China is desperate for a seat on the Afghanistan table now that the American troops are pulling out of the war-torn country. Having exhausted most avenues to be part of the team negotiating for a peaceful future after the US soldiers depart, China is now playing the terrorism card.
Ever since President Joe Biden announced the time-bound pull out, China has been involving itself in the Afghanistan dialogue, even expressing concern over the pull out without a concrete arrangement in place in Kabul. It also flayed the United States for its focus on China when the attention should be on Afghanistan.
Intent on eliciting a reaction from Washington, Beijing went to the extent of conceding diplomatic ground by saying both US and China should be equally concerned about terrorism and make it a common, and joint, concern.
All through April, China has come out with propaganda against the US for withdrawing from Afghanistan without “accommodating the legitimate security concerns”, adding that would allow “terrorist forces” to take advantage of the ensuing chaos in that country.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in April, indicating Beijing’s interest in having a say in post-poll out Afghanistan: “The current security situation in Afghanistan is still complex and grim and the problem of terrorism is far from being solved. Foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan should withdraw in a responsible and orderly manner to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan and to avoid terrorist forces from taking advantage of chaos.”
It wormed its way into the pull-out dialogue by claiming that the US was linking “its withdrawal from Afghanistan to China’s challenge”. An unconvinced Washington refused to comment. China kept on insisting that it needed to work together with other countries on Afghanistan and asked the US to de-link the pull-out from China’s challenge “which is detrimental to mutual trust between the two countries and it is not conducive to cooperation and coordination on international and regional issues”.
Why is China suddenly looking at Kabul? Both countries share a 76-kilometre border at the tripoint of both countries with Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan. It ends at the tripoint with Tajikistan. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region is close to the border which, in the old days, was a thoroughfare on the Silk Road China wants to revive.
The border became a point of dispute between the two countries in the early 2000s. Kabul wanted Beijing to open the border near the Wakhan Corridor for economic trade as well as for an alternative supply route for fighting the Taliban. China refused because of its on-going anti-Uighur policies in Xinjiang province, worried that terror elements from Afghanistan might find a common cause with the Uighur Muslim agitators.
China is aware of the possibility of the terrorist groups based in Afghanistan attempting to expand their area of influence once the American troops leave. The absence of the troops may embolden the terror elements to communicate with Uighur Muslims who charge China with throwing them in mass detention camps and erase their religious and cultural identities. As it is, Beijing has had to be extra cautious ever since President Donald Trump lifted the ban on East Turkistan Islamic Movement, an Uighur Muslim outfit the Chinese describe as a terrorist organisation because of its links with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
China has also been hearing that frustrated Uighur Muslim groups which assisted terror groups like the ISIS in Syria and Afghanistan might try to organise attacks in Xinjiang, emboldened by the absence of US troops.
As things stand, China’s security challenges increase after the American pull-out, but it believes the chances will also be high of its participation in post-pull-out normalcy negotiations. If it can get to be a party to the talks, Beijing thinks, it can try to keep an eye on the terror elements trying to destabilise Xinjiang.
It has deep ties with Pakistan which, ironically, is where the Taliban leadership and some terror groups are sheltered. That raises China’s stakes in this part of the world which is going to be chaotic, come September.
China wants to step up attempts to increase cooperation with Central Asian countries either for a safer Silk Road or a joint operation against terror groups operating in Afghanistan. It wants talks to be held formally before the September pull-out deadline. It knows September 11 has its own significance within the terrorist movement and the anniversary coming around the same time as the withdrawal of the last American troops may encourage the terrorist leadership to do something symbolic for Islamic fundamentalism. Such an event could spill over to the Xinjiang province to influence the Uighur Muslims: that is the sum of Chinese fears.
China would also need to revise its strategy for securing its western borders. So long as the American troops were present in Afghanistan, they were keeping both the Taliban and the terror groups on their toes, keeping the territory in Afghanistan along the western border of China relatively safe.
The Biden administration is aware of this peculiar situation where the US military presence in Afghanistan in a way countered the Islamic threat to China. The latter will now be left to deal with the terrorism issue on its own once the Americans finally leave.