COIN of the Realm

Could the counterinsurgency strategy that failed for the U.S. in Afghanistan work for China in Xinjiang?

Random arrests, indefinite detentions, and religious oppression are certainly nothing to aspire to. But observers of China's internal affairs can in some respects consider Beijing's campaign against Muslim Uighur separatists in the Western region of Xinjiang to be a success, at least to the extent that the unrest there hasn't devolved into an all-out war. Still, tensions there appear to be rising. There seems to be an increase in violence between Han Chinese and Uighurs, who make up just under 50 percent of the region's roughly 22 million people, as well as in Uighur-planned terrorist attacks. In late October, a car crash near Beijing's Tiananmen Square killed five -- an exceedingly rare attack on one of the most heavily policed parts of China. On March 1, masked attackers stabbed to death 29 people and injured more than 140 in a railway station in the southern city of Kunming. And an April 30 bomb and knife attack at a railway station in Urumqi, which killed three and injured 27, was all the more dramatic as it took place at the end of Xi Jinping's first visit to Xinjiang as president.

Beijing has claimed Uighur separatists were responsible for all three attacks, reflecting what appears to be growing concern about the potential for escalation. And this concern could prove well-founded if Beijing does not impose more effective polices. Beijing's current "strike hard" approach of mass arrests and draconian suppression of political and religious rights seems to be making things worse. Instead, China might be wise to consider implementing aspects of a traditional counterinsurgency strategy, even though the situation in Xinjiang may not fit with the popular conception of insurgency to the tune of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, China tends to use a heavy hand in putting down movements it perceives to be a threat to the cohesion of the state, even when they are as harmless as a group of Tibetan monks celebrating the Dalai Lama's birthday. A number of factors inspire this strategy. China is paranoid about any of its potentially secessionist regions -- for example, Taiwan, Xinjiang, or Inner Mongolia -- setting a precedent by declaring independence. Then there is the perhaps coincidental fact that these regions, in particular Tibet and Xinjiang, are home to critical resources that support the all-important Chinese economy. (Xinjiang is not only massive and strategically important from a trade and defense perspective, but it also contains an estimated 30 billion tons of oil and natural gas reserves.) And finally there is the fear that the international Islamic terrorist movement could direct its violent ire at China.

In this vein, China has used aggressive tactics in subjugating the Uighurs, which has embroiled Beijing and the Uighur movement in a repeating circle of violence. Jailings, executions, and the application of excessive force by the government has catalyzed growing radicalism among the Uighurs, whose attacks in turn evoke more brutal repression which then spur new rounds of insurrection.

Today this cycle appears to be shifting towards a more dangerous dynamic for the Chinese, both because of the growing anger among Uighurs and their increasing ability to draw international support, including in the human rights community. That said, when one looks at the current situation in Tibet, once a darling of the human rights world (and a non-Muslim one at that, which typically means more money and love), support may do little to change events on the ground.

Calls for greater respect for Uighur rights for their own sake will almost certainly continue to fall on deaf ears in Beijing, where concern for international norms rarely seems to drive policy. But Xinjiang may be different because the oppressive measures China has used to counter a rising Uighur movement have shown themselves to exacerbate a longer-term and perhaps quite dangerous problem. Thus, despite deep-rooted fears of loosening its reins, perhaps China could be persuaded to consider other means of controlling the region.

Traditional counterinsurgency doctrine focuses on building host-nation forces and government entities to restore legitimacy and win the support of the population away from the insurgents. Of course, many counterinsurgency campaigns also require the capture or removal of hardcore insurgents; in the case of Xinjiang, this should for the time being be avoided to prevent reinforcing the cycle described above. But other elements of COIN, including improving public services, creating employment, instilling some semblance of rule of law, and providing education for the population would go a very long way in Xinjiang.

COIN has had a rough couple of decades, culminating in the apparent failure of the U.S. and NATO to achieve specific goals in Afghanistan. But this is primarily the result of the misapplication of COIN to cases in which the necessary circumstances for success were absent. The characteristics of a region that is fertile for COIN are generally considered to be as follows: a credible and capable host-nation force; a lack of substantial outside support or safe haven for the insurgency; a robust intelligence network; control of the physical and human terrain; and control of the flow of information. China has all of these in Xinjiang, while in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO had barely any of them.

Rather than use extrajudicial force to control Uighur activists, China might seek to improve rule of law with regard to criminal prosecutions (recognizing that these structures are flimsy anywhere in China) to enhance Uighurs' sense that the state doesn't simply exist to oppress them. With regard to economic development, another critical pillar of COIN, rather than the current "rising tide lifts all boats" approach (which appears to mostly benefit Han Chinese in region), China might consider ways to better distribute the revenues gained from the investments and industrialization underway to ensure they reach the Uighur community as well. And while Beijing has announced efforts to invest in public works and services in Xinjiang over the last several years, these too would have to be directed at the Uighur population rather than Han Chinese companies in order to help quell insurgent activity. Of course, there are "stick" elements of COIN that typically accompany these "carrots"; but Beijing may want to err on the side of offering carrots for now, if it wants to win this fight. Too many sticks have been used already.

China would likely have to take one more step that might at first seem like a bitter pill -- relaxing the restrictions on the practice of Islam in Xinjiang, since religious oppression will likely remain at the top of the Uighurs' complaints. But this and the other steps outlined above seem like a small price to pay to pacify a strategically critical area that has been a thorn in Beijing's side and whose potential for disruption of the overall Chinese project is only growing.

To be sure, Xinjiang will probably never be a bastion of human rights and for China to consider these measures would represent a major departure from the past. But the region need not be Switzerland to remove some of the most prominent grievances of the Uighur people. If China takes a few pages from the same COIN book that got the U.S. and NATO into a bind in Afghanistan, the tide in the region might actually turn in their favor, not to mention make life a little bit better for the Uighurs.

Guang Niu/Getty Images


Blame Norway

Why is Oslo kowtowing to Beijing and stiff-arming the Dalai Lama?

"The arc of the moral universe is long," Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "but it bends towards justice." That was in 1967, however, when the pull of a shambolic China barely registered. Today, the wealthy and powerful country China has become now exerts a powerful force on the moral world. Beijing curtails international involvement in Syria, helps shore up North Korea's brutal regime, and punishes those who criticize its own human rights violations. That arc still remains long -- but now it bends toward accommodation.

The most worrying recent example of this trend is the Norwegian prime minister's refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama, who is visiting Oslo on May 7-9, in part to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize. The Dalai Lama has visited Norway roughly a dozen times since receiving the prize in 1989 -- but things are different now.

Norway's relationship with China has been frozen since 2010 when the Norwegian Nobel Committee, an independent group of five judges appointed by the Norwegian parliament, gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Liu had been sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison for subversion; probably for spearheading a drive for constitutional reform. By barring Liu and his family from attending, Beijing marked only the second time in history that a Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in absentia -- the first being to a dissident in Nazi Germany. For a country trying to portray its rise as peaceful, it was an uncomfortable parallel. A furious Beijing blamed Oslo for the decision, and suspended trade and political links with Norway.

Now, Oslo hopes the decision to shun the Dalai Lama will help restore relations. "We need to focus on our relationship with China," Norway's Foreign Minister Borge Brende told reporters on April 23. "Should the Norwegian government meet the Dalai Lama it could become difficult to normalize our relationship with China."  A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson approved of the decision, while the Shanghai-based news portal East Day headlined a story "The Norwegian Government Refuses to Meet with the Dalai Lama: Doesn't Want to Make Enemies with Powerful China."

Beijing views the Dalai Lama as a meddlesome separatist trying to establish an independent Tibet. But he's also a tool that China uses to incrementally assert control in international affairs. Beijing knows that as much as foreign leaders may praise the Dalai Lama from afar, actually "meeting the Dalai Lama is unimportant. No one is going to support him to set up an army and invade Tibet!" says Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University. "It tries to present these issues as if these are of great national significance -- which they are not -- as part of its normal strategy of negotiation, a form of over-statement to get the other party to back down," says Barnett.

"Norway's decision not to meet the Dalai Lama repeats the same mistake many others have made," notes Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch. "What other decisions will it cede to Beijing?"

So why did Norway -- a stable, Western democracy with a population of only 5 million people which has long prided itself as a beacon of freedom -- kowtow? Human rights is one of the three basic principles established in Norway's constitution. And the country is so wealthy that it doesn't need the economic benefits China offers: Its annual per capita income of $55,000 makes it one of the world's richest nations, and it controls the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, which boasts a roughly $850 billion investment portfolio.

That's not to say there isn't a cost for failing to propitiate Beijing. In October 2010, two European scholars, Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann, published a paper entitled "Paying a Visit: The Dalai Lama Effect on International Trade." When a top leader, such as a prime minister or monarch, meets with the Dalai Lama, the authors found, that country's exports to China will drop by at least 8.1 percent for roughly two years, and then return to normal.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that in 2001, the Dalai Lama met with 11 top leaders; in 2013, he only met with two. This trend of avoiding the Tibetan spiritual leader has been especially pronounced in northern Europe, especially among the British, French, and Danish, says Barnett. Relations between China and Britain froze after Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in May 2012 -- Cameron was forced to cancel a China trip in April 2013 after Chinese leaders made it clear they would not meet with him -- he later said he did not plan to meet with the Dalai Lama again. "Norway seemed to have been the last holdout," Barnett said.

For its part, Norway's trade with China has suffered. "The market share for Norwegian salmon has gone down [in China] from 92 percent to 29 percent" since Liu's prize, said Derek Anthony, the chairman of the Norwegian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Some aspects of business and trade have gone back to normal in the more than three years since the Nobel was awarded to the Chinese dissident, he said, but even so, the uncertainty still hurts. "The main issue is you never know if there will be some problems," says Anthony, adding that occasionally some Norwegians "with key knowledge and expertise cannot get a visa to China." Beijing excluded Norway from a visa-free travel program in 2013; the Financial Times quoted unnamed Chinese officials as saying Norway's ostracization from the program comes because some countries had been "badly behaved."

Whether one sees Oslo's behavior as bad or brave, the new Norwegian government -- which took power in October -- has sought to mend relations. China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson demanded "concrete" action, and, in a poetic flourish, added, "Whoever tied the ring around the tiger's neck must untie it." Refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama is an important step in that delicate untying.

Oslo has positioned its refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama as a necessary compromise, both for Norway's international human rights work and for Norway itself. "For close to four years there has been no contact on a political level between Norway and China," State Secretary Bård Glad Pedersen wrote in an emailed statement to Foreign Policy. Calling China a "vital stakeholder and interlocutor in practically all major international challenges," Pedersen stated that reestablishing a normal relationship with China was a priority. But, clearly, it's impossible to be everyone's friend.

The prime minister's refusal to meet with a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is probably unprecedented, says Stein Ringen, a Norwegian sociologist. That poses a problem when Norwegian politicians want to be recognized as helping to bend the arc of history toward justice.

But moral compromise clearly does not bolster Norway's status as a voice of global goodwill. Allowing Beijing to dictate whom Oslo can or cannot meet not only raises questions about Norway's independence, but also its own principles, says Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. The Dalai Lama's chief representative in Europe, Thubten Samdup, reportedly told a Norwegian broadcaster that Oslo is "sending a chilling symbol to Tibetans in Tibet."

The price China has already exacted from Norway over its Nobel Prize choices was high. But is the price of accommodation even higher?