China’s involvement with ISIS: Evidence of a global military threat?

Is China’s involvement in the Middle East evidence of a new global military power?

Following the death of Mao Zedong on the 9th September 1976, China began to shift its focus away from Marxist/Maoist ideology and towards economic pragmatism. Mao’s era was characterised by a heavy emphasis on China’s domestic situation in an attempt to consolidate support for the fledgling Communist state, and this domestic focus was also evident in the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P) foreign policy. The end of the Second World War and the early stages of the Cold War were periods of the 19th Century that were arguably the most volatile due to the ensuing struggle between Western capitalism, and the communist ideologies of the Soviet Union and China. Right from the start of Mao’s time as the leader of the C.C.P in 1949, he was faced with a direct challenge to the security of his regime which came in the form of the Korean War (1950-1953). China’s involvement in the Korean War was largely motivated by a desire to protect her domestic borders from the ‘imperialist’ United Nations forces led by the United States. However, under Deng Xiaoping (1977-1992), China adopted a more pragmatic approach focused on economic development and traditional Chinese culture, rather than the revolutionary ideology promoted by Mao. It is important to note that during this period, and subsequent periods, China retained its communist characteristics, but chose to focus on economic growth and development over politics and ideology. Chinese foreign policy became centred on the national interest, which manifested itself in the form of a more open approach to foreign investment, technology transfer and trade. In order to achieve Deng’s economic goals, China believed that peace was the key to prosperity and actively sought closer relationships with Washington and Moscow in order to try and nullify any perceived threats to Chinese territory. Crucially, China also began to turn to the ‘Third World’ and began a programme of military assistance that included the sale and transfer of nuclear weapons technology to Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. When coupled with the increased establishment of global diplomatic relations, this period represents a turning point in Chinese history – one in which China became motivated by economic development. This trend continued under subsequent leaders, with increasingly active participation in international institutions and regional politics with the belief that, as part of the international system, China would be more able to influence global policy and effect economic growth. Since 1978, China has experienced a real annual GDP growth rate of over 9%.

China’s pragmatic desire for increased economic growth has gone hand in hand with globalisation. As China seeks to trade with more markets across the globe, states have become more economically dependent on one another. As a result, each country has gained strategic interests in its international partners, and China is no exception. As China has grown economically, the C.C.P has invested heavily in its military capabilities, which now allow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to project military power beyond its borders. However, China’s definition of what constitutes its borders is not necessarily universal – the ongoing issue over the South China Sea exemplifies this.

As a result of China’s economic progress, and an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, China now has strategic interests beyond its borders. However, there is a difference between strategic interests and security interests. Security interests can be considered strategic, but so can economic interests.

The Limits of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence

The ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence’ first appeared in the text of a treaty between India and the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C). On the 29th April 1954, the treaty to clarify India’s role in Tibet was signed in Peking, containing the ‘Five Principles’. The principles were worked out between three prime ministers, and so no single individual can claim patronage over them. Even though the ‘Five Principles’ first appeared in the early 1950s, they remain the framework around which contemporary Chinese foreign policy is orchestrated, as demonstrated by the Chinese Premier’s remarks in 2004: “as a large developing country with 1.3 billion people, China will, as always, steadfastly commit itself to the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence”. They remain such a fundamental part of Chinese foreign policy that they have been written into the constitution of the P.R.C.

The Five Principles are as follows: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-interference in domestic affairs, mutual non-aggression, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity implies that each state has a right to freely choose its own economic, legal, political, social, and cultural systems combined with the responsibility to respect the diversity of civilizations across the globe, and that they enjoy these rights on the basis of independence and equality. According to the Director-General of the Department of Treaty and Law within the Chinese Foreign Ministry, this also includes the right for states to take “lawful measures within its own territory to defend its territorial integrity”. This is significant because whilst this principle outlines that the independence and sovereignty of nations are guaranteed (therefore implying that intervention within another state would be against this principle), it allows for a scenario in which aggression and force could be used to defend China’s territory – a provision particularly relevant to its border disputes and aspirations. Mutual non-interference in domestic affairs safeguards the independence of states, and acts to combat hegemonism. This principle essentially states that no nation has the right to intervene in the affairs of another and shall not organise, foment, finance, incite or tolerate subversive, terrorist, or armed activities directed towards the violent overthrow of the regime of another state. Mutual non-aggression dictates that, unless authorized by the United Nations Security Council or in exercise of self-defence, all states must refrain from the threat or use of force against another state. Equality and mutual benefit outlines the Chinese position that all states are to be considered as equals in the international system, regardless of their political, economic, or social systems. Mutual benefit is most often applied to economics and ensures that there can be no ‘one-sided’ trade deals and that all participants stand to gain from them. Finally, the principle of peaceful co-existence suggests that international disputes between nation states should be resolved through peaceful means in accordance with international law.

These foreign policy principles are important for a number of reasons. Firstly, they heavily limit the extent to which China can act to support its military and security interests beyond its domestic borders, and in fact they set particular and predictable limits on the choices available to Chinese foreign policy makers. Most notably, in relation to the war against I.S.I.S, the principle of mutual non-interference in domestic affairs prohibits China from intervening in the domestic affairs of both Syria and Iraq. Because of this principle in particular, even though China may have strategic interests abroad which can include both economic and security dimensions, Beijing cannot interfere in what is seen as a domestic problem. Therefore, if Beijing’s proposed involvement in the war against I.S.I.S is considered as evidence for expanding military and security interests, China would be unable to act in favour of these interests anyway because of the limitations of the ‘Five Principles’. Andrew Mertha supports this view by arguing that China has “voluntarily constrained itself in its international interactions from the 1950s to the present (day)”. The second reason why these principles are important is because, whilst they do not allow for military intervention abroad, they quite clearly allow for China to pursue her domestic military and security interests. The use of the word ‘mutual’ is very important in this case, because China could argue (with reference to its domestic border confrontations) that another state by laying claim to ‘Chinese territory’, is directly breaking the principle of mutual non-interference in domestic affairs. This then allows China to use its military capabilities to defend its territory without contravening her own principles, because another party would have already broken the ‘mutual’ element of the ‘Five Principles’. This is arguably the most significant determinant as to why China’s military and security interests are concentrated around its domestic borders, and not beyond. In short, the current Chinese foreign policy framework, the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence’, limit China’s ability to act upon its interests abroad, but promote the ability to act along her domestic borders.

China and the ‘Islamic State’

Ever since the C.C.P passed a counter-terrorism law in December 2015 that allowed the P.L.A to be deployed overseas on counter-terrorist operations, there have been rumours circulating in the media that China will move to join the war against I.S.I.S. However, any proposed involvement in the multinational US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria was quashed by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. On the 12th February he stated that “there is a tradition in China’s foreign policy. We do not join in state groups that have a military nature and this also applies to international terrorism co-operation”. Despite this assertion that China will not be taking part in any military activity in the Middle East, Wang Yi did emphasise that China had been fighting terrorism “in its own ways”. According to Business Insider, Beijing has been getting involved diplomatically in Syria by recently hosting the Syrian Foreign Minister and opposition officials. In a recent interview, Wang Yi himself outlined the levels of Chinese involvement in Iraq saying, “we have been helping Iraq with counter-terrorism capacity building, and conducting intelligence sharing with certain countries”, he went on to add “we are (also) working with countries to cut the channels of financial resources and movement of terrorists”. Nevertheless, the C.C.P is not offering diplomatic and intelligence assistance to the governments of Iraq and Syria altruistically.

China has developed strategic interests in the Middle East. Some analysts and journalists argue that China’s assistance in the region is motivated by security interests that specifically relate to a growing number of Chinese-origin terrorists that have joined ISIS. Indeed, I.S.I.S have reportedly shown aspirations to expand its territory towards Xinjiang province – home to a large Chinese-Muslim population. According to media reports, between 100 and 300 Uighur militants from Xinjiang have been training with I.S.I.S in order to carry out terrorist attacks on Chinese soil. Yet, in the face of what has been described as a real danger to Beijing’s national security, the most decisive action taken by the Chinese government so far has been the evacuation of most of the 10,000 Chinese citizens living in Iraq. With respect to the borderline non-existent involvement of the Chinese government in the war against I.S.I.S so far, it is impossible to conclude that there is evidence for China’s military and security interests having moved beyond its domestic borders, mostly because China has not involved and indeed cannot involve its military in Middle Eastern affairs, in line with their ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence’ foreign policy framework.

Instead, the Chinese position towards Iraq and Syria should be viewed in terms of Beijing’s economic plans, and there are two factors that have influenced the C.C.P’s policy. The first factor relates to energy supplies. As a ‘developing’ and economically growing country, China is heavily dependent on its manufacturing sector, which in turn relies upon the importation of raw materials and energy, mostly in the form of non-renewable fossil fuels. The Middle East is China’s largest source of crude oil, and in 2014 it supplied China with 3.2 million barrels per day. Since 2003, China has invested around $10 billion in the Iraqi oil industry, and approximately 50% of Iraq’s oil exports go to China which, as of 2014, made Iraq the fifth largest foreign source of crude oil in China. By 2035, 80% of Iraq’s oil production is estimated to be destined for China. With the instability in Iraq and Syria caused partly by the ‘Islamic State’, a significant proportion of China’s vital oil supplies are under threat and may lead to an increase in oil prices and jeopardise the already hefty investment made into Iraq’s oil industry. Following the slowdown of the Chinese economy in January 2016, disruption to a vital oil supply would certainly hinder any recovery, and this is a far more compelling explanation for the Chinese policy choices in Iraq and Syria than security interests given the economic focus of recent Chinese leaders including Xi Jinping.

The second, and most significant economic factor driving China’s limited involvement in the war against I.S.I.S, is the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative. In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping first eluded to a proposal to create a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ at a speech in Kazakhstan. Later that year in October, Xi, and his Premier Li Keqiang, attended the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (A.P.E.C) summit, in Indonesia, and the East Asia Summit, in which they outlined proposals for a 21st Century ‘Maritime Silk Road’. By early 2015, the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ were amalgamated into the ‘One Belt One Road’ (O.B.O.R) concept, with the ‘belt’ referring to a land route, and the ‘road’ referring to a maritime route to connect Asia, Europe, and Africa. The O.B.O.R vision seeks mutual benefit to all participants, and so is compatible with the ‘Five Principles’ framework. Section IV of the ‘vision document’ contains five co-operation priorities: policy co-ordination, facilities connectivity (which involves the building of infrastructure, logistics, and communications and energy infrastructure), unimpeded trade (free trade areas, customs co-operation, balancing trade flows, and protecting the rights of investors), financial integration, and ‘people-to-people bonding’ (student exchanges and tourism). The O.B.O.R proposal has a huge geographic scope, and under Section III of the ‘vision document’, it states that the belt focuses on linking China, Central Asia, Russia, Europe, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean. The South China Sea is also to play an important part in bringing together trade between China and Europe, and China and the South Pacific. According to a proposed map of the trade routes published by the Xinhua news agency, the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ will pass through both Iraq and Syria and seeks to include the Middle East by routing part of the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ through the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf. The O.B.O.R initiative is the centrepiece of China’s foreign policy and domestic economic strategy, and Beijing has already allocated $40 billion to a ‘Silk Road’ fund. This initiative represents a defining moment in China’s foreign policy and Xi Jinping’s presidency, designed to enhance trade and financial links between China and a large portion of the world, with some 3 billion people estimated to live within the economic belt alone. Long-term instability within Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East as a whole, caused by I.S.I.S, is bound to affect the success of this proposal, and given the economic focus of the current Chinese leadership, it is logical to argue that the O.B.O.R route is the determinant motive for Chinese policy against I.S.I.S – especially given the already substantial investment into the scheme. Given the two economic factors outlined, it is clear that Beijing’s involvement in the war against I.S.I.S is not evidence for the pursuit of military and security interests beyond its borders, but a continuation of China’s economic globalisation and development plans.

China’s Security Interests

After concluding that China’s involvement against I.S.I.S is not motivated by security interests and cannot be used as evidence to support the claim these interests have moved beyond China’s domestic borders, it seems reasonable to examine where China’s security interests lie. This section shall briefly identify two of Beijing’s top security interests; the South China Sea, and North Korea – both of which are unfolding in close proximity to China’s domestic borders.

The South China Sea has been a long running problem for China, and for Southeast Asia as a whole for a number of decades, because of overlapping territorial claims to many of the islands within the sea by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan. The South China Sea is a significant maritime trading route that contains rich fishing grounds, and reportedly large reserves of oil and natural gas. However, for China, this issue is about something far more fundamental that economics alone, in essence this dispute is about Chinese territory. It is an extremely important Chinese national interest because some countries have occupied reefs and islands in the South China Sea which, in the eyes of the C.C.P, violates Chinese territorial sovereignty. Furthermore, the South China Sea is the ‘southern gate’ of China’s national defence and security, and any actions taken that will destroy the peace and stability of the region (provoked by the border disputes) are a major threat to Chinese national security. In recent years, there has been an increasingly noticeable P.L.A presence on some of the Chinese claimed islands that threatens to escalate this dispute further. Territorial integrity is a vital pillar of the C.C.P’s national identity – as displayed by its prevalence in the ‘Five Principles’, and in the wake of the economic slowdown, nationalism has taken on increasingly greater importance for the legitimacy of the C.C.P, and consequently the parties’ survival. Therefore, because the survival of the communist regime is at stake, this is clearly a security issue for the Chinese. This problem is centred on Chinese borders and supports the argument that China’s military and security interests have not moved further afield.

A second major Chinese military and security interest lies in North Korea. Since Kim Jong-Il began North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology in the 1990s, China’s territorial security has been put under strain by the increasing likelihood of war breaking out on the Korean peninsula. On the last occasion of war between the two Koreas, between 1950 and 1953, China became involved out of fear that the U.S led United Nations forces would push beyond the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K) into Chinese territory, thus threatening Mao’s fledgling communist state. Since then, the D.P.R.K has conducted four nuclear weapons tests which is challenging the international community as well as Chinese and regional security. The worry for China is that in the event of war, history may very well repeat itself and the P.L.A could be drawn into another conflict to protect its borders and to prevent the collapse of yet another communist state. China is actively engaged in preventing the emergence of a nuclear North Korea, but frequently finds itself caught between criticism from Kim Jong-Un, for aiding ‘imperialists’ in imposing the U.N-backed sanctions against the regime, and from the U.S for not taking a sufficiently hard-line approach against its communist neighbour. North Korea is a clear security interest for China, and like the South China Sea issue, is occurring along its borders. In examining two of China’s most prevalent security issues, it can be seen that they fall comfortably within the realm of its domestic sphere, and whilst some could make the argument that China is acting on behalf of the security of the entire Southeast Asian region, a more convincing argument is that China is motivated by a desire to protect her own national security.

The Five Principles hold true

The claim that China’s proposed involvement in the war against I.S.I.S is evidence for the pursuit of security interests beyond its domestic borders does not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, the so far limited actions of Beijing are motivated by economic concerns rather than security. The importance of Iraq and the Middle East as a whole to China’s energy supplies, that are vital to continued economic growth, combined with the desire for stability within Iraq and Syria for Xi Jinping’s flagship ‘One Belt One Road’ policy, far outweigh any security interests that may face China. If it were the case that China had security interests in the region, it is highly likely that they would be unable to pursue them anyway because of the limitations of their foreign policy framework – the ‘Five Principles’. The very fact that this framework does not allow for foreign military involvement, despite the passing of a new counter-terrorism law, is further evidence that China’s military and security interests remain centred around its domestic borders. The location of two of China’s most pressing security interests, the South China Sea and North Korea, further supports this argument. However, it is not inconceivable that China will develop a serious security issue in the Middle East if more of its Muslim population from the Xinjiang province train with I.S.I.S, and with the expanded strategic interests that arise from the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative. In the future, this may lead to greater Chinese involvement in the region, as long as it remains within the ‘Five Principles’ framework.