China’s Rise Post-9/11

September 11 changed America, but did it change the world?
By Yun Sun

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 are perhaps the most consequential events of the post-Cold War era that, for the time being, changed the trajectory of international politics. They have had a major impact on China and its relations with the United States and the rest of the world. However, 9/11 did not define the world, or China, or what China was to become.

The world plunged into the War on Terror after 9/11, the events of which dramatically changed the course of US security policy. For almost 20 years, counterterrorism dominated the country’s national security strategy, until the recalibration of strategic priorities by the Trump and Biden administrations. The recalibration began in 2017, and by 2021 great power competition, especially with China, re-emerged and replaced counterterrorism as the top priority of the United States government. These recent developments in US strategy illustrate that the defining power of 9/11 over the world, therefore, has been temporary rather than permanent.

Although 9/11 did create external contexts that influenced China’s path in important ways, the attacks barely changed the trajectory of China or its national security strategy. Even without 9/11, the world is still most likely to have witnessed China’s growing assertiveness and the same shifts in power equilibrium between the United States and China. However, in many ways, 9/11 expedited, propelled, and strengthened the momentum that was already in place.

9/11 offered what Beijing defined as a “window of strategic opportunity” to develop its strength while the United States was acutely distracted.

First, 9/11 offered what Beijing defined as a “window of strategic opportunity” to develop its strength while the United States was acutely distracted. Many Chinese strategists saw 9/11 as the breathing space that bought China another decade to focus on its development without being identified and targeted as the priority challenge for America. During the 2000 US election campaign, presidential candidate George W. Bush had sharply criticised President Bill Clinton’s notion of a “strategic partnership” with China and proposed instead that the United States and China were “strategic competitors”. The United States would not have waited almost another two decades to define China as the most important strategic challenge and vigorously engage in what President Joe Biden now calls the “extreme competition” with China had 9/11 not taken place.

Second, 9/11 and the War on Terror were indeed painful wars of attrition that bogged down US resources and arguably waned its comprehensive national power. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost the United States trillions of dollars and thousands of casualties, as well as tainting its credibility and leadership globally. Meanwhile, China has been able to capitalise on the opportunity to bide its time and build its strength. The power balance between the United States and China most likely would have evolved in the same direction without 9/11. However, the resources, focus, and time the United States poured into the War on Terror certainly expedited the shift.

The events had little effect on the direction of either China or great power politics.

Third, 9/11 has had a direct impact on the Uyghur issue and China’s policy towards Xinjiang. The War on Terror offered China a perfect opportunity to shape the narrative about the Uyghur terrorist threat. By leveraging China’s acquiescence to the War on Terror, Beijing inserted Uyghur organisations such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) into the US terrorist exclusion list, a designation the United States dropped only in November 2020. Without 9/11, China would not have had such an easy time shaping the narrative about the Uyghur issue and consequently would have faced more international pressure and scrutiny over its Uyghur policy.

Although 9/11 has had a significant impact on China’s strategic posture, it has had little impact on China’s subsequent domestic and foreign strategies. As many of China’s developments over the last two decades can be traced to changes in the country’s leadership and elite politics, it is clear that China’s domestic policies were and are beyond the effects of 9/11. Developments post-9/11, especially the US focus on the War on Terror, have aided a momentum that already existed. The events had little effect on the direction of either China or great power politics. They did not change China, but they did alter the environment in which China would arrive at its predestined outcome.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published by the Lowy Institute as part of an interactive feature on the impact of 9/11. It is republished with the generous permission of the Lowy Institute.

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