamic/Arab World, especially in working to ensure China’s supply of oil and dissuading these countries from supporting Uighur separatism.

Relations With The United States

A top priority for Beijing has been for it to maintain a cordial relationship with Washington. China’s highest national priority is to ensure its economy continues to enjoy robust growth (and hence maintain domestic stability) and this is dependent on peace and development in Asia and the world. For this to continue, China desires a vibrant economic relationship and cordial strategic cooperation with the United States. Beijing has nothing to gain in the foreseeable future from a deterioration in U.S.-China relations.

Prior to September 11, 2001, China’s relations with the United States were rocky at best. While relations had improved since the resolution of the Hainan Island Incident of April 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush continued to regard China with considerable suspicion and to perceive China as a looming strategic competitor.

Following the coordinated terrorist incidents of September 11 and the resulting death and destruction in New York City (the World Trade Center), Northern Virginia (the Pentagon), and Shanksville, Pennsylvania (United Flight 93), President Bush announced the launching of a Global War on Terrorism. Chinese President Jiang Zemin was quick to reach out to President Bush. In a message sent on September 11, Jiang condemned the attacks and expressed his condolences. Jiang then telephoned Bush on September 12 offering China’s cooperation in the worldwide counter-terrorism struggle. Also on September 12, China voted for United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368 condemning the terrorist threat.

Chinese were also the victims of global terrorism. Although not widely publicized, as many as 18 Chinese citizens lost their lives in the September 11 terrorist attacks. What is interesting is that the Chinese authorities have made scant mention of these losses. The same is true of how Beijing handled the deaths of two Chinese contract workers, kidnapped by terrorists in the southern Philippines, who were killed in August 2001 in a shootout between Filipino security forces and the kidnappers. Perhaps one reason Beijing does not widely publicize these tragedies is to avoid drawing attention to the Chinese government’s inability to protect its citizens working and traveling overseas.

Ambivalent Assistance

Yet China’s support for the U.S.-led global struggle against terrorism has been qualified. Beijing has been prepared to share intelligence on terrorist groups and follow terrorist financial flows. China has also been supportive of Pakistan’s decision to cooperate with the United States in the global war on terrorism. There are notable indications of the growing security and law enforcement links between China and the United States. The two governments signed an agreement to open a Federal Bureau of Investigation liaison office in Beijing during Attorney General John Ashcroft’s 3-day visit to China in October 2002. And in July 2003, U.S. and Chinese customs officials signed an agreement in Beijing to cooperate in the Container Security Initiative. Under the agreement, U.S. officials will be stationed at ports in the cities of Shanghai and Shenzhen. The task of the personnel would be to certify that containers bound for U.S. destinations are free of weapons or dangerous materials which could be used by terrorists.

But Beijing has been far less keen on U.S. military operations against countries deemed havens for terrorists, countries suspected of being ready to provide weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to terrorists, or countries which have used or might use WMD to terrorize their neighbors. Beijing stressed that the way to eradicate terrorism was to address the “root causes” under United Nations (UN) auspices rather than through exclusively unilateral military means. “The fight against terrorism requires conclusive evidence, clear targets and conformity with the purpose and principle of the UN Charter…the leading role of the UN and its Security Council should be brought into full play….”[1]

A New Era?

Some Chinese analysts have nevertheless claimed that the War on Terrorism is the “new foundation” of China’s strategic relations with the United States.[2] This claim seems exaggerated, although the cooperation has noticeably improved the climate of relations between Washington and Beijing. Both sides are genuinely satisfied with the modest but real cooperation. China was pleased when in late 2002, the United Nations Security Council and the United States both classified the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist group. The United States was pleased in turn by what Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs James Kelly called the “unprecedented extent of counter-terrorism information sharing.”

Still, some Chinese are uncertain about how to view the fact that despite Washington’s rhetoric, the ETIM has not been added to the State Department’s “List of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” Currently ETIM is designated as a terrorist group by a presidential executive order which does not demand the same heavy burden of proof and judicial process required for an organization to be added to the State Department’s high profile list. As a practical matter, however, the fact that ETIM is not on the State Department’s list makes no difference to how the Washington treats group.

As one astute U.S. security analyst has observed: “…it appears that China’s support of the war against terrorism does not and will not fundamentally alter the Sino-U.S. relationship.”[3] A leading Chinese security analyst concurs, opining that “…the substance of Sino-U.S. relations has not changed since…September 11, 2001, despite improved atmospherics. The underlying strategic view of each state remains deeply suspicious of the other’s intentions, limiting the scope of cooperation.”[4] Moreover, according to another prominent U.S. analyst, whether Sino-U.S. “cooperation [in the anti-terror struggle] is sustainable is a key question.”[5]

Concern For Muslim Countries

China has made considerable efforts to maintain good relations with the Islamic World. Chinese interests include securing oil and denying support for Muslim extremist groups in China. Beijing’s closest friend in the Muslim World is Islamabad: for China, Pakistan has served as its bridge to other Islamic states. For Islamabad, Beijing has been its most reliable friend and patron bar none: China has provided Pakistan with weaponry, key military technical assistance and served as a counterweight to its massive South Asian nemesis, India. Coordination between Beijing and Islamabad has also been helpful to both governments as each grapples with the threat of terrorism domestically and the turbulence associated with the ongoing U.S. military coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In October 2001, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan told Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad of Qatar, concurrently chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), just prior to an urgent meeting of the OIC, that China desired to improve “consultation and cooperation with Islamic countries in fighting terrorism.” He also explained that China recognized “Islamic countries are also the victims of terrorism” and stressed that China “opposed…associating terrorism with any religion, nationality, or religion.”[6]


One of Beijing’s most respected elder statesmen, the late Li Shenzhi, writing in August 2002, opined that “it cannot be said that China has made any major new change in foreign policy” in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.[7] Nevertheless, China has become increasingly concerned with terrorism. This concern was initially exclusively a manageable domestic security issue but by the late 1990s it had taken on a more serious open-ended foreign policy dimension as well. Beijing was specifically concerned with Han Chinese worker unrest and ethnic groups within China becoming radicalized because of direct support or indirect encouragement from transnational terrorists. The attacks of September 11 only heightened this concern.

China has sought further cooperation with states on its periphery to counter terrorism, starting with Russia and the countries of Central Asia. Perhaps the most important goal behind the formal establishment of SCO in June 2001 was cooperation against terrorism.

The global war on terrorism led by the United States has had both positive and negative outcomes. On the positive side, counter-terrorism is yet another issue on which China and other countries, including major powers like the United States, can find common ground and cooperate against. On the negative side, Beijing worries that this global anti-terrorism struggle is providing Washington with an excuse to exert its power and increase its influence in Asia and around the world. China is concerned about the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, Iraq, improved U.S. security ties with India, and enhanced defense cooperation with Japan and the Philippines. Might these steps be also aimed at containing China some elites wonder?

Terrorism is now a major topic of concern for China, and it is an issue that will figure prominently in Beijing’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future. For the time being, the U.S. global offensive against terrorism offers China a useful opportunity to enhance its international status and to improve relationships with the United States and other countries while at the same time providing additional justification for cracking down on domestic ethnic militants and dissidents.

Dr. Andrew Scobell is Associate Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. This article represents solely the views of the author and not those of the US Government, Department of Defense or the US Army.


1. China’s National Defense in 2002, Beijing: Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, December 2002,.p. 70.

2. Author’s interviews with Chinese analysts in May and June 2002.

3. Denny Roy, “China and the War on Terrorism,” Orbis, 46:3 (Summer 2002), p. 518.

4.”China,” in Charles E. Morrison, ed., Asia Pacific Security Outlook 2003, New York: Japan Center for International Exchange, 2003, p. 51. The author of these words is Qinghua University Professor Chu Shulong.

5. Thomas J. Christensen, “China,” in Richard J. Ellings and Aaron L. Friedberg, Strategic Asia 2002-03: Asian Aftershocks, Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2002, p. 81

6.”PRC Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan Calls Russia, Other Counterparts Over Terrorism,” Xinhua (Beijing) in English October 9, 2001.

7. Li Shenzhi, “A Talk on the Diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China,” Zhanlue yu Guanli, August 1, 2002.