Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Five Lessons from China's War on Terror

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Five Lessons from China's War on Terror

Article excerpt


Since the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, China has been fighting an increasingly sophisticated campaign against violent extremists in its northwestern Xinjiang region. China's "war on terror" there has focused on preempting a nascent insurgency before it could militarily challenge the state. While China has kept its counterinsurgency actions in Xinjiang secret for fear of "internationalizing" the conflict, Chinese leaders are now seeking to gain international acceptance for their counterinsurgency campaign as part of the larger war on terror.

Critics accuse Beijing of needlessly and brutally repressing a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group--the Uyghurs--and cynically casting the campaign after 9/11 as part of the war on terror to gain political cover. China's actions in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are poorly explained by officials, likely because the effectiveness of the campaign and its components is poorly understood by the leaders themselves. The actions in Xinjiang are governed by the party-state's worst fears of social unrest removing the final critical pillar upholding the regime: the Chinese people's belief that the party-state, however ideologically bankrupt and locally corrupt, is still holding the country together.

In countering Xinjiang's insurgency, China acted early, forcefully, and comprehensively and prevented a nascent insurgency from maturing. Chechnya and Kosovo are worst-case scenarios often invoked by Chinese sources, (1) yet Afghanistan and Iraq have now taken over as the unstated but ever-present comparison when assessing the threat of insurgency. With borders on both Pakistani and Indian Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and several Central Asian republics, China would have reason enough to worry about cross-border problems, yet it claims that it too has suffered from the indigenous phenomenon of what it terms "religious extremism, separatism, and terrorism." Chinese sources claim that over 160 people have been killed and 440 injured in more than 200 attacks by forces seeking to split the Alaska-sized Xinjiang region from Chinese control.

Xinjiang, literally "new frontier," is technically an autonomous region for the Uyghurs, a primarily Turkic Muslim ethnic group that comprised nearly the entire regional population when Mao and the Communists took over China in 1949. Today the Uyghurs are officially a minority in their own autonomous region due to decades of Communist-led population movement of Chinese from the east.

Xinjiang's violence peaked in the late 1990s, with steady small-scale attacks against officials accused of caprice and corruption at a level similar to the Basque experience. China's changing use of force in Xinjiang traced through major incidents of unrest is presented in figure 1. Today, because China not only employed a mix of security forces but also engaged in broad political action, society in Xinjiang increasingly if begrudgingly is turning away from insurgency as the path forward.

From studying the campaign in Xinjiang, including strategy, tactics, and tools, U.S. military decisionmakers can learn five lessons about the nature of China today and about crafting more effective counterinsurgency policies.

* The response targeted indigenous support for a nascent insurgency with links to the global jihad. While leaders worked to diminish external support for the insurgency, they recognized that a counterinsurgency must primarily be locally focused to be effective.

* The government acted early, forcefully, and comprehensively, employing a new mix of security forces and political tools.

* China crafted a security meaningful to society. Security forces progressively grew more effective against the insurgency as they reduced brutality.

* The government countered the insurgency from the bottom up, using deep knowledge of local society. Employing society-centric warfare turned the groupings in society against the insurgents and the idea of insurgency itself. …

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