Countering Terrorism 19 Years After 9/11: The Imperative for US-China Cooperation

by Rommel C. Banlaoi

12 September 2020

9/11 was a milestone in the history of American global leadership since the end of the Second World War as it exposed the vulnerability of the US as a global power and of the international community as a family of sovereign nations.

The aftermath of 9/11 strongly demonstrated the serious threat posed by international terrorism to world peace, state security, and human welfare. Initially identified with Al-Qaeda, threats of international terrorism now come from various violent extremist elements from the left to the right of the political spectrum, particularly from the Islamic State (IS), originally known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), named in the Arab world as Daesh (Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām). According to Country Reports on Terrorism published by the US State Department in July 2020, despite global and national efforts, dangerous terrorist threats have persisted around the world.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist threats continue unabated. Terrorist organizations are even exploiting the current pandemic to propagandize, recruit members, and mount violent attacks in the most public health-challenged areas of the world. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned recently that the COVID-19 pandemic is providing new opportunities for terror groups to advance their malevolent goals of wreaking havoc not only in developing and fragile states, but also in highly developed states like the US.

Countering terrorism for the past nineteen years has taught the US that defeating international terrorism requires the cooperation of other states. Since 9/11, the US has been pursuing counterterrorism cooperation not only with its allies and partners in the world, but even with its traditional adversaries and competitors like Russia and China.

US counterterrorism cooperation with China is one of the most important bilateral power arrangements in the world. Counterterrorism is an area where the whole world sees the US and China cooperating rather than competing for influence. Though the US and China continue to have different political outlooks on many issues, both powers are cooperating when it comes to combating terrorism. The US State Department even spoke highly of China’s efforts against international terrorism immediately after 9/11.  

China was one of the first major powers to support the US-led global war against terrorism by providing political, financial and material assistance to the US allies, partners, and friends in the UN. Once viewed in the US as a strategic competitor during the early years of the George W. Bush Administration, China suddenly became America’s “new friend” in the fight against terrorism. In the Pivot to Asia strategy of the Barack Obama Administration, the US regarded China as a global partner in combating international terrorism.

It is therefore very unfortunate to see US-China relations deteriorating under the Donald Trump Administration. The power rivalry between the US and China is currently escalating with the growing security tensions in the Taiwan Straits, the Korean Peninsula, and the South China Sea; the ongoing trillion-dollar trade war leading to mutual diplomatic skirmishes; the conflicts over the international reach of Huawei, Tiktok and WeChat; the impact of the Hong Kong National Security Law, and most recently, and concern for the fate of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang arising from the Disney live action movie, Mulan.

While the risk of armed confrontations between the US and China is getting higher because of the aforementioned conflicts, prospects for peace between the two major powers will be even higher if both powers can sit together to establish consensus on issues where they can work together in pursuit of common interests.  

Counterterrorism is one such area. If the US and China can sustain their counterterrorism cooperation in the post-pandemic period, both powers can rebuild confidence and strengthen strategic trust, which are essential to prevent armed conflicts between them.

Henry Kissinger once said that if the US and China would be in conflict, the world would be divided. Countering terrorism 19 years after 9/11 has demonstrated that the US and China can still cooperate in order to build a more stable and peaceful world.  Counterterrorism cooperation provides great opportunities for the US and China to be friends in the preservation of international peace and security. If the US and China are at peace, the whole world will also be at peace. The Philippines will benefit enormously from the peace dividends arising from the cooperation of these two major powers.

This piece was originally published on 11 September 2020 in Viewpoints by the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies.

Photo Credit: As used by PACS.

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