The killing of a Chinese citizen by Islamic State (IS) has highlighted China’s lack of options in responding to kidnappings abroad, despite its military strength and international standing.
China’s military has not been exercised abroad, and it has limited diplomatic sway in the Middle East, making it difficult to respond to the killing of Fan Jinghui by militants this week.
In previous kidnapping cases, China had obtained the release of workers in places like Pakistan and Africa by paying ransoms. Now, however, some people on social media have demanded 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 safeguard both its interests and citizens abroad, Beijing is mulling a law to create a legal framework for counter-terrorism missions by the military.
Article 76 would give the military, in addition to state and public security personnel, the authority to carry out counter-terrorism operations abroad with the approval of the relevant country. The bill was made public late last year but has had no date announced for its passing. In the wake of Paris attacks this week, China’s security chief said the government needed to expedite the process.
In the western province of Xinjiang on November 20, China allegedly 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."
While it relies on the region for oil, China tends to leave Middle East diplomacy to the other five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia.
China has criticized the West and Russia for their bombing campaigns against IS in Syria not sanctioned by the UN, saying there is no military solution to Syria’s problems.
"China would not do anything without UN authority," said a source familiar with China's diplomatic thinking, dismissing the possibility of secret raids in Syria by Chinese military rescuers.
China's Defense Ministry would not provide a 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 gave no further details.
Security operations by China abroad are not unprecedented. In 2011, it sent gunboats down the Mekong River in cooperation with Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos to combat drug running, and its navy has conducted anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa.
Fan’s killing has caused some handwringing in China about how to effectively respond to such incidents.
The Global Times said that while China is often successful in rescue operations in other places, its options were limited when dealing with a group like IS 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 November 20, as China's state-run Xinhua news agency said several Chinese guests were among those taken hostage by gunmen at a hotel in Mali's capital, Bamako.
With reporting by Ben Blanchard for Reuters