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Building bridges in the common fight against international terrorism

Date:24 May 2018
Author:Claire Defossez, MA student East Asian Studies
Claire Defossez
Claire Defossez

The attacks on three churches in Indonesia last week are a reminder that international terrorism is unfortunately still very much a problem today. It also underlines its international nature. Whereas after the subsequent attacks in Paris left people with the idea that terrorism is mainly an issue in Europe, over the years we have witnessed also attacks in, among other, Indonesia (Jakarta), the Philippines (Marawi) and China (Xinjiang and Kunming).

The interesting point is that for many years politicians in Europe have regarded terrorism in Europe and terrorism in Asia as two separate issues. In Europe, the recent waves of terrorism have been ascribed to the poorly integrated nature of many European countries and the religious tensions that follow from that. Large immigrant populations are resident in Western Europe and in particular those with a poorer background have been faced with discrimination and obstacles to finding economic opportunities. Some say this phenomenon has led them to strengthen their ties with their own religion and culture, further hampering integration processes, which in turn has led to resentment within European western society. In Asia, the threat of returned IS fighters is clearly present. In March 2017, a five month long armed conflict between government forces and IS fighters took place in Marawi, Philippines. In China, terrorism has not been an unknown phenomenon either. Terrorism in China dates back to the Afghan War and find its roots with the Uyghur people in the eastern province of Xinjiang. A widespread rhetoric is that during the Soviet-Afghan War, China opened training camps and built weapons in the region for rebellious Afghans in their fight against the

Soviets. After the war ended many of these Uyghur jihadis returned and formed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). They used their training to instigate insurgency against Chinese communist rulers in area where the majority of people are Muslim.This insurgency was fought for the objectives of increasing autonomy, shaking off Han oppression and some argue for the establishment of an Islamist caliphate ruled by shari’a. Since the establishment of ETIM Chinese citizens have suffered numerous attacks, some clearly by Uyghur militants, some by IS warriors. Nevertheless, responses to international terrorism have always been very different in China from those in Europe. One commonly heard argument for this difference in response is the fact that China and Europe have very different strategic cultures.

A pot-pourri of different cultures
EU strategic culture is a pot-pourri of different national strategic cultures wherein great disparities exist in capabilities and perception. This little cohesive EU strategic culture has resulted in more moderate threat perceptions. Discourses of ‘challenges’ and ‘risks’ rather than ‘threats to security’ predominate. Europeans do not tend to see terrorism as something on which war can be declared – rather as a long term challenge that needs to be managed. Also, within the EU there is a vigorous aversion against the use of force. Diplomatic and political measures as well as engagement through international organisations for prevention are always preferred. Most EU citizens perceive the fight against the financing of terrorism and the fight against root causes and radicalisation as the top two effective measures in the broader combat against terrorism, with prioritization of issues of social inclusion and poverty, the removal of radical websites and radical content from social media and the raising of awareness about the risks of radicalization. Linked to this is the deeply embedded notion that the EU’s liberal norms are capable of influencing its external environment

The stability imperative
Contemporary China is more guided by the idea of ‘defensive realism’ Although China is in principle also very much against the use of force, especially in international relations, it is justified in certain circumstances. Due to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the country knows great unevenness in economic progress and this has contributed to some rising tensions. Therefore, strategy in

which preservation of domestic order, defence against external threats to national sovereignty are of paramount importance.38 Counter-terrorism is linked to a stability imperative. This has consequently shaped active responses to terrorism, which are characterized by three principles: “strike hard” (yanda) at serious crime, “harmonious justice” (hexie sifa) and “stability maintenance” (weiwen). Police in China, therefore enjoys a strong position with great coercive mandates.

Building bridges
It is possible that these different conceptions of terrorism and how to deal with it have been an obstacle to durable cooperation between China and the EU in this field. However, there are some commonalities that could bridge the difference and open the possibility for cooperation. Although the EU focuses on religious tensions as a cause for terrorism and China focuses on economic backwardness, the truth may be that both play a role in both areas. Both can be categorized under the common denominator of identity politics and this is what cooperation on anti-radicalization strategies should focus on. Both the EU and China share an ideology of restrictive use of force, allowing it only when national security is threatened, and prefer strategies of engagement. Nevertheless, the EU has traditionally not viewed China as a partner in counter-terrorism due to its criticism on human rights in China. However, it cannot escape the fact that it has to expand its cooperative ties if it wants to tackle an issue of such a global nature -  and one that China also has experience with. Therefore, the common ground between both parties far outweighs their disagreements and combating international terrorism should be one of their largest shared goals. In light of today’s threats, cooperation in the field of counter- terrorism between China and the EU should be an aim to reach for and the EU should make the necessary rapprochement. The common concerns and capabilities of both should open a window of opportunity to join forces and combat this cross-border issue together.

Claire Defossez is a student of the MA East Asian Studies at the University of Groningen. As part of her degree she is currently undertaking an internship at the political department of the Dutch Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand. During her master's she has had the opportunity to specialize in the politics, history and economy of the East Asia region.


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