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'Underscores China's concerns'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezMarch 5, 2015

As China's National People's Congress gets underway, lawmakers may decide on allowing armed forces to be deployed abroad to counter terrorism. DW talks to analyst Andrew Scobell about the draft law and its implications.

Chinesische Flagge Symbolbild
Image: AP

An anti-terrorism bill is likely to be among a host of policy matters China's parliament, derided as "rubber stamp" legislature, will discuss over the next 11 days. The National People's Congress (NPC), attended by some 3,000 delegates, convenes once a year. The draft law is aimed at better countering terrorist activity at home and it has reportedly been reviewed by a parliamentary committee. Chinese authorities claim the legislation, when passed, could strengthen the country's counter-terrorism efforts and bolster intelligence.

However, it is not limited to that. A clause in the draft law also enables the Chinese administration to send forces abroad to undertake counter-terrorism missions, if approved by the host nation.

In a DW interview, Andrew Scobell, a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation, says that the anti-terrorism bill underscores Beijing's concern about how to protect the country's expanding overseas interests, including the security of Chinese citizens living, working, and travelling abroad.

Andrew Scobell
Scobell: 'The bill is an effort by Xi Jinping to further clarify and codify Chinese counter-terrorism efforts'Image: RAND Corporation

DW: What is the purpose of this draft law?

Andrew Scobell: The bill appears to mark an effort by Xi Jinping to further clarify and codify Chinese counter-terrorism efforts.

What would this bill allow and when is it expected to become law?

This bill could be voted on by the current session of the National People's Congress and become a law very soon. However, some aspects of the law appear to be controversial within China and this might mean a postponement of passage.

Reportedly, one element of the law permits Beijing to dispatch security forces beyond China's borders to conduct counter-terrorism operations. If such a provision is included then this would be significant. However, Chinese forces already appear to have conducted limited counter-terrorism actions beyond China's borders.

In which places outside China have the country's forces conducted such operations?

The prime examples that come immediately to mind are: 1. China's unprecedented efforts to capture a Southeast Asian drug lord who was believed responsible for the 2011 cold blooded murder of Chinese sailors on the Mekong River in 2011. The following year Chinese security forces tracked him through the jungles of Myanmar (also formerly known as Burma) and Laos, seized him and brought him back to China and put him on trial.

2. The nearly annual military and paramilitary exercises that China conducts with the security forces of Russia and Central Asian states under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) since 2003. These exercises are officially all counter-terrorism focused. The first time China conducted military exercises with other countries either within or beyond its borders was as part of this SCO series.

What concerns have triggered the draft legislation's inception?

Actually, China has been concerned about terrorism for several decades. Beijing has tended to conflate "terrorism" with "separatism" and "extremism" and dubbed them the "three evils." China has used the attacks of September 11, 2001 to engage with Washington and other capitals insisting that China too has been a victim of terrorism and offering to cooperate on counter-terrorism initiatives.

Also in 2001, China took the lead in establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) along with Russia and Central Asian states. Beijing insists that the SCO was the first multilateral organization established to have counter-terrorism as a central focus.

China has faced a low intensity conflict within its own borders - in its westernmost region of Xinjiang for at least three decades. This is a manifestation of significant disaffection among some 10 million-strong ethnic minority Uighurs.

The situation has become more acute since 2009 as discrimination and repression against this Turkic minority has increased and Han Chinese settlers have flowed into Xinjiang. The result has been growing alienation, radicalization, and greater attention to Islam as a central component of Uighur identity. Violence in response to harsh Chinese crackdowns against Uighurs and acts of terrorism by extremists seem to have become more frequent both in Xinjiang in other parts of China.

What would be the implications of the law and of having Chinese troops involved in such operations abroad?

If a provision for the employment of Chinese security forces abroad is included in a counter-terrorism law then this might lead to an increase in actions by Chinese security forces abroad but it would almost certainly be an extremely modest increase.

China Soldaten in Xinjiang
China has faced a low intensity conflict in its westernmost region of Xinjiang for at least three decadesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

More importantly, what inclusion of such a provision would underscore is greater concern by Beijing about how to protect China's expanding overseas interests, including the security of Chinese citizens living, working, and travelling abroad.

China's official military budget will grow by about 10 percent in the coming year, amid unease among Beijing's neighbors about its growing might and territorial ambitions. What will be the impact of the defense budget hike?

The announced increase is consistent with annual increases over the past few decades. Virtually every year the defense budget has experienced double digit growth. Moreover, this announcement by itself is unlikely to increase tension among China's neighbors. China's neighbors will pay more attention to what China does economically, diplomatically, and militarily to further its power and influence in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Andrew Scobell is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation, a non-profit think tank.