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Afghanistan: China’s Critical Jigsaw Piece

27 Jul 2021
By Dr Claude Rakisits
State flags of China and Afghanistan together in front of a sky background. Source: Leo Altman/Shutterstock.

With the situation in Afghanistan fast unravelling, China will be keen to become the main external player to replace the Americans. But it won’t be plain sailing for Beijing.

Even before all American military staff have left Afghanistan, the security situation in the country has deteriorated very quickly, with the Taliban having taken about half of the country’s districts. The question now is no longer whether the government of President Ashraf Ghani will fall, but when. So as external actors circle the dying Afghan regime like a pack of hyenas, China looks increasingly set to become the principal external actor to fill the vacuum created with Washington’s departure. And the widely publicised visit of a high-level Taliban delegation to China a couple of days ago would have further strengthened Beijing’s deepening relationship with the Taliban. But the critical issue of terrorism will need to be ironed out with the new Taliban government before Beijing would wish to support the new Afghan regime—including with new investment and infrastructure development. China is already Afghanistan’s largest external investor.

Above and beyond anything else, China will want to be sure that a Taliban-run Afghanistan doesn’t become a springboard for militant groups to launch terrorist attacks against China and neighbouring Pakistan, where Beijing has significant economic interests at stake.  Beijing is particularly concerned about two groups: the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Afghanistan shares a 90-kilometre border with China’s Xinjiang region, where the Muslim Uighurs principally live.  According to the US State Department, the al-Qaeda-linked ETIM, which is the main Uighur group in Afghanistan, only has a limited presence in Afghanistan. But while the ETIM has launched attacks into Xinjiang in the past, it has not done so recently. Beijing doesn’t want to see the ETIM get a new lease of life under a Taliban regime. According to the UN, the ETIM was responsible for an attack in Xinjiang that killed 140 people in 1998.

However, it appears that China already has the Taliban on side on this issue. Reportedly, a senior Taliban official said recently, “We care about the oppression of Muslims, be it in Palestine, in Myanmar, or in China… But what we are not going to do is interfere in China’s internal affairs.” This would have been music to the Chinese leaders. It’s important to note that in a classic case of pragmatism trumping Muslim solidarity—yet again, the Taliban are reportedly not allowing Uighurs to join its ranks. Presumably this would be in an effort to please China.

The TTP, which is estimated to have between 6000 and 6500 fighters in Afghanistan, will be a more difficult issue to manage. The Taliban was effectively the midwife at the birth of the TTP in 2007. Following their eviction from power in 2001 and regrouping in safe havens in the semi-autonomous tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, the Taliban developed deep ideological and personal links with their tribal and ethnic brethren over the next 20 years. The TTP and the Taliban have gone to battle together in Afghanistan, and the TTP has been participating in Taliban’s present offensive in Afghanistan. However, even though the two organisations are very close, there is one critical difference between the two: the TTP targets the Pakistan state, whereas the Taliban has never attacked Pakistan—its critical patron for the last 25 years. Despite these differences, it will be painful for the Taliban to cut the TTP loose.  Moreover, evicting the TTP from its safe havens in Afghanistan, where they have been hiding since 2015 following successful Pakistan military operations against them, will not be an easy military task.

Still, China will be pressing the Taliban hard on this issue, particularly following the 14 July terrorist attack in northwest Pakistan in which nine Chinese workers involved in a $4 billion dam project were killed.  While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, its execution points to the TTP. China has put massive pressure on Pakistan to find the culprits and bring them to justice. China has been the target of terrorist attacks before, but generally these have been at the hands of the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA). The BLA is a Baluch separatist organisation which is vehemently opposed to China’s $60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a 30-year massive multi-dimensional project which has a strong Baluchistan focus. The TTP and the BLA have operational links.

Pakistan will also be pushing the Taliban hard on the TTP issue. Islamabad is desperate to protect its relationship with China, including in reassuring Beijing that the Chinese workers involved in the CPEC projects are safe from terrorist acts. It already has 10,000 military personnel assigned specifically for their protection. Reportedly, Islamabad has negotiated with the Taliban a deal to reject US requests for bases in Pakistan in return for the Taliban hunting down the TTP. However, even though Pakistan and the Taliban have a long-standing relationship, including helping the Taliban’s almost certain return to power in Kabul, the Taliban is no puppet of Islamabad. So, I suspect that even if the Taliban agrees to expel the TTP, it will not make that task a priority. And while China might get some comfort from a recent joint statement by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—a regional organisation which includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as full members— that it intends “to assist Afghanistan in becoming a country free of terrorism,” this may mean very little.  If the TTP does lose Taliban support or is expelled from the safety of the Afghan safe havens, it may well turn to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State Khorasan, two terrorist organisations with which it has close operational links and which have a presence in Afghanistan. This would be bad news for China, Pakistan, and the region.

So even with the uncertainties surrounding the Taliban’s future approach to the ETIM, the TTP, and other fellow ideological travellers, China wouldn’t want to miss out on being the dominant external player in a Taliban-run Afghanistan. But claiming this prize—which would put a Chinese lock on this pivotal geo-strategic region and further consolidate its Belt and Road Initiative — may well come at a cost even Beijing may come to regret down the road.

Dr Claude Rakisits is an Honorary Associate Professor at the Australian National University and an Affiliate at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University in Washington DC. His twitter call is @ClaudeRakisits.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.