28th Oct 2016


Can the EU and China work together on violent extremism?

  • Chinese police. Countering terrorism and violent extremism is a growing priority for policymakers in Europe and Asia (Photo: Michael Mooney)

Sat in Brussels or Beijing, the threat of violent extremists is atop most policymakers' considerations.

The definition of what constitutes a terrorist or violent extremist is something that is complicated by local considerations and concerns, but there is a growing policy question around whether there is any way for China and the EU to cooperate on such matters.

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Whilst there are clearly issues in cooperating with China on some aspects, there are some practical measures that the EU and China could explore together to counter the threat from violent extremists.

At an ideological level there is a difficulty in the EU and China countering violent extremism globally together.

First, the reasons for violent extremism are different the world over. Domestically, the Chinese official view is very much that extremism and radicalisation are the product of external ideologies that have entered China and are causing problems.

Sat in Europe, the view is often rather that domestic problems are leading to disenfranchisement that is leaving people prone to exploring radical ideologies. The external ideology is in some ways secondary to the local “root causes” in dealing with the response.

This difference in analysis complicates the possibilities of cooperation, something that is rendered even more difficult when one considers the broad range of people and groups that China captures under the banner of terrorist: any anti-state group, from terrorist networks to dissident communities.

From a European perspective, people who are fighting for the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) are clearly terrorists while the World Uyghur Congress are dissidents. They do not immediately come under the same banner.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding external commentary, the discussion around these questions in Beijing is in fact a fairly sophisticated one, with some advocating for a more nuanced response than others.

Clearly, terrorists bent on murdering other citizens need to be stopped and finding ways of preventing them is something that preoccupies policymakers in European capitals and Beijing alike. Some European capitals have made greater progress in this struggle than others, and learning from these mistakes and approaches is something that others in Europe and China will benefit from.

These lessons are not all equally transferable, but some principles around community policing, community outreach, religious and minority tolerance and less kinetic approaches to counter-terrorism might help alleviate problems on both continents.

But while there are difficulties in cooperating at home, globally speaking there are a number of aspects to counter terrorism and violent extremism that could be worked on collaboratively.

For example, looking at parts of the world where there are problems of violent extremism, there is in some cases a correlation between underdevelopment and some of the root causes driving people towards terrorist groups.

Both the EU and China are probably already active in these countries, but coordinating efforts to address issues like education, employment, local development and so on might help mitigate some of the local root causes.

Looking at a more practical level, considering how to evacuate nationals from unstable locations threatened by terrorist groups in cooperative ways is a way the EU and China might start to plan together.

Such contingencies have already taken place – for example in Yemen – and Chinese ships have helped evacuate European nationals. Planning ahead might be a way to build trust and establish mechanisms that would be useful during the next inevitable crisis.

There is further possible cooperation that could be undertaken in terms of countering terror financing, the disruption of smuggling networks getting fighters or weapons to and from battlefields, and the sharing of threat information in third locations where both have nationals.

The problem with all of this is the practicalities of sharing intelligence – something that is complicated between close allies in Europe, let alone between the EU and China.

Intelligence sharing works best when driven by necessity: it is probably going to take a specific case to take place that threatens both Chinese and European nationals for the pathways and structures to start to be developed to foster such cooperation.

But keeping attuned to the possibility of such opportunities is something that policymakers and security officials on both sides should keep alert to as a way to engender greater practical cooperation on a threat that has killed both European and Chinese nationals.

Countering terrorism and violent extremism is a growing priority issues for policymakers in Europe and Asia. Be this in distant third locations or allies’ territories, the menace of terrorism is one that knows no pity or borders.

Understanding how the EU and China can cooperate on countering this problem whilst bearing in mind differences is key to dealing with a problem that menaces nationals from both countries in an increasingly equal manner.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at Rusi, a London-based think tank.


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