China says wants deeper defense, anti-terror ties with Arab world

Reuters, 16 January 2016


By Ben Blanchard  China wants to develop deeper defense and anti-terrorism ties with the Arab world, including joint exercises, intelligence sharing and training, the government said in a policy document released by the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.

While relying on the region for oil supplies, China has tended to leave Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Britain, France and Russia.

But China has been trying to get more diplomatically involved, especially in Syria, recently hosting both its foreign minister and opposition officials.

China also has its own worries about radicalization of the Muslim Uighur people who live in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, which has been beset by violence in recent years, blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants.

In the lengthy document, released without prior warning, the foreign ministry called for more high-level military visits, technical cooperation on weaponry and joint exercises.

While China has sold weapons to Arab states, its ties with the region’s militaries have traditionally been much more low-key than the United States, Britain or France.

“Continue to support military and defense construction with Arab countries, maintain regional peace,” the ministry said.

In December, China passed a counter-terrorism law which allows its military to venture overseas on counter-terrorism operations, though experts have said China faces big practical and diplomatic problems if it ever wants to do this.

China says some Uighurs have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight with militant groups there.

In November, Islamic State said it had killed a Chinese citizen it had taken hostage in the Middle East.

“China is willing to deepen anti-terrorism exchanges and cooperation with Arab countries, set up a security cooperation mechanism effective over a long period, increase policy dialogue and intelligence exchanges, have technical exchanges and personnel training,” the ministry said.

This will allow China and Arab countries to “jointly face the threat from international and regional terrorism”, it added.

However, such moves must respect the charter of the United Nations and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, the ministry said, outlining the possible limits of any cooperation or Chinese military deployment.

The document also made a passing reference to religious exchanges.

China’s ruling Communist Party may be officially atheist, but the country is home to more than 20 million Muslims, who are allowed to practise their religion with varying degrees of freedom.

There should be multilateral religious exchanges that stress tolerance and work together to root out extremism, the document said.