Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations. Dr. Lin has extensive US government experience working on China security issues, including policy planning at the US Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and US Department of State. Her papers have been cited in publications such as the Korea Herald, Asia Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, CNN, Al Jazeera, Gulf News, Hurriyet Daily and Jerusalem Post. What follows is the full text of Habilian Association’s interview with Dr. Lin.
Habilian: Can you explain about the term “Eurasian Bloc”? Do you think that could this coalition have a more prominent role in future global developments after defeating Takfiri terrorism in Syria?
Dr. Lin: The “Eurasian bloc” refers to members and partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Geography matters, and these countries in Eurasia—e.g., China, Russia, India, Iran, Pakistan, the four Central Asian republics and aspirant partners such as Egypt and Syria—have a stake in counter-terrorism and maintaining security in their own territories. They have more skin in the game in this region than external actors such as the US or European countries, because for them this is about homeland security, while for US or EU it’s about foreign policy.
As such I think this coalition will have a more prominent role in global security issues once Syria is stabilized. The map below from Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) shows how China views its periphery security strategy in Eurasia.
Emerging China’s Periphery Security Strategy: Grand Asia
Habilian: How dangers are the threat of Syrian Jihadists, especially the so-called Asian “rebels” including Uyghur jihadists, for china? What will be the Chinese’ reaction to this phenomenon, regarding that these terrorists are overtly supported by US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar?
Dr. Lin: These Asian jihadists are not yet a serious threat to China domestically, as it is quite difficult to return to China. But as Jamestown Foundation counter terrorism expert Jacob Zenn surmised, the Uyghur militants would resort to attacking Chinese citizens and interests abroad if they have difficulty accessing the Chinese homeland. We witness this in their August 2016 attack against the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan and the August 2015 Bangkok bombing that killed Chinese tourists. With an estimated 5 million workers abroad with 2 million in Africa and the Mideast, and Chinese outbound tourists reaching 109 million in 2014, protecting Chinese citizens is thus going to be a dire challenge for the government.
So these jihadists pose a physical threat to Chinese citizens and assets overseas, but the bigger threat is actually to the Communist regime’s legitimacy and survival, because as an unelected government, the regime derives its legitimacy by its credibility and capability to protect Chinese citizens from threats at home and abroad. Thus, as Chinese presence is expanding into ever more unstable regions, Beijing is compelled to adopt a more robust security posture overseas to protect those interests.
China knows US/Saudi/Turkey/Qatar support the Syrian “rebels” that are mixed with anti-Chinese militants, and they have quietly raised this issue to try to reach some understanding. In the meantime they are defending themselves by adopting an expeditionary approach to counter-terrorism by:
(1) Passing the anti-terror law (Dec 2015) that allowed the Chinese military and para-military to operate abroad;
(2) Building the naval base in Djibouti to support evacuation operations;
(3) Shortly after the Bangkok bombing in August 2015, in September President Xi Jinping offered the UN 8,000 Chinese peacekeeping troops on permanent standby for rapid deployment anywhere in the world, and $1 billion for a UN Peace and Development Fund over 10 years;
(4) Reinforcing and expanding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China’s main vehicle to combat terrorism abroad, with the admission of India and Pakistan as members to enable a more comprehensive regional approach. Afghanistan is currently an SCO observer, while Egypt and Syria applied to join SCO in 2015 and Israel in 2016;
(5) Beijing also tried to step up mediation and security ties in both Afghanistan and Syria (which they dub the new Afghanistan). China appointed a new envoy for the Syrian crisis in March 2016, and in August 2016, China signed agreements (8/14) to upgrade military ties with Syria, as well as an agreement (8/3) with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan for counter-terrorism. China is already equipping and training Afghan security forces on counter-terrorism, and enlisting Afghanistan and Pakistan’s help to combat Uyghur militants and other al Qaeda affiliates in AfPak. Now that AfPak militants have migrated to Syria, China is also undertaking similar cooperation with Damascus. So it’s a comprehensive approach towards the two Afghanistans, as it were.
Habilian: Is it possible to be successful in war on terrorism without attacking the ideology that feeds it- Wahhabism? What is the proper way to stem this ideology?
Dr. Lin: As the late prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew said, it is impossible to defeat terrorism without attacking the ideology of Wahhabism. When Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek interviewed him regarding al Qaeda and Islamic extremism in Iraq, he warned, “In killing terrorists, you will only kill the worker bees. The queen bees are the preachers, who teach a deviant form of Islam in schools and Islamic centers, who capture and twist the minds of the young.” He observed Americans only seek a military solution to terrorism, but it would not solve the problem of queen bees/Wahhabi preachers in their mosques that keep producing tomorrow’s jihadists. General Jonathan Shaw, Britain’s former assistant Chief of the Defense Staff, echoes the same warning that “Isil is a violent expression of Wahhabist Salafism” and the root cause is the ideology itself.
In terms of stemming this ideology, retired Malaysian diplomat Dennis Ignatius for one proposed courses of action such as confronting the Saudis about their export of Wahhabism and the resulting “Saudization” of Southeast Asia that is radicalizing traditionally tolerant and moderate Asian Muslims.
He attributes the sole cause of extremism in Southeast Asia to Riyadh’s aggressive export of Wahhabi ideology, spending more than US$100,00 billion the past few decades to export a culture of “intolerance, hate and violence” to all corners of the globe. Ignatius believes that the Saudi-Wahhabi nexus has a stranglehold on Sunni religious discourse, having polluted thousands of mosques, seminaries, universities, schools and community centers with the result that “unquestionably, the Saudi-Wahhabi nexus has become the greatest single threat to peace and stability in the world today.”
Here are some steps he proposed to stem this tide:
1. Begin an honest conversation with the Saudis about the damage that Wahhabism is doing to their societies.
2. Work with the international community to identify and dismantle the entire infrastructure of extremism (the institutions, the organizations and groups, the schools and madrasas, the funding, the dissemination of extremist literature).
3. Reaffirm commitment to pluralism and democracy and aggressively incorporate its values into the political, educational, social and legal fabric of society.
Habilian: According to Dr. Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, “Since the oil-price boom of the 1970s, Saudi Arabia has spent more than $200-billion on its global jihad project, including funding Wahhabi madrassas, mosques, clerics and books. Wahhabism legitimizes violent jihad with its call for a war on “infidels.” In your opinion why has the US turned a blind eye to the Wahhabism-exporting House of Saud?
Dr. Lin: I think during the Cold War, US foreign policy was guided by ideology and Washington thought they could manage radical Islam as an asset against Communism and the Soviet Union. So Saudi Arabia was an ally against the Communists. Christopher Davidson’s recent book Shadow Wars also discussed how US leaders tried to enlist fundamentalist religious forces to suppress Arab nationalism in order to have continued access to resources, and there may be some truth to that. I know in Taiwan, the US also supported an utterly corrupt and brutal military dictatorship of the Kuomintang (KMT) that committed gross human rights atrocities, in order to have access to the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Pacific to fight against China—a case of supporting “Authoritarian China (Taiwan)” against “Communist China.” US support of KMT regime had nothing to do with democracy or human rights, but was driven by ideologues who opposed Communism and the end justified the means.
Habilian: In your opinion, what have been the main priority of the US in Syria: fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda or overthrowing the Syrian government? What should the US government do in this regard to restore its lost credibility and moral legitimacy? Want/ Could Trump make a change in this policy?
Dr. Lin: In the Obama administration, the priority was regime change and violent overthrow of the Syrian government on the heels of their successful overthrow of the Libyan government, although none of these countries attacked the US. In order to restore lost US credibility and moral legitimacy, the Trump administration should end the war in Syria, immediately cease and desist the CIA’s illegal arming of al Qaeda groups and their collaboration with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey to continue fueling the war and creating more refugees. I hope the Trump administration can make this change by cooperating with Russia and other stakeholders such as India, China, and other energy-importing Asian countries that have more stake in regional stability than perhaps an US that is now an energy exporter. This is about burden-sharing and security cooperation, and I think the Trump administration may be more amenable to a multi-stakeholder governance system where everyone shares the cost.
Habilian: Regarding the US support for Saudi Arabia’s slaughter in Yemen and its supplement of terrorists in Syria, do you think that has this Government moral credibility to lead the war on terrorism?
Dr. Lin: As Congressman Ted Lieu rebuked, sadly US loses its moral legitimacy when our military is seen as participating in and supporting Saudi war crimes in Yemen. The US war against Yemen was waged by the Obama administration, but hopefully the new Trump administration will put an end to it as well and stop the suffering and mass slaughter of the Yemeni civilians, and try to redeem US credibility on the war on terrorism. But this remains to be seen.