BEIJING IS CONSIDERING with renewed urgency law to authorize counterterrorism operations beyond its borders. One of the provisions of its controversial proposed anti-terrorism legislation, Article 76, would let People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and state and public security forces operate in other countries with the approval of that country.
A draft of the new law was circulated late last year. Primarily focused on combating domestic terrorism, the draft has been criticized by human rights organizations for its broad definition of terrorism. The execution of a Chinese citizen held by Islamic State for ransom, which Beijing’s apparent efforts failed to avert, and the siege in Mali in which three China Railway Construction Corp. managers were killed have given new impetus to enacting the draft law to provide the PLA with the legal authority its commanders desire if they are to conduct counterterrorism operations abroad.
Details of what overseas counter-terrorism operations could be undertaken are not laid out in any detail, in the manner of draft Chinese law. Article 76 says no more than:
Given that the proposed law includes ‘thought, speech or actions’ that seek to ‘influence national policy making’ as possible acts of terrorism, it potentially provides authorities with broad latitude abroad as well as at home. However, regardless of what is finally put into law, and, more critically, implemented — and it is highly unlikely that Beijing would be anything but ultra-cautious in embarking on overseas counterterrorism missions, even in lawless areas of the world where Chinese citizens are in harm’s way — carrying out any such operations will be challenging even with the cooperation of other countries.
Chinese military and security forces have scant experience of the political, cultural and operational constraints on such work beyond their borders despite the country’s extensive domestic security apparatus. Flushing out suspected terrorists with flamethrowers before shooting them, as reportedly happened recently in Xinjiang, would not necessarily be acceptable elsewhere.
It was only in late 2013 that the PLA sent its first detachment of armed personnel abroad to join a UN peacekeeping force, a deployment of 170 soldiers (now increased to 400) — in Mali, as it happens. Previously, Beijing’s peacekeeping contributions had concentrated on logistical and medical support, as it has done in the international anti-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa.
The PLA-Navy has, though, in recent years undertaken evacuations of Chinese citizens from Libya in 2011 and Yemen earlier this year. In 2011, it engaged in combined operations with Thailand, Myanmar and Laos on the Mekong river against drug runners.
Operations a few metres offshore are obviously very different from sending special forces or even intelligence teams on counter-terrorism missions a few thousand kilometres away. However, providing a legal framework for doing so would signal a change in both foreign policy and military doctrine.