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China watches Afghanistan anxiously as the US withdraws

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It is not without reason that Afghanistan is known as the “cemetery of empires”. The ancient Greeks, Mongols, Mughals, British, Soviet Union and more recently the United States have launched vainglorious invasions that have seen their ambitions and the blood of their soldiers flow into the sand.

But after each imperial retreat, a new tournament of shadows began. With the US pulling out of Afghanistan, China casts an anxious glance at its western border and pursues discussions with an ascending Taliban, the Islamist movement that was ousted from power in 2001.

Fiery questions are not only whether the Taliban can fill the power vacuum created by the US retreat, but also whether China – despite its long-standing policy of “non-interference” – may become the next superpower to try to write a chapter in the history of Afghanistan.

Talk to the Taliban and keep an eye on Xinjiang

Beijing has held talks with the Taliban and although details of the talks have been kept secret, government officials, diplomats and analysts from Afghanistan, India, China and the United States have said that crucial aspects of a broad strategies were taking shape.

An Indian government official said China’s approach was to try to rebuild Afghanistan’s destroyed infrastructure. in cooperation with the Taliban channeling funds through Pakistan, one of Beijing’s strongest allies in the region.

“We can assure you that China will finance the reconstruction of Afghanistan through the Taliban through Pakistan,” the official said. “China is Pakistan’s portfolio.”

Another diplomat in the region said, “China at the request of Pakistan will support the Taliban.”

An Afghan soldier at Bagram air base after the United States left the vast establishment that was its main command center © Hedayatullah Amid / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

The person added that Beijing insisted that the Taliban limit its ties with groups that it said were composed of Uighur terrorists in exchange for such support.

The groups, called the Beijing East Turkestan Islamic Movement, are an essential part of China’s security calculation in the region. ETIM groups were estimated by the UN Security Council last year to reach 3,500 fighters, some of which were based in a part of Afghanistan bordering China.

Both the UN and the US designated the ETIM as terrorists in 2002 but Washington abandoned its classification last year. China has accused the ETIM of committing many acts of terrorism in Xinjiang, its northwestern border region, where Beijing has held an estimate of 1m Uyghur and other minority peoples in internment camps.

In a clear indication of Beijing’s willingness to counter the ETIM, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, urged counterparts from the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan quest. year to cooperate to crush the group.

“We must resolutely retake the ‘three evil forces’ [of extremism, terrorism and separatism] including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, ”Wang said in May.

Ensuring the Belt and Road initiative

The importance of this task, Wang added, stems in part from the need to protect “large-scale activities and projects” to create a “safe Silk Road.” The Silk Road is one of the terms used by Chinese officials to refer to a Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s firm foreign policy strategy to build infrastructure and gain influence overseas.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi center Afghanistan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani left and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif right , at a press conference in Beijing in 2017

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi center Afghanistan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani on the left and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif on the right , at a press conference in Beijing in 2017 © AFP via Getty Images

An important part of China’s motivation to seek stability in Afghanistan is the protection of existing BIS projects in Pakistan and the Central Asian states, while also opening Afghanistan to future investments, analysts said. .

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Qian Feng, director of research at the National Strategy Institute of Tsinghua University in Beijing, said China and Afghanistan had both shown strong political will toward expanding cooperation under the BIS. If stability is achieved in Afghanistan, “it will undoubtedly bring great convenience to the flow of cargo between China and Eurasia,” Qian said.

Fan Hongda, a professor at the Institute of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, said China would more actively support efforts to ensure political stability in Afghanistan.

“Although China has been very cautious about sending military forces overseas, if it is backed by a United Nations resolution, China could join an international peacekeeping team to enter Afghanistan, ”he said.

Map of Afghanistan and China

“With continued turmoil, Afghanistan could easily become a focus for growing Islamic extremism, which would influence to some extent stability in Xinjiang.”

Yet, such ambitions can be unleashed if Afghanistan returns in widespread violence after the recovery of American and NATO forces. The prospects for Kabul’s ability to maintain stability were bleak, according to diplomats in the region.

The Afghan government has been able to maintain a measure of stability largely because of the superiority of U.S. air support. Drones, cannons, helicopters and heavy air artillery were unmatched by the Taliban.

But when the United States leaves, that advantage will evaporate, despite a commitment reported by the United States last week to supply 37 Black Hawk helicopters to the Afghan government.

“In 34 provinces, the Afghan army has only the means to fight in 40 percent of the area without U.S. air assistance,” a diplomat said.

Sean Roberts, associate professor at George Washington University and author of The War at the Uyghurs, said China’s imperative to create land trade routes to Europe and the Middle East could inevitably attract it into Afghanistan’s internal struggle.

“Afghanistan is a perfect example of how it will become increasingly difficult for China to avoid entanglement in local political and security issues in regions where it has substantial economic interests,” Roberts said.

More information from Emma Zhou in Beijing


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