The potential of US-Chinese counterterrorism is being undermined with destabilization.
Recently, the US State Department released its terrorism report 2013, which suggested that China’s cooperation with the US on counterterrorism issues “remained marginal.” That conclusion was quickly rejected in Beijing.
There was a reason to the swift refutation. About the same time, an explosion at a railway station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, left two attackers and a civilian dead and almost 80 wounded. It had been preceded by another attack in March at a railway station in Kunming in which almost 30 were killed and 140 wounded. More recently, half a dozen people were wounded in another knife attack in the Guangzhou Railway Station.
According to China’s first National Security Blue Book, terrorist activities are spreading to more regions and most attacks were due to religious extremists in 2013.
From Washington to Brussels, religious extremists in China are seen as peace-loving freedom fighters, whose legitimate quest for democracy has been suppressed by Beijing, which nurtures violence.
Yet, the inconvenient truth is that Washington is funding organizations and causes that seek to spread destabilization in China – and that, like Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, could eventually turn terror against America.
The rise and decline of US-Chinese counterterrorism
US-Chinese military-to-military contacts were initiated after President Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao in 1972 and the normalization of the bilateral ties in the Carter era. The US-Chinese alliance – including US arms sales to China –aimed to contain the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the modus operandi of bilateral cooperation dissolved.
By the early 1990s, the Clinton Administration reengaged the top Chinese leadership, including the military. But despite renewed military exchanges with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), political fluctuations affected military contacts, which were marred by the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, and NATO’s mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in 1999.
Just months after President George W. Bush first arrived in office in 2001, Washington and Beijing found each other in a bilateral row, due to the EP-3/F-8 aircraft collision crisis and US arms sales to Taiwan. In turn, the counterterrorist concerns moved to a new level after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which were strongly condemned by China’s president Jiang Zemin. Despite Beijing’s “unconditional support” in the struggle against terrorism, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated that bilateral discussions would cover intelligence-sharing, not military cooperation.
The Bush Administration did make a concerted effort to enlist China’s support in the counterterrorism struggle against Al Qaeda and its regional clones. However, as the White House moved from postwar multilateralism to preemptive unilateralism, that a historical window of opportunity for closer US-Chinese counterterrorism was missed.
In the Obama era, Washington’s counterterrorism efforts with China have been constrained by similar centrifugal objectives: a stated quest to expand cooperation, but policy obstacles against coordination. In late February 2014, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said that the US Army was seeking to begin a formal dialogue with the PLA before the year-end.
US officials see the bilateral ties between the two militaries as too weak, in the light of the US pivot to Asia since 2011, territorial disputes in East and South China Seas, China’s military modernization, and China’s concerns over US military expansion in the region and the scope of the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) activities.
Despite rising threats, counterterrorism has not played a central role in recent efforts to re-ignite US-Chinese cooperation.
Democracy or terror
Historically, extremists’ rise in China was fostered by the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, when Moscow amassed troops on the Russian border with Xinjiang, bolstering “East Turkestan” separatist movements.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led the Reagan Administration to view Islamic extremists as “freedom fighters.” After several terrorist incidents in Xinjiang in the late 1990s, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), headquarters was moved to Kabul, where it was sheltered by Taliban. To coordinate actions, ETIM leaders met with Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leaders, Taliban and the extremists of Uzbekistan.
In fall 2002 – but only after ETIM’s attacks against US forces – the Bush Administration designated the movement as a terrorist organization. Chinese interrogators were allowed access to Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo, but Beijing’s demand to take the detained 22 Uyghurs was rejected.
The ETIM is closely associated with the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), which China has accused for orchestrating terror since the 2009 ethnic violence in Urumqi. The WUC was formed in Germany in 2004 and is led by Rebiya Kadeer, a Xinjiang Uyghur who became a millionaire in the 1980s through real estate holdings and ownership of a multinational conglomerate.
Kadeer served in China’s parliament before her arrest in 1999 for sending confidential reports to her husband, who worked as a pro-Xinjiang independence broadcaster for the US radio stations Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, which have been active in Xinjiang and China’s regional neighborhood. After her 2005 discharge, she became WUC’s chief. Two years later, Kadeer, who lives near Washington, met privately President Bush, who praised her activities. In the Obama era, she has visited Asian countries that belong to the US security alliance – including Tokyo and its Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals.
Ironically, Washington sustains WUC, which is partly funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US non-profit organization founded in 1983 to promote democracy. In turn, the NED is funded by the US Congress, within the budget of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which reports to the State Department. The NED provides overtly political assistance that CIA had previously provided clandestinely.
NED’s financial sources are no secret. Already a decade ago, Ron Paul, a veteran politician, argued against NED funding because it had “very little to do with democracy. It is an organization that uses US tax money to actually subvert democracy. By showering funding on favored political parties or movements overseas, it underwrites color-coded ‘people’s revolutions’ overseas that look more like pages out of Lenin’s writings on stealing power than genuine indigenous democratic movements.”
NED has funded various NGOs in Iran, Latin America (Ecuador, Venezuela), Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Georgia). Most of its Asian NGOs focus on China.
Dark legacy of duplicity
In Xinjiang, China has fought separatism but poured substantial funds to raise living standards and boost the local economy, while launching affirmative-action style measures. And yet, in the West, terrorism in and beyond Xinjiang is today seen as associated with (or caused by) hard-line policy on dissent.
Accordingly, the WUC’s activities have been supported in the name of freedom, democracy and economic development. In China, such destabilization has been seen as reminiscent of the kind of ‘strategy of tension,’ which has a dark legacy from the clandestine support of the Greek junta in the 1960s to far-right terrorist groups in Italy and Turkey in the 1970s.
Efforts at counterterrorist cooperation between Washington and Beijing should not be overshadowed by such Cold War-style attempts to destabilize another nation. Nor should such cooperation be tarnished by efforts to target and scapegoat national, ethnic, racial or religious minorities.
What Washington and Beijing really need is multipolar counterterrorist cooperation. Duplicitous efforts – stated counterterrorism but de facto destabilization – will only pave way to negative scenarios in the future.
The original version was published by China-US Focus on May 14, 2014