Sunday, May 15, 2011

China's divided loyalties

Was China behind 9/11 attacks? Probably not, but there are disturbing ties between China and enemies of the United States. Some relationships have existed for years while others continue to this day. While the world economy relies heavily on China, the conflicting interests threaten to destabilize the relationship between East and West.

Ten years after the worst terrorist attack to befall America, questions are still being asked. Conspiracy theorists continue to dismiss official explanations, and put forward ideas from the outlandish to plausible. However, as the very words suggest, they are but theories. There is no absolute proof.

In the infamous words of the then Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, “there are known "knowns." There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know.”

Not all of the "knowns" pertaining to 9/11 have been entirely established, and there are still many questions. It is known that four planes were hijacked that fateful day and that some 3,000 people died.

The hijackers names have been established, and enough detail released by the US government and verified by independent research points to these details being true. Whether or not the US government, or agencies within it, were complicit in allowing the attacks to happen, as some conspiracy theorists assert, it is clear that the actual attack itself was perpetrated by 19 hijackers under orders from al-Qaeda.

At the time the attacks were launched, and in the months and years leading up to it, al-Qaeda had been establishing safe havens in parts of Africa and Afghanistan. The Taleban which ruled Afghanistan at the time, seemed either to turn a blind eye to al-Qaeda’s activities or were directly complicit in allowing them to operate unhindered. The latter seems more likely.

But despite, the grip of power the Taleban had in Afghanistan, and the wealth Osama bin Laden is supposed to have had access to, the combined funds may not have been sufficient to finance an operation on the scale seen in September 2001.

The terror group and its hangers-on had to have obtained funding from somewhere. There might be a trickle from supporters around the world, but to launch any major operation, they would need some serious cash. And some have speculated that al-Qaeda and the Taleban may have been helped by some unlikely sources.

As early as October 2001 there were reports that China was supporting bin Laden and the Taleban both financially and logistically. Rense, a website set up by Jeff Rense, republished the findings of an article from the Washington Times which said Beijing was directly funding these enemies of America.

According to Bill Gertz, "[American] Defense and intelligence officials said Beijing appears to be following a dual-track policy of voicing official support for US efforts against terrorism while maintaining ... ties to the Taleban militia."

But according to Rense, the relationship is much older. As far back as 1998 the Iranian official press said there was a secret defence agreement between China and the Taleban.

Post 9/11, there were some reports of unusual military manoeuvres near the Chinese border with Afghanistan. "Convoys of Chinese military trucks roared along the Karakoram Highway last week," the London’s Sunday Telegraph reported shortly after the terror attacks in 2001.

According to the Debka File, a leading intelligence publication, a convoy of 3,000 PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) troops crossed into Afghanistan on Friday October 5th 2001. Three additional PLA Convoys were said to have followed. According to Debka File's sources, Beijing's troops were ethnic Muslims sent to reinforce the Taliban. If the Debka File is correct, the total Chinese reinforcement of the Taleban may have been as many as 15,000 troops.

Anticipating America's October 7th airstrikes against the Taliban, Beijing may have hoped to stem the deterioration of Taleban morale with a show of support. Beijing would thereby hope to check US progress against bin Laden and his Afghan allies.

Mixed messages

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao expended the better part of a week deflecting attention from his country’s extensive dealings with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Zhu Bangzao described as "absurd" any suggestions that China had been involved in any manner with the Taleban [].

However, for a state that habitually complains of being a victim to terrorism and “splittists” in Xinjiang, the People’s Republic of China courted these terrorists quite actively.

Ever pragmatic, the People’s Republic of China sought to nip the Uighur separatist movement in the bud by engaging its sponsors in Afghanistan, perhaps in the effort of fostering a peace agreement. With the escalation of separatist violence across Xinjiang in 1998, China pressurized its Pakistani clients to rein in Islamic terrorists based in Afghanistan. Consequently, Pakistan facilitated contact between the two sides.

Taleban relationship

Five senior Chinese diplomats arrived in Kabul for talks with the ruling Taliban in February 1999, the first of a series of interactions. Chinese diplomats met with Council of Ministers Deputy Chairman Mullah Muhammad Hassan, Interior Minister Mullah Abdur Razzaq and Deputy Foreign Minister Abdurrahman Zayef.

Chinese food aid to the Taliban at the start of winter is said to have laid the groundwork for the visit. Following their first meeting, the Chinese announced they had agreed to start direct flights between Kabul and Urumqi, the capital of the troubled Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and open formal trade ties with the Taliban. The Chinese also agreed to help provide the Taliban with arms and spares for its ageing equipment. Apparently, the two sides agreed to institutionalize military to military contacts. In return the Taliban made it clear that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used against China. The Taliban also facilitated the transfer of at least two unexploded US Tomahawks to China for $20 million each.

This close relationship with the Taleban had been nurtured for many years. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, the United States and China had collaborated in financing and arming resistances forces of Afghan mujaheddin and Taleban (freedom fighters and Islamic students) through their mutual ally and frontline state, Pakistan, in order to evict the Soviets from that country. China had trained and dispatched Uighurs to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan, fearing that the old silk route along the Karakoram highway built across northern Kashmir could, in time, come under Moscow’s domination if the Soviet Union was not dislodged from Kabul.

Post 9/11

China’s official response to the September 11 terrorist attacks was prompt and unequivocal. Describing terrorism as a “common scourge” for the international community, President Jiang Zemin, in his message to President George Bush, expressed “sincere sympathy” and offered “condolences to the family members of the victims.”

Subsequent official statements were, however, more circumspect. China urged the United States and other countries to conduct their anti-terrorism military operations through the United Nations. Beijing wanted an appropriate U.S. military response only after “consultations with the UN,” and one directed at “those proven to be guilty” and “clearly defined targets,” in “compliance with the international law,” and that avoided “civilian casualties.”

Jiang Zemin’s calls to other UN Security Council permanent members to reinforce these preconditions, however, did not please the Bush administration officials. Given the frosty state of Sino-US relations in the preceding months, China-watchers were not surprised with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao’s statement of September 2001.

The United States asked China to provide assistance in the fight against terrorism. China, by the same token, had its own reasons to ask the United States to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatists.

We should not have double standards . . . [But] we are not making bargains here, Zhu had said. But despite his denial that “we are not making bargains here,” Zhu meant exactly what he said. Beijing was indeed “seeking a bargain—a Chinese promise not to veto proposed anti-terrorism operations in the UN Security Council in exchange for reduced US arms sales to Taiwan.”

Military strategy

China’s militaristic aims and motives are far from clear. While they make claims to several disputed regions, their intentions and actions cannot be predicted. But there are occasionally some hints at the mindset behind the opaque walls of China’s defence policy.

In a leaked document from the Chinese Central Military Commission, dated August 1998, that was sent to all corps commanders of the People’s Liberation Army, it stated the United States was vulnerable and could not withstand even a limited nuclear strike from China.

In the logic of China's Central Military Commission it believes it could face-off Washington if hostilities erupted over Taiwan despite the power America holds. As China sees it, the US would be unwilling to sacrifice cities in a tit-for-tat war, while China might follow through with such action.

On September 13th 2001 two leading Chinese military strategists were interviewed by China's state-owned Ta Kung Pao newspaper. Senior Col. Qiao Liang and Col. Wang Xiangsui credited themselves with predicting the September 11th terror attacks in the 1999 book, "Unrestricted Warfare." The terrorists used no military weapons, said Qiao and Wang, yet the attacks were more effective than those resulting from open warfare.

The two Chinese experts said that those killed in the Twin Towers were the victims of US foreign policy, plain and simple. "September 11, 2001 probably marks the beginning of US decline as a superpower," said the Chinese colonels. "The attacks demonstrated the US fragility and weakness and showed that, basically, it is unable to withstand attacks. The National Missile Defense system cannot save it."

Asked about the adverse effects the attacks may have on the Chinese economy, the two colonels admitted that a short-term negative impact was to be expected. "However, from a long-term viewpoint, the attacks could be favourable to China," they said.

The relationship with the Taleban continued some time after 9/11. As recently as September 2007 the British complained to Beijing that Chinese-made weapons were being used by the Taleban to attack British troops in Afghanistan.

When asked about the British concerns, the Chinese foreign ministry referred back to a statement made by their spokesman Qin Gang in July 2007 who said China's arms exports were carried out "in strict accordance with our law and our international obligations" [BBC].

Divided loyalties

Bush’s ultimatum of “with us or against us” seems to have been almost entirely ignored by China. There are loose statements of support by Chinese officials such as those that followed 9/11, but there are just as many statements to the contrary. Furthermore, by its actions, China appears to be acting more against American interests, in particular the supplying of arms to hostile nations and forces.

Of course it goes beyond the supply of weapons. In 2000, China's Huawei Technologies Co., a company tied closely to the PLA, was accused by Washington of helping Iraq upgrade its military communications system despite Chinese denials. The company also signed an agreement with the Taleban to install 12,000 fixed-line telephones in Kandahar. Meanwhile, another southern Chinese telecom firm, ZTE, agreed to install 5,000 telephone lines in Kabul. The deal stalled until Pakistan could provide guarantees for the project.

In July 2001 a Taleban delegation led by their Commercial Attaché to Pakistan, spent a week in China as guests of the government. Whilst the Chinese Commerce Ministry declined to accord them the requisite diplomatic protocol, it did facilitate their interaction with a group of Chinese industrialists and businessmen in order to explore business and investment opportunities.

In fact the Chinese were dealing with the Taleban right up to the day of the World Trade Center attacks. Indeed a new protocol on commercial relations was inked on the day of the attack. The warmth of the China-Taleban relations can be gauged by annual felicitations conveyed by Mullah Omar (via Radio Shariat) on the occasion of China’s National Day since 1999, and by Osama bin Laden's public proclamations of the need to cultivate ties as recently as August 2001 [China's Taleban Connection / Rense / Strategic Studies Institute report - PDF]

While it is clear that the Taleban have been aided and funded by China for more than a decade, what is less clear is any link to the 9/11 attacks. There is much finger pointing, but no smoking gun. China does have probable cause and even motive. They even had much to gain from the attack which precipitated two wars and helped bring America to the brink of bankruptcy.

Fragile friendship

China and the US have never been the best of friends. But the current relationship is tenuous at best. China now holds vast amounts of US debt. It has been accused of currency manipulation in its own favour while reaping the harvest of massive exports and building its economy and country with foreign resources and technology. Western companies fall over themselves trying to establish themselves in China, yet many are forced to hand over intellectual property. Even where it is not handed over willingly, China has been caught red handed stealing intellectual property and blatantly ignoring copyright as it floods the domestic and international market with counterfeit products.

Ten years ago, China rarely obtained a mention in the news. In 2001 China was in fact still seen as a hangover from the Cold War. In fact the strongest reminder of this was seen when a US spy plane was intercepted by two Chinese fighter jets early that same year.

The incident came after months of acrimonious exchanges between the US and China. In March, President George W Bush's administration began taking its first steps in Sino-US relations, mindful of his election pledge to adopt a firm line with Beijing [BBC].

President Bush's first face-to-face meeting with a high-level Chinese official, Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen, came at a crucial moment. But as strong words were issued by Beijing over the supply of weapons to Taiwan by the US, the temperature rose a notch.

Academics visiting China in early 2001 had been arrested sparking concerns abroad. Li Shaomin, originally from China but who had been a US citizen for six years, was detained by authorities while on a visit to Shenzhen [BBC]. He was held in solitary confinement for 10 weeks before being convicted of being a spy, charged with working for a Taiwanese foundation that the Chinese government said was a spy agency. However while expecting a sentence of some 10 or 20 years, Dr Li was deported to the United States after a total of 6 months’ detention. Upon his release he spoke a little of the conditions he endured. "The secret police did a lot of very humiliating things to me, that are not legal under Chinese law," Li said, but did not elaborate [].

Li was not the only person dragged into Chinese courts on trumped up charges of spying. The case against Li also involved US residents Gao Zhan and Qin Guangguang, as well as a Chinese scholar and official, Qu Wei. In a separate trial some days after Li ’s, Gao and Qin were also convicted of spying and expelled from China. Qu was less fortunate, receiving a 13-year prison term [HRI China].

The news of their conviction was not widely publicised. In fact the trial and verdict came only the day after China was selected as the host of the 2008 Olympic Games, something which gained far more attention.

Colin Powell said he was "pleased" about Beijing's later decision to deport Li Shaomin [CNN / see also NYT]. Within weeks Gao and Qin were also released after pressure from the US, but Qu remains in a Chinese prison to this day [HRI China].

The Hainan Incident

Soon after the academics’ arrests, America became embroiled in a major stand-off with China after a mid-air collision between a United States Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft and a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8II interceptor fighter jet.

The incident which occurred on April 1, 2001, resulted in a tense international dispute between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) which became known as the Hainan Island incident [BBC / CNN / Guardian].

The EP-3 was operating about 110 km away from the PRC island province of Hainan when it was intercepted by two J-8 fighters. A collision between the EP-3 and one of the J-8s caused the death of a PRC pilot, while the EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan. The 24 crew members were detained and interrogated by the Chinese authorities.

The US maintained they were operating in international airspace, a point disputed by the Chinese. In the exchanges that followed there were strongly worded statements from both sides. The commander of the US Pacific military forces rejected Beijing's claim that the American plane rammed the Chinese jet on Sunday and caused it to crash.

Admiral Dennis Blair said the Chinese planes were at fault and sharply criticised China for more "aggressive" tactics in intercepting US planes. "It's not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air," he said. US military officials also warned the Chinese not to "seize, board or inspect" the plane without US permission, adding that the aircraft was sovereign US "territory".

After being forced to land the crew aboard the EP-3 spent 15 minutes destroying sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, as per Department of Defense protocol. They disembarked from the plane after soldiers looked through windows, pointed guns, and shouted through bullhorns.

The crew were eventually released after 11 days of negotiations. However it took longer to regain possession of the aircraft. US Navy engineers said the EP-3 could be repaired in 8-12 months, but China refused to allow it to be flown off Hainan island.

The disassembled aircraft was released on July 3, 2001, and was returned to the United States by the Russian airline Polet in an Antonov An-124-100. It was eventually reassembled and returned to duty. Whether China gleaned any intelligence information from the plane is not clear, but it had not been the first time they had opportunities to pilfer US military secrets.

During the 1999 Balkan war parts of a downed F117 stealth fighter are believed to have been secured by the Chinese and returned to Beijing, to be later incorporated in its own stealth jet [tvnewswatch].

"deep repercussions"

As regards the 2001 incident, a US report pointed to the deep repercussions. “The incident prompted assessments about PRC leaders, their hardline position, and their claims,” the report published later that year says. “While some speculated about PLA dominance, President and Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin and his diplomats were in the lead, while PLA leaders followed in stance with no more inflammatory rhetoric.”

The PLA was likely to benefit from this incident the report asserts. “Despite PRC claims that the EP-3 plane caused the accident, it appears that the PLA pilot, executing a close pass in an apparent attempt to impress or intimidate the EP-3 crew, made a fatal error in judgment. International law is clear that all aircraft have a right of overflight with respect to ocean areas beyond the territorial sea.” [China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April
2001: Assessments and Policy Implications - PDF]

The incident of April 2001 was the third in a series of major troubling difficulties since the mid-1990s that could have serious implications for US-PRC relations, the report concludes. The standoff also raised questions about whether the issues of the incident and arms sales to Taiwan should be linked and whether to change the process of annual arms sales talks with Taipei. It also highlighted a worsening of political ties which could have negatively affected the business climate in China for US firms and disrupt negotiations over China’s WTO accession.

Observers also speculated that the chief benefit to the PRC from inspecting the EP-3 would be to gather information about US targets and degree of success that could enable them to prepare countermeasures to hinder future U.S. surveillance efforts.

In bed with the enemy

Five months later the focus was not China, but instead a little known and little talked about terror group, al-Qaeda, and its friends in the Taleban.

Even if China had climbed in bed with the Taleban in order to appease radical Muslims, China was failing in its domestic policy to soften attitudes to towards its own Muslim population. Heavy handed repression in Xinjiang brought threats from al-Qaeda after 46 Muslim Uighurs were killed in riots in the western city of Urumqi.

In July 2009 al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb threatened to target the 50,000 Chinese workers in Algeria and other parts of northern Africa. Two websites affiliated with al-Qaeda also threatened Chinese in the Middle East. "Chop off their heads at their workplaces or in their homes to tell them that the time of enslaving Muslims has gone," said one posting. It was the first time an al-Qaeda group had threatened China in what appeared to be a change of mood [SMH / tvnewswatch].

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, China's message has been mixed [Eurasia Review]. While publicly lauding the US success, Beijing is concerned of any instability that might upset its Afghan-Pakistan strategy.

Playing with fire

Threats from al-Qaeda and the risks of playing with fire do not appear to frighten Beijing. In a recent report it has been revealed that Iran and North Korea have exchanges ballistic missile technology. The report says that the information and hardware was exchanged through a third country, and cites China as being the willing middle-man.

The report, titled "China, Iran and North Korea: A Triangular Strategic Alliance," by Israel's GLORIA Center, says China and North Korea were the key suppliers of Scud-based ballistic missiles to Iran's military, the target of Western sanctions. In addition the report says China is a key player in sanctions busting with regards North Korea and Iran. The report also says regular transfers have been taking place through "a neighbouring third country", named by diplomats as China.

China refused to sign off on the report which was leaked at the weekend. The findings will prove uncomfortable for Beijing [BBC / NYT].

Ten years after the War on Terror was declared it seems more than clear that China is less an ally than an enemy. The US has warned Iran many times that it would face serious consequences if it harboured al-Qaeda terrorists or aided America’s enemies [Independent]. “Either you're with us or against us,” President Bush said in 2001. However, such rhetoric is muted when it comes to China.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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