China's limited options exposed by Islamic State killing

Fan Jinghui (Right) was killed by ISIS militants this week.
Fan Jinghui (Right) was killed by ISIS militants this week.

BEIJING (Reuters) - The killing of a Chinese citizen by Islamic State has shone the spotlight on China's paucity of options when its people are kidnapped abroad, despite its growing military prowess and international profile.

With its forces untried abroad and its diplomatic influence limited in the Middle East, it is handicapped when faced with cases like Fan Jinghui, whose killing militants announced this week.

China has previously obtained the release of workers kidnapped in places like Pakistan and Africa, though diplomats say it is often by paying ransoms.

On social media, some users urged a more combative response.

"China should have sent troops and joined the international coalition against IS to take real steps to fight terrorism,"wrote one person on Weibo, China's answer to Twitter.

To address the vulnerability of its growing global commercial and diplomatic interests, Beijing is currently considering a law that would create a legal framework for sending troops abroad on counter-terrorism missions.

Article 76 would authorise the military, as well as state and public security personnel, to conduct counterterrorism operations abroad with the approval of the relevant country.

The draft law was made public late last year, but it's not clear when it may be passed. China's security chief said this week in the wake of the Paris attacks that the government needed to get on with it.

Japan is speeding up the creation of a unit dedicated to gathering intelligence about terror attacks after Islamic State killed Japanese hostages.

China's ability to deal with security issues at home was in evidence on Friday in the western province of Xinjiang, where it said it killed 28 "terrorists" from a group that carried out a deadly attack at a coal mine in September.

But a legal framework wouldn't compensate for its inexperience overseas.

"We can certainly deal with terrorism at home, but it's totally different if you talk about sending people abroad to do this. Our experience is here, not abroad. And there are so many diplomatic issues to consider," said Pan Zhiping, a terrorism expert at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences. "You'd need permission from so many countries to fly people there. It would be terribly complicated."

BEST AVOIDED

While relying on the region for oil supplies, China tends to leave Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, namely the United States, Britain, France and Russia.

China has long said there is no military solution to Syria's problems and has criticised the West and Russia for bombing campaigns there not sanctioned by the UN. "China would not do anything without United Nations'authority," said a source familiar with China's diplomatic thinking, dismissing the possibility of secret raids in Syria by Chinese military rescuers.

China's Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on whether it had considered trying to rescue Fan. The Foreign Ministry said it activated an emergency mechanism to try to save him, but has given no details.

Security operations by China abroad are not unprecedented. It sent gunboats down the Mekong River in cooperation with Thailand, Myanmar and Laos in 2011 to combat drug running, and its navy has conducted anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa.

The killing of Fan has prompted handwringing in China about the difficulties of responding effectively to such incidents.

Influential tabloid the Global Times said while China is often successful in rescue operations in other places, its options were limited when dealing with a group like Islamic State in a region where China is a diplomatic outsider.

"East Asian countries are far from the Middle East, and have basically not gotten involved in the disputes there," it said in an editorial, adding the best solution was for Chinese to avoid dangerous regions.

That looked like a forlorn hope late on Friday, as China's state-run Xinhua news agency said there were several Chinese guests among those taken hostage by gunmen at a hotel in Mali's capital Bamako.