Growing Overlap Between Counter-Terrorism and Overseas Interest Protection Acts As New Driver of Chinese Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 9

A Chinese citizen is led to safety during terror attacks in Bamako Mali. The attacks have changed the way that the Chinese government and larger public talk about terrorism. (Source: Global Times).

Late November 2015 marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of how terrorism is perceived in China. The death of a Chinese citizen at the hand of the ISIS and the fact that three senior managers of China Railway Construction Corporation were among the casualties of a terrorist attack in Mali’s capital Bamako triggered a broader reflection on the risks Chinese citizens face in Africa and the Middle East (Guanchazhe, November 23, 2015). Writing for Contemporary World, a magazine published by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) International Department Central Committee, Zhang Jinping, Professor and Deputy Director of the Antiterrorism Center of the Northwest University of Political Science and Law, stated that China needs to be able to fight terrorism abroad because its citizens have already become targets of terrorism inside and outside China. [1]

This was not the first time Chinese citizens abroad were threatened or were victims of terrorist attacks. However, until November 2015 political instability was seen as the main threat to Chinese interests abroad, with terrorism merely one of its byproducts. After the events in Mali and Syria, terrorism began to be framed as an independent threat, naturally related with political instability, but whose elimination requires forceful means.

This development has already had deep repercussions for the role of force in China’s foreign policy in both making the country more comfortable with authorizing third parties to use it and accelerating the internationalization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Political Instability and Terrorism

Framing terrorism as a direct threat to Chinese overseas interest is a recent change, but not a sudden one. An examination of the way Chinese officials and media described the events in North Africa and the Middle East, including Libya (2011), Mali (2013), Iraq (2014) and Yemen (2015), shows that the relationship between general political instability and terrorism grew stronger and stronger over time. The main factors led to this change were the extent of harm to the Chinese nationals involved, either as victims or as peacekeepers, and the capability of local forces to ensure the protection from the threat.

According to General Yin Zhuo, in the case of Libya the threat to Chinese citizens was due to political instability caused by socioeconomic problems and external intervention, not terrorism (Sina, March 19, 2012). After the attack in Mali, terrorism entered into the Chinese public’s consciousness as a threat, though still in a marginal way. Although Resolution 2100(2013), which established the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) highlights the important role played by terrorists in destabilizing the country, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense did not mention terrorism among the issues Chinese peacekeeper had to deal with (PRC MOD, June 27, 2013). This acknowledgement of the terrorist threat arrived only a few months later when the Chinese peacekeepers started being deployed in Mali (PRC MOD, January 15, 2014). However, according to Liu Zhongmin, Professor at Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Studies Institute, the spread of terrorism was not the cause of instability in Mali, but its byproduct. [2]

In 2014, in Iraq, terrorism emerged as a more prominent threat, but the relationship between it and political instability was still rather confused. Indeed, one of the people in charge of supervising the activities of China National Petroleum Corporation in the country described how the situation was worsening during an interview, but almost made no reference to terrorists (News 163, June 18, 2014). Although a Chinese citizen was kidnapped in June 2014, the Chinese government managed to remain calm and expressed confidence in the ability of the Iraqi security forces to protect Chinese nationals in the country—likely because the hostage was set free shortly afterwards (Xinhua, June 18, 2014).

Yemen in early 2015 was in many ways similar to Iraq and Mali in Chinese eyes: terrorism flourished due to the civil war and the intervention of external powers. [3] Yet, despite the scene of two PLA Navy frigates docking in Aden to rescue a few hundred Chinese nationals, Yemen’s situation is more similar to Mali in that China did not have major interests in the country. The importance of what happens in those countries is given by the spillover effects over their neighbors, such as Iraq in the Middle East or Algeria in North Africa, where Chinese interests are more pronounced. Thus, while terrorism remained a significant issue, a mix of efficient planning to rescue the Chinese citizens from the country and the absence of significant assets there probably both limited the sense of a direct threat and convinced the Chinese leadership at least partially, that threats could be negated through timely actions.

All of these examples indicate that, until recently, terrorism was viewed much more as an indirect threat—though a growing one—resulting from political instability. This further explains Chinese commentators’ constant reference to economic aid as China’s preferred tool to combat terrorism (Qiushi, March 18, 2015). With this background in mind, the use or the authorization of force did not appear to be an option for China. The bloody events in Syria and Mali in late November 2015, however, have dramatically changed the situation.

The Death of a Chinese Hostage in Syria and the UNSC Resolution 2249(2015)

Although Russia and the United States were the main actors involved in the negotiations UN Security Council Resolution 2249(2015)—seen by many as the authorization at the highest level to use force against the Islamic State both in Syria and Iraq—China’s attitude toward the resolution is worth noting. The approval of the Resolution occurred a few days after the execution of Fang Jinhui, a Chinese citizen kidnapped by the Islamic State in Syria, and on the same day that three Chinese nationals were killed during a terrorist attack against a hotel in the Bamako, Mali. Tellingly enough, Chinese Ambassador to the UN, Liu Jieyi, cited the fact that “ISIL and other terrorist organizations had launched deadly attacks around the world and had killed Chinese citizens, among others” as a reason for China’s support of the resolution (UN, November 20, 2015).

China’s support of the resolution can be seen as the first reaction to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call to strengthen international cooperation against terrorism immediately after confirmation of Fang’s execution. This marked a significant break with China’s traditional foreign policy: the sovereignty of a third state—Syria or Iraq—was subordinated to the need to protect Chinese citizens and interests.

The shift in Chinese foreign policy is visible in a comparison of official policy toward the UN Resolution on Syria and France’s 2013 intervention in Mali. Despite the fact that France intervened at the request of Mali’s government and framed its intervention as part of the fight against the spread of terrorism in the country and North Africa at large, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs limited his comment to “China is aware of the intervention of the relevant country” (Xinhua, January 17, 2013). Chinese scholars, however, were much more critical. He Wenping, an expert of African affairs from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, accused France of using the excuse of fighting terrorism to protect its interests in the region (Global Times, January 18, 2013). Against this background, the change in China’s approach to military intervention against terrorism, or at least the use of terrorism as a justification for intervention, has clearly changed in a significant way in Syria.

Both a Security Challenge and a Diplomatic Opportunity

Now that China has begun to reframe the threat of terrorism to Chinese citizens and interests abroad, it is important to note that while terrorism is clearly a challenge for the Chinese government, at the same time, this issue can also be seen as an important diplomatic opportunity for China.

As in European countries, public opinion is pushing the Chinese government to consider how to take action and effectively eliminate the threat. Indeed, on November 22, 2015, an article titled “The media explain why the Chinese peacekeepers could not help the Chinese people involved in Mali” published by the China Business Net (华商网) was widely reposted by Xinhua, the Global Times and other Chinese media (Xinhua, November 22, 2015). The article specifically addresses netizens who asked why Chinese peacekeepers in Mali did not intervene. As stated in the article, the peacekeepers were approximately 1200 km away from Bamako in northern Mali, and, moreover, were under UN command.

Nevertheless, to reassure worried citizens that the government was taking action Xinhua and other media widely reported that the Chinese peacekeepers quickly organized an “emergency antiterrorism exercise” (应急反恐演练) the day after the attack in Bamako (Xinhua, November 22, 2015). This “dialogue,” made of explanatory posts and pictures of fully geared peacekeepers, between the Chinese government and its citizens clearly shows some uneasiness due to the limits of what China can actually do to protect its interests abroad. It should be pointed out that the behavior of the media seems consistent with the latest instructions given by Xi Jinping to the media to be more careful in listening the concerns expressed by the public opinion (China Brief, May 11). While better communication can temporarily ease popular pressure at home, but cannot eliminate the threat on the ground. Indeed, while the PLA is more than ready and capable to plan and carry out an evacuation in the event of a conflict in a third country, terrorist attacks are harder to predict and prepare for. Even with a base in Djibouti and new laws that empower the PLA to operate abroad to both fight against terrorists and protect China’s overseas interests, the political and diplomatic cost of taking such huge step will be significant (China Brief, January 25; China Brief, January 25).

However, while acting alone likely remains too costly, a more active approach to counter-terrorism abroad has already created new opportunities for Chinese diplomacy, especially with Europe. Even before the tragic events of late November, Zhao Lei, a Professor at the CCP Central Party School’s Institute for Strategic Studies, listed antiterrorism among the fields of dialogue and potential cooperation between China and Britain in the new “golden age” of the Sino-British relationship (Guangming, October 22, 2015). Later, in January 2016, the Chinese and the British Ministers of Foreign Affairs released a joint declaration on Syria where the two countries stated their common intention and interest to fight terrorism (PRC MFA, January 5). China remains under pressure for what the Global Times labelled “China’s antiterrorism responsibility theory” (中国反恐责任论), that is Western criticism for the policies of the Chinese government toward the country’s western regions (Global Times, March 5, 2015). Yet, the creation of ad-hoc dialogues with Western countries undoubtedly helps China to present itself as a potential partner in international security and go beyond the sometimes too-tight Sino-Russian relationship. It seems indeed that there is a bitter dissatisfaction in Beijing with having Syria likely destined to become the “orphan” of Russia’s intervention and seeing further instability ensuing in the region (People’s Daily, March 18).


China’s understanding of terrorism is undergoing a major transformation, from primarily an internal threat to a major threat to Chinese interests abroad. Indeed, while external elements, such as the alleged support from Turkey for Uyghurs or the war in the neighboring Afghanistan, could add fuel to the fire, for a long time terrorism was mainly seen as one of the homegrown “three evils” that threaten China’s internal stability (China Brief, February 4; China Brief, January 25). The death of Chinese nationals at the hand of Middle Eastern and North African terrorists made terrorism to become an external threat to Chinese interests inside and outside the country, thereby adding great pressure over Beijing to strengthen cooperation with other countries and develop the necessary capabilities to deal with it. According to the latest Chinese statistical yearbooks published in late 2015, more than 160.000 Chinese contract workers were working in North Africa and the Middle East at the end of 2014. Considering the enlargement of the Chinese presence in those regions envisioned by the “One Belt, One Road,” it has already become common knowledge among Chinese scholars that Xi Jinping’s flagship diplomatic initiative must be protected against terrorism. [4] Nonetheless, significant challenges lie ahead. China not only lacks, at least now, the capabilities and the will to act alone or in a more direct way than peacekeeping, but even international cooperation is seen with skepticism. Li Xiruo, a researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), for example, affirmed that significant divisions in the international community prevent any meaningful cooperation vis-à-vis a common threat. [5] This is an opinion that recurs frequently on Chinese academic works on the subject.

At a more conceptual level, this change means that the classic Chinese receipt to cure instability—economic aid and diplomatic support—is slowly evolving. Understanding terrorism as a violent byproduct of- and, simultaneously, a cause of- instability adds a more proactive and security oriented element to China’s foreign policy. This is already visible in China’s latest policy paper on the Middle East and in tasking the peacekeepers in MINUSMA to “deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas (emphasis added)” (UN, April 25, 2013). China now appears more comfortable with the possibility of authorizing the use of force in international affairs, and prepared to walk an ever-thinner line between respecting other countries’ sovereignty and protecting its own interests.

Andrea Ghiselli is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs of Fudan University, and a non-resident Junior Research Fellow for the Torino World Affairs Institute (T.wai), Italy. His research areas include the PLA’s approach to Missions Other Than War (MOOTW) and China-Middle East relations.


  1. Zhang Jinping, “The Two-Principles Led Regulation of the Use of the Armed Forces Abroad in China’s Antiterrorism Law” (中国反恐怖法中境外武力反恐怖行动的两个原则性规定), Contemporary World (当代世界), No.3 (2016), pp.55–57.
  2. Liu Zhongmin, “The Development of Terrorism in the Middle East and Its Causes” (中东变局以来中东恐怖主义的新发展及其根源), Xiyabeifei (西亚北非), No.6 (2014), pp. 4–18.
  3. Wang Qiong, “Terrorism and Political Instability in Yemen” (也门的恐怖主义与政治动荡), Contemporary International Relations (现代国际关系), No.6 (2015), pp.57–62.
  4. Liu Qingjian and Fang Jincheng, “The New Development of Terrorism and Its Effect On China” (恐怖主义的新发展及对中国的影响), China International Studies (国际问题研究), No.4 (2015), pp.114–26.
  5. Li Xiruo李希若, “Analysis of the Causes and Trends of Terrorism in the Middle East” (中东恐怖活动态势及其根源探析), Party Building (党建), No.2 (2016), pp.63–65.