China, Taiwan and Islamic TerrorismFollowing the recent outrage in Paris, China is making a renewed attempt to portray itself as an indispensable element in the West’s fight against terrorism. If successful, this would only further increase its already substantial leverage on Taiwan
In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. 14 years ago, China moved swiftly to identify itself with the anti-terror wave then developing in the West, insisting that it too was a victim of random, Islamic-inspired violence, in its case in the mixed Han-Turkic region of Xinjiang in the country’s far northwest. It launched its own “war on terror” against Xinjiang-based Muslim separatists, amid repeated claims that it felt great sympathy for the victims of the attacks in the United States, because it knew from firsthand experience what Islamic terrorism was all about.
This same dynamic occurred earlier this month after the Islamic State (IS) outrages in Paris that killed 129 people. Authorities in Shanghai (once dubbed “the Paris of the East”) illuminated a city skyscraper in the iconic red, white and blue of the French flag, even as Chinese security officials provided Time magazine with special access to front-line paramilitary police suppressing Muslim militant activities in Xinjiang. One unnamed police commander told Time reporter Hannah Beech that a recent wave of Xinjiang-based attacks was “part of a global network of Islamic terrorism” that threatened to engulf the rest of the country in a wave of terrible violence. “I’m worried that overseas Turkish terrorists will be inspired to wage similar attacks in China,” the police official said. “They may guide domestic terrorists to initiate organized and well-devised attacks.”
China’s motive in all of this is not very difficult to discern. It wants to be perceived in the West as an important component in what is rapidly emerging as the signature issue of the times — the war on Islamic terror. This is important because the more successful it is at doing this, the easier it will be for its many apologists in the West to turn the spotlight away from its wretched excesses on the political and geo-political fronts — human rights violations at home and repeated aggression in the South China Sea just to name two of them — and shine its instead on its international security bona fides. Already propped up by its substantial economic heft and its growing regional authority, its “international indispensability index” would rise substantially, shielding it from all but the worst foreign criticism.
This has obvious implications for Taiwan, which more than any other country in the world is already suffering from China’s ability to consign it to the absolute fringes of the international stage. The last thing Taiwan needs now is more Chinese leverage in Washington, London and elsewhere. It already has enough.
Fortunately however, the chances of this happening are relatively low. To be sure, China under Xi Jinping (習近平) has long since dumped the once ubiquitous Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) foreign policy axiom of “keeping a low profile and hiding one’s brightness” in favor of a far more conspicuous profile on the world stage. Aside from moving aggressively to impose China’s authority on its smaller Asian neighbors, Xi has also raised the country’s political profile in Africa, South America and central Asia, and allowed Chinese peace keepers and naval vessels to take part in international humanitarian and anti-piracy efforts. Compared to his predecessors, he is no shrinking violet when it comes to asserting Chinese authority abroad. Indeed, he is quite the other thing.
But the distance between the current level of Chinese activity and the kind of involvement that nations like the U.S., France, Britain and the Russian Federation are bringing to bear in the IS heartland of Syrian and Iraq is gargantuan. Those countries are engaged in day to day military strikes involving combat aircraft and other kinetic assets. China, by contrast, is doing little more than cheerleading from the sidelines.
A good example of this came in the form of Xi’s formulaic reaction to the death of four Chinese citizens at the hands of Islamic terrorists earlier this month — three in Mali as a result of the al Qaeda attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako and one itinerant hostage executed by IS in the Mesopotamian desert. Merely insisting that “China will strengthen cooperation with the international community, resolutely crack down on violent terrorist operations that devastate innocent lives and safeguard world peace and security,” is hardly a preamble to credible military action. For one thing, such action would fly in the face of China’s longstanding policy of not intervening in the internal affairs of countries not on its immediate periphery — in this case the internal affairs of Syria and Iraq. For another, it would expose its military — specifically its air force —t o the high combat requirements implicit in mounting a sophisticated operation far from its borders. While this is well within the capabilities of the U.S., Britain, France, and even Russia, China has no experience at all in this line of combat. It is doubtful it would dare to attempt it.
None of this is to say of course that at some future date China will not get involved in direct combat operations against Islamic terrorists in the Middle East in order to underscore its bona fides in the fight against IS, al Qaeda and other Islamic movements. But at least for the time being, the day has not yet come. This is good news for Taiwan, whose de facto independence depends to a large degree on its continuing ability to keep China’s “indispensability index” at a level no higher than it is today. This is an absolutely crucial element in maintaining its current international status, including its critical political and economic cooperation with the U.S. and Japan.
China’s indispensability index aside, Taiwan should also be watching the spread of Islamic terrorism on its own account, even if it may sometimes seem that its remote East Asian location and its lack of a large Muslim minority effectively shields it from Islamic terrorist strikes. Like it or not those strikes are likely to become a normal part of life in Europe, even if they don’t necessarily constitute the existential threat that the Western commentariat now ascribes to them. They may also spread to Asia, including to Taiwan, not least because of the country’s abysmally low security awareness quotient, which features a glaring lack of protection at a number of attractive foreign targets. With all this in mind, Taiwanese authorities should now be working overtime to identify their vulnerabilities and taking steps to eliminate them. Anything less constitutes a major dereliction of duty in the face of an obvious threat.
Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.