As the US exits Afghanistan after its 20 years of “war on terror”, China makes a quick move to exploit the void to its advantage. One of its goals seems to be to neutralize a major security threat with the help of the Taliban.
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The Taliban has launched a full-scale armed campaign to seize as much territory as it can amid the withdrawal of troops by the US. Violence and killings are reported from different parts of the country every day.
After finding themselves cornered for two decades, the Taliban are now moving to make bargains with countries such as China which are eying to expand their footprint in the nation. And China, it seems, is looking to use this opportunity to crush an Uyghur extremist outfit that has been operating from the war-torn nation.
The China-Taliban Meet
The Chinese city of Tianjin recently hosted a meeting between the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and nine Taliban representatives. The Taliban delegation headed by its political chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar discussed the peace process in Afghanistan and various other security issues, The Express Tribune reported.
A Taliban spokesperson later said the “politics, economy and issues related to the security of both countries and the current situation of Afghanistan and the peace process were discussed in the meetings”.
The Taliban was also invited to China for further discussions and that the group is also scheduled to meet the Chinese special envoy for Afghanistan.
The US troop withdrawal has led to a breakdown of security in the country. The Taliban is slowly establishing its control over many Afghan districts and border crossings in the past few weeks. China, which shares a border with Afghanistan, has expressed its concern over the deteriorating security condition in the country.
In the meeting with the Taliban, the Chinese side said it respects the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and highlighted China’s non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.
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Taking a dig at the US and the NATO allies in their alleged improper handling of the situation in Afghanistan, the Chinese foreign minister stated, “The hasty withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan actually marks the failure of the US policy toward Afghanistan. The Afghan people have an important opportunity to achieve national stability and development,” Newsweek reported.
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Reaching out to the Taliban, the Chinese minister Wang Yi, urged the Taliban to continue with the peace process and pursue an inclusive policy, putting the interests of Afghanistan first. He also backed the idea of a “United Afghanistan”, which will be “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”.
ETIM — China’s Biggest Concern
Amid all these feel-good talks, the existence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), is the biggest security threat for China. According to a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report, Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and ETIM are still operating in Afghanistan.
The Afghan faction of ETIM seeks to establish a Uygur state in China’s western province of Xinjiang and facilitates the movement of fighters across Afghanistan’s border into China, the UNSC report, released last week, said.
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Quoting the report, South China Morning Post said ETIM, which has links with Al-Qaeda, is operating in Afghanistan and Syria. There are hundreds of active ETIM members in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan provinces, close to the border with China’s Xinjiang.
In the recent meeting, the Chinese Foreign Minister asked the Taliban to “make a clean break with all terrorist organizations, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and resolutely fight against them”, according to a report by China’s state-owned CGTN.
Claiming that the ETIM is an international terrorist organization designated by the UN Security Council, China maintains that the group poses a threat to the country’s national security and territorial integrity.
The Chinese minister expressed hopes that the Taliban will effectively combat them and in turn play a “positive role and create enabling conditions for security, stability, development, and cooperation in the region”.
For its part, the Taliban has also assured China that it will not let the territory of Afghanistan be used against China’s security.
Experts are of the opinion that China is deeply concerned with the revival of the ETIM as a result of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The ETIM is an ethnic Uyghur militant group, which is quite active in Afghanistan and aims to achieve independence for the Uyghur-dominated region of Xinjiang in China.
Thus, China fears an increased cross-border agitation sweeping its tightly controlled Xinjiang province, making China’s outreach to the Taliban imperative to control the ETIM.
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Apart from the security threat to China’s control over Xinjiang, ETIM is also a concern with regards to the strategic Belt and Road Initiative in the region. The so-called Silk Road networks of the larger China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) traverse Xinjiang.
Experts say, while the US exit from Afghanistan gives China the opportunity to expand its influence in the region, the ETIM, if not effectively controlled, can play a spoilsport.
China Playing Its Afghan Card Carefully
Noted geostrategist Brahma Chellaney says, “The fallout (of the US exit) offers China a rationale for exploiting the void in Afghanistan — and the country’s vast mineral wealth. In addition, Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of Central, South, and Southwest Asia makes it geopolitically attractive for Beijing, which wants to link Kabul with the Belt and Road’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
He notes that China is seeking a political solution to the Afghan conflict because peace and stability are paramount for China before expanding its footprint in the region.
“With the US in retreat, China is likely to increase its strategic footprint in Afghanistan by leveraging its strategic relationship with the Taliban’s main backer, Pakistan, and its own long-standing ties with that militia,” Chellaney writes in a piece for Nikkei Asia.
— With inputs from Anupama Ghosh