China’s ‘Great Game’ In Afghanistan: Beijing Expands Influence With Taliban To Check Uyghurs, Exploit Resources

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China betrays an unease in its ties with the Taliban over Uyghur freedom activists finding haven there, even as it sets its eyes on exploiting the natural resources in Afghanistan through business arrangements.

China is yet to formally recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan two years after its bloody takeover of Kabul following the unceremonious American withdrawal from the war-ravaged nation.

Though China under President Xi Jinping is actively engaging with the Taliban regime in Kabul, that unease over Uyghurs is forcing Beijing to tread cautiously.

China’s growing influence in Afghanistan is “largely driven” by a desire to check Uyghur activists that threaten Beijing’s domestic and regional interests.

Yet, Chinese businesses have been keenly exploring opportunities in Afghanistan and bagging contracts, especially in the mining of natural resources in the landlocked South Asian nation that is seen as a gateway to the Central Asian nations by other regional and global powers.

In July, the Taliban administration announced that the Chinese firm Fan China Afghan Mining Processing and Trading Company would invest around US$350 million in Afghanistan across sectors such as electricity production, cement manufacturing, and healthcare.

In January, the Taliban struck a deal with China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co. for oil extraction from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan.

The agreement — the Taliban’s first pact since it recaptured Kabul in August 2021 as US-led forces withdrew — starts with a US$150 million annual investment, escalating to US$540 million in three years.

Cold Geopolitical Calculations Of China

China’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Wang Yu, holds regular meetings with Taliban ministers and officials, including Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has a $10 million US bounty on his head for terrorism allegations, to wade through the Uyghur minefield and to steer business opportunities in Afghanistan to Chinese firms.

China’s diplomatic and trade relations with the Taliban are based on “cold, pragmatic” geopolitical calculations. “The core ideas driving Beijing’s thinking are to solidify Chinese influence to a point where the West has very little space in the region for the foreseeable future [while] having first access to any economic, mineral, and natural resource benefits,” Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation’s Strategic Studies program fellow Kabir Taneja was quoted as saying.

For the Taliban, Chinese money acts as a crucial financial lifeline while the West imposes sanctions. But the stakes are even higher in an unstable region where myriad militant groups operate.

“Any danger to the security of the Chinese nationals [working on projects] would almost certainly end China’s involvement in Afghanistan,” Australian National University honorary associate professor Claude Rakisits said, adding, “And the Taliban knows it.”

Through Beijing’s promise of economic and development support to the Taliban, Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party wants Kabul to address its security concerns over Uyghur activism from Afghan soil.

Beijing wants Kabul to prevent Uyghur groups from targeting China’s interests in the region, apart from curbing Pakistani groups from hitting projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

China Fears Uyghurs Groups On Afghan Soil

China views the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) of the Uyghurs, previously called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, as destabilizing Xinjiang. Xinjiang, meaning New Frontier in Mandarin, was initially called East Turkestan before China occupied the territory in 1949.

TIP aims to free East Turkestan and Uyghurs from Chinese rule, often targeting Chinese interests in the region.

In May, the deposed Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang met with his Taliban counterpart and pressured him to address Beijing’s security concerns and for more direct action on Uyghur groups operating from Afghanistan.

Taliban officially disallows any Uyghur forces from carrying out political and other activities from within its soil but, in reality, looks the other way.

A UN Security Council report issued on July 25 estimates the TIP’s strength at anywhere from 300 to 1,200 members, who have reportedly established new operational bases apart from obtaining weapons while retaining their presence in Afghanistan’s northeast provinces bordering Xinjiang.

Though there were reports the Taliban relocated Uyghur groups deep inside Afghanistan from the borders, Kabir Taneja, a Fellow and the Head of the West Asia Initiative with the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation, doubts the Taliban will give up on the Uyghur groups, pandering to Beijing’s wishes. But Beijing would tolerate it if the Taliban can control the Uyghur groups, he said.

China also fears the threat from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Pakistani militant group seen as TIP’s ally, and ISIS-K, the Islamic State group’s regional affiliate. TTP was blamed for the deadly suicide strikes in Pakistan’s Dasu in July 2021, leaving nine Chinese engineers on a hydropower project dead. ISIS-K was blamed for an attack on a hotel in Kabul where Chinese businesspersons stayed regularly.

The Taliban “are concerned that such pressure might drive TIP and TTP to align with ISIS-K, a significant rival,” an Afghan former security official Mukthiar Safi was quoted by Nikkei Asia as saying. “This scenario could pose a serious challenge for the Taliban administration governing the country.”

Taliban’s Doublespeak Over Uyghurs May Put Off China

In another report in the South China Morning Post, Sadiq Amini, a program manager at Observer Research Foundation America who oversees external relations and outreach, was particularly critical of China’s ties with the Taliban and its cautious, wait-and-see approach in post-war Afghanistan, with a primary focus on countering Islamic extremism and ensuring stability on its western border.

Diplomatic overtures to the Taliban “will not lead to influence,” Amini said. “Rather, it will lead to resentment against China, which is already showing among the people of Afghanistan, who see China warmly engaging the Taliban with no vision to serve Afghans long-term.”

Beijing had appeared more cautious in its dealings with the hardline Uyghur groups during the Taliban’s first takeover in 1996, refusing to recognize it and shutting all crossings along their border.

Jennifer Murtazashvili, a non-resident scholar in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told SCMP that China had become a much more significant target for terrorists in Afghanistan than American interests.

“The US left Afghanistan with its tail between its legs, humiliated. China seems to be the next great power with interests in Afghanistan — so it has become a target for opponents of the Taliban.”

Murtazashvili said while the Taliban had, on the one hand, failed to ensure the promised internal security and stability, the regime’s reluctance over Beijing’s demand for suppression of its ethnic minority Uyghur population in exchange for economic support had also backfired.

“The treatment of the Uyghurs has been a quiet rallying call for groups like Islamic State, who can point out what they believe to be the hypocrisy of the Taliban, who seem to have close relations with the Chinese government regardless.”

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