As Taliban Deepen Ties With Uyghur Jihadists, China’s Frustration Grows
June 18, 2022
China has sharpened its diplomatic discourse against the United States over the situation in Afghanistan, denouncing Washington for leaving the country in ruins, perhaps partly out of frustration as Beijing struggles to strike the right balance in its approach to the Taliban. Beijing has little choice but to seek friendly relations with the new rulers in Kabul, but they are also concerned the radical movement is allowing Afghanistan to become a sanctuary for anti-Chinese terrorists who threaten to destabilize Xinjiang.
It is too soon to tell given the Taliban seized power only ten months ago, but there is no indication the U.S. exit from Afghanistan has strengthened China, as some Western analysts had predicted. About thirty days after the fall of Kabul, former NATO commander, Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills, warned that the U.S. departure from Afghanistan would allow Beijing to “execute on its geostrategic aims, which range from capitalizing on Afghanistan’s supply of rare earth metals, estimated to be worth $1 trillion to $3 trillion, to undermining perceptions of a U.S.-led world order.”
However, not all among the anti-withdrawal crowd were of the same mind. A congressional report that recommended delaying the exit conceded that China was likely benefitting from the Americans being snared in Afghanistan given its “complicated, costly, and distracting effects on U.S. foreign policy.”
Moreover, let us not forget one of Biden’s public stated reasons for the withdrawal was the pivot to China. In April of 2021, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters that the U.S. military could now focus on the “fundamental challenges of the 21st century and they lie fundamentally in the Indo-Pacific.” And perhaps an unspoken indirect benefit as far as U.S. interests are concerned is the possibility that Xinjiang will be targeted by the Uyghur extremist group Beijing refers to as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which identifies itself as the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP).
In any case, rather than delighting in the opportunity to exploit a power vacuum in South Asia, the Chinese seem downright irate about the hand the United States has dealt them. On Thursday, a Chinese diplomat from Beijing’s Mission to the United Nations in Geneva slammed Washington for recklessly leaving the Afghans in a severe humanitarian crisis. At the same time, China’s rhetorical offensive might be part of a broader strategy to “scratch the Taliban’s back,” in order to gain concessions from the radical group.
“China urges the United States to immediately and comprehensively lift its unilateral sanctions against Afghanistan, unconditionally return the Afghan people’s assets, and compensate them with concrete actions,” the unnamed diplomat said as quoted by Xinhua.
The Taliban, for their part, also want to develop a partnership with China not only for its influence on the international political stage but because of its deep pockets. Yet the radical movement finds itself in a bind because of China’s demands, which include the Taliban cutting ties with ETIM. According to a May 26 UN Security Council report, ETIM is reportedly training jihadists inside Afghanistan for the goal of establishing an “East Turkestan state” in the territory officially known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region within the People’s Republic of China. The report also said that some Uyghurs have joined IS-K.
The Taliban in the past attempted to keep both sides happy. Although the Taliban have afforded Uyghur jihadists safe haven, they removed some of them from near China’s border at Beijing’s request in October of 2021. The new government in Kabul relocated the members of ETIM from Badakhshan to provinces further from China’s border in what the UNSC report said was the Taliban’s effort to both “protect and restrain the group.”
Beijing will become even more irate when they see photos and video that emerged on Saturday of ETIM leader Abdul Haq al Turkistani celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday in Afghanistan. The Long War Journal said al-Qaeda appointed Abdul Haq to its executive leadership council in 2005.
At a hearing hosted by a U.S. congressionally-mandated commission, scholar Jennifer Murtazashvili adeptly explained the dilemma the Taliban faces vis-à-vis China due to an emerging in-house fight between the radical Haqqani wing and one led by Mullah Omar’s son.
“Although the Taliban have made overtures to China, this alliance will be inherently unstable due to fissures within the Taliban movement itself. An Islamic movement will have a hard time justifying a long-term relationship with a country that has persecuted millions of fellow Muslims,” Murtazashvili, a University of Pittsburgh associate professor, said in her testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on May 12.
This will be a harder sell, she argued, if significant Chinese economic assistance does not arrive, especially in light of the Taliban’s competition with IS-K, a group that takes a much firmer stance against China.
And the Taliban’s dilemma in this regard is also ultimately a dilemma for China. Beijing will be relying on the radical movement to somehow effectively manage these conflicting priorities which is quite a needle to thread.
The pundits have also taken an unrealistic view of China’s development opportunities inside Afghanistan. Murtazashvili is one of those who believes the Western media has inflated China’s investment ambitions. In her testimony she speculates that China understands “Afghanistan remains a risky investment proposition.”
The Mes Aynak copper mine in Wardak Province, for example, is a project that was plagued by violence and instability for years and while the Taliban have been keen to reengage, China understands that restarting it will require security.
“The ability of the Taliban to provide this, given the growth of IS-K and growing fissures within the Talban movement, remains questionable,” she said.
Those who see China purely as profit-seekers or resource-hounds are missing the broader picture, because what drives all of Beijing’s decisions in Central and South Asia are primarily security concerns, the protection of which requires regional stability. And Xi firmly believes that the key to stability is economic development – especially in Xinjiang, a point driven home in a new book, Sinostan: China’s inadvertent empire, by scholars Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen.
In a review of the book, Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Study Group Executive Director, David Dodwell, said China’s massive foreign policy engagement and infrastructure investment across the “stans,” was a direct result of Beijing’s domestic imperative to “stabilize its largest and most remote province.”
“Here were the original seeds for the belt and road, under which almost US$60 billion has been invested over the past decade, not just in Central Asia, but across Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands, Africa and the Middle East,” Dodwell wrote in a review published on Saturday.
Sinostan, Dodwell concludes, reveals that China does not measure foreign policy success within Afghanistan and the region, “but in terms of the stability, security and prosperity it delivers to Xinjiang.”