The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, shifted the focus of Western security concerns towards the intertwined threats of terrorism and proliferation of nuclear technology and WMD. Unnoticed to many, Chinese security efforts have increasingly focused on these issues as well. Beijing’s 2008 Defence White Paper makes clear that China feels more threatened from non-traditional than traditional security threats, with nuclear weapons and WMD being two of its foremost concerns. This change in Beijing’s policy has direct implications for the Middle East, since no country in the region can today count with China’s unfettered support for its nuclear and WMD-related activities.
Chinese leaders’ fears with regards to the uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear technology and WMD stem from two concerns, none of which will disappear in the foreseeable future. First, China has a domestic terrorist problem of its own in the Western region of Xinjiang, which accounts for one sixth of the country’s total territory. Bordering eight other states, including Afghanistan, the region’s ethnic composition is very different from the rest of China, with around half of the population being Uyghurs of Turkic origin. The region was briefly independent in the 1940s; since then, several groups, mostly Islamic, have engaged in terrorist activities to reclaim independence.
In addition, South and Southeast Asia have increasingly become battlegrounds between moderate Muslims and radical Islamic jihadists. Furthermore, intelligence analysts widely believe that Afghanistan is now a safe-haven for terrorists. This poses a problem of regional instability for China, who enjoys improving economic and diplomatic links with countries in the region. More worryingly for Beijing, Uyghur terrorists are known to have been trained by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Were any of these groups acquire nuclear materials or WMD, there is a real threat that they could find their way to Xinjiang.
The past few years have witnessed a loosening of China’s traditional respect for state sovereignty, at least in specific cases. The presence of Chinese peacekeepers in Sudan and the dispatching of warships to fight against piracy off the coasts of Somalia are recent prominent examples. The latter is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, the Horn of Africa is suspected to be a terrorist haven which the US considers to be a contiguous with the Middle East. Secondly, China has so far refrained from taking an active role in anti-piracy efforts closer to home, in places such as the Malacca Strait and the Mekong Delta. This suggests that Beijing not only seeks to combat piracy in Somalia. Given the presence of Islamic insurgent groups in the Horn of Africa, their links to Al-Qaeda and their alleged economic support by some Middle Eastern countries, it is not unconceivable that the Chinese government seeks to disrupt possible links and transfers between these groups and the independence movement in Xinjiang. And it is willing to engage military forces in doing so.
The situation in the Horn of Africa, home to several failed states, and in the Middle East are markedly different. Furthermore, Beijing’s Middle Eastern policy is still dominated by its energy and economic needs. But Chinese military presence in the seas of Somalia highlights a new assertiveness in defence of its domestic interests – an assertiveness that in the Middle East has translated into greater involvement in counterproliferation and antiterrorism efforts.
China’s participation in the talks to deal with Iran’s nuclear issue underscores Beijing’s new approach. On the one hand, talks convey respect for Iranian sovereignty and recognition of the legitimacy of its government. On the other hand, involvement in the talks allows China to have direct access to the Iranian leadership. In 2006 then-Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing reportedly warned Iranian officials against proliferation of nuclear technology. In addition, China has allowed UNSC sanctions on Iran to be approved. These sanctions are aimed at making Tehran develop its nuclear programme peacefully and under the supervision of the IAEA. In short, while supportive of Iran’s sovereign right to have a peaceful nuclear programme, Beijing’s actions demonstrate that it is willing to flex its muscle to prevent any risk to its domestic interests.
Similarly, Beijing is working closely with Kabul to boost Afghanistan’s security. China has been providing military and economic assistance to Afghanistan since 2002, and both countries agreed to fight terrorism and cross-border crime in 2006. In addition, from that year Afghan military and civilian personnel are being trained by Chinese officials under a capacity-building programme. Also, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an intergovernmental security initiative led by China and Russia, recently hosted a special conference on Afghanistan. China is respectful and supportive of Hamid Karzai’s government, but calls for Beijing to send troops to join ISAF forces in Afghanistan briefly intensified in late 2008. China strenuously rejected any plans to send troops to this NATO-led operation. But at the same time it reiterated that Beijing has sent soldiers to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. This would open the door for sending troops to Afghanistan were the mission there led by the UN instead of NATO. Hence, China’s total respect for Afghan sovereignty could be forgone if a genuine multilateral approach applied.
Acquisition of nuclear devices and WMD by domestic terrorist groups is one of top security concerns for the Chinese government. To reduce the risk of this happening, China is increasingly willing to actively promote stability in the countries and regions where the threat of proliferation is greater. Concurrently Beijing has shown its readiness to move away from its traditional support for state sovereignty, as well as its willingness to display a more assertive diplomacy. Middle Eastern countries may have to become used to a more self-assured China, whose policy towards the region will not only be driven by economic and energy interests but also by domestic security concerns. Whether this promotes stability or brings greater volatility to the region is yet unknown. But it certainly heralds the arrival of a new power into Middle Eastern politics.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo - Expert in East Asian politics and counter-proliferation issues