18 February 2019
China lacks credibility in the global fight against terrorism and extremism. Photo:
China lacks credibility in the global fight against terrorism and extremism. Photo:

No more anti-terrorism free ride when US gets energy sufficient

To terrorists, Washington’s bark is worse than its bite.

The Obama administration has been accused of not doing enough in its counterterrorism initiatives in the Middle East, and a stark contrast is presented when the Élysée Palace launched furious air strikes against the Islamic State after the November attacks in Paris. 

Moreover, Vladimir Putin hinted that Washington was conniving with one of its close allies – believed to be Turkey – in buying crude oil from the IS through the black market.

Has Washington’s war against terrorism, especially in the Middle East, become largely cosmetic? Not really, if one considers its stepped-up activities in African countries like Mali.

Still, Putin is not wrong in implying that Obama is dithering in the fight against terror, as a slew of facts – from the planned withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and a nuclear deal with Iran – all indicate that the region may no longer be Obama’s top security agenda, a striking departure from George W. Bush’s Middle East-centric stance.

But why?

The US shale gas revolution and landmark breakthroughs in extraction technologies, like hydraulic fracturing, have made the nation less dependent on oil from the Middle East. Although the oil price slump – US$40 per barrel recently – has idled some shale gas production, the emergence of the promising unconventional energy source means if there’s any disruption to oil imports, domestic supplies can be readily available.

One noteworthy fact is that US energy production soared 26 percent over the past decade, outpacing real-term GDP growth of 12.4 percent during the same period, while overall domestic energy consumption actually shrank by 1.8 percent.

For so long in the past, oil supply and price movements skewed Washington’s Middle East policies, and western firms’ energy looting in the region also sowed hatred and turmoil, making the region a hotbed for extremist Islamist terrorism.

The Middle East’s diminishing significance on the US energy map means less military and counterterrorism engagement by Washington.

Yet the problem is that, when the US is getting more self-sufficient, many of its allies still need oil from the region: the Middle East still accounts for almost 30 percent of all oil imports by OECD nations. Japan relies entirely on imported oil.

And China has just surpassed the US as the world’s largest oil importer this year and half of its supply comes from the Middle East.

Washington’s global policing role has ensured overall stability in the region and held back oil price surges, giving a free ride to other key importers such as European nations, Japan and China, which used to shrink from their duties.

China is now apparently no longer immune to its own terrorists, who first emerged in border areas and have plotted a series of attacks in major coastal cities over the past years. One Chinese national was even held hostage and beheaded by the IS last month.

But China lacks credibility in the global fight against terrorism and extremism; the western world remains suspicious that Beijing may use counterterrorism as a convenient excuse to justify its crackdown on ethnic minorities, in particular Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongolians.

To Washington, Beijing is not just a free rider, it is also particularly fond of carping comments against US policies in the Middle East.

Beijing’s sale of munitions to African countries is also causing trouble as many of the powerful weaponry ultimately land in the hands of IS and al-Qaeda. And Beijing must be aware of the fact that some terrorists, exploiting Africa’s slack arms control, buy Chinese-made munitions via agents like African officials and businessmen.

In The Canon of Sherlock Holmes, the British detective once had an interesting discussion with a client as why the victim’s dog didn’t bark when the murder occurred. Holmes said the murderer must be familiar to the victim, that was why the dog remained silent. Before long he identified the murderer with this vital clue.

Some countries, groups or individuals may not be terrorists themselves but they may not respond harshly when attacks occur, and in such a scenario their stance becomes questionable.

This point is applicable to the western world, China, Russia, Pakistan and many other countries and parties as well.

Western governments and media tend to downplay the impact amid Beijing’s questions of double standard when there is a terrorist attack on the mainland, and vice versa whenever western cities are struck.

The difference is that, unlike the US-led operations against the IS and al-Qaeda, China’s combat against terrorism is carried out within its borders, offering no substantial benefits to other countries.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 23.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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