A year into the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, a Chinese security scholar warned her country’s paramilitary officers about the Taliban’s reach close to home.
“The Taliban provides arms support for Xinjiang separatist forces,” she wrote.
These long-standing concerns are now at the forefront for China, as it adapts to the reality of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The militants’ stunning rout of the Western-backed government in Kabul is likely to reignite debate in Beijing over its security policy in Xinjiang, a hot-button issue that has drawn sanctions from the United States and Europe.
Muslim ethnic minorities make up a large part of the population of Xinjiang, and Chinese authorities have long been suspicious of their loyalties. Some hard-liners in the vast region abutting Central Asia have expressed the wish for an independent homeland, a stance strictly forbidden by Beijing, and the region has experienced sporadic terrorist attacks.
The departure of the United States from Afghanistan also gives China an opportunity to step into a larger role, at a time when Beijing is seeking greater international sway. Chinese officials signaled their interest in Afghanistan’s future late last month, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted senior Taliban officials in Tianjin.
At the meeting, Wang demanded that the Taliban sever ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group that Beijing has blamed for attacks in Xinjiang, even as he said the Taliban would play an important role in rebuilding Afghanistan.
“China has made it very clear,” said Victor Gao, a former Chinese Foreign Ministry official who is now a chair professor at Soochow University. “China will not allow Afghanistan to be used by any force as a threat to China.”
China’s fears of terrorism in Xinjiang prompted one of the most costly and criticized policies of President Xi Jinping’s tenure. In 2017, China began a sweeping crackdown in Xinjiang, which shares land borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities said to be suspected of Islamist radicalization were thrown into detention camps without trials, including women and the elderly.
The indiscriminate nature of the detentions raised alarms around the world, especially as detainees’ testimonies of torture trickled out. The United States said the program meets the definition of “genocide,” and imposed sanctions on a long list of Xinjiang-made products.
China has quietly eased up parts of its Xinjiang program, even as it has vociferously defended the crackdown as necessary for counterterrorism.
Now, Beijing faces the potential of renewed radicalization to its west, and questions of how to manage Xinjiang, a resource-rich region more than twice the size of Texas with a population of 25 million. A renewed ramp-up of Chinese security forces in Xinjiang would probably prompt an international outcry, after the documented human rights abuses and ethnic discrimination of the last campaign.
China also faces the prospect of an influx of Afghan refugees.
Claude Rakisits, a former Australian defense official and an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University, said China is seeking to have more influence in Afghanistan, and could emerge as the top external player in the country. But it’s unlikely to follow the U.S. example in a military intervention, he said.
“They are certainly not going to put boots on the ground,” he said. “Look at these three, the Brits, the Russians, the Americans. They’ve all basically broke their teeth there.”
Sean Roberts, a George Washington University professor who studies the Xinjiang region, said developments in Afghanistan in the coming months may test China’s self-proclaimed strategy of staying out of other countries’ internal affairs. If the rise of the Taliban causes protracted instability in Afghanistan or fuels Islamist extremism in other parts of Central Asia where China has economic interests, “the fallacy of the dichotomy between political and economic engagement will be difficult to maintain,” Roberts said.
Chinese officials worry about the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a haven for Islamist militant groups, including ETIM. In 2016, Kyrgyzstan said Uyghur militants were behind a suicide bomb attack on the Chinese Embassy. Islamist extremists have asserted responsibility for several incidents of violence against Chinese workers in Pakistan, and in 2017, the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad issued a warning of “imminent attacks” to citizens.
“This threat is real,” said Haiyun Ma, an associate professor at Frostburg State University who studies China’s relations with Islamic countries, though it’s hard to ascertain whether the attacks are being driven specifically by Uyghur militants or other groups. There hasn’t been reliable research done on how many Uyghur militants are present in Central Asia, he noted, and it’s possible that Chinese authorities have overestimated and exaggerated their numbers.
China may try to offer the Taliban economic aid or international recognition in exchange for its commitment to cut ties with ETIM — Wang, the foreign minister, made this request explicitly at a recent meeting — but whether it can trust the Taliban remains to be seen, experts say.
The Taliban could restrict groups such as ETIM from attacking China or Chinese projects, but it’s unlikely to quash them entirely or forcefully eject them from Afghanistan, Ma said.
“It’s really dangerous for Taliban to fight against ETIM . . . because Taliban will lose legitimacy as a jihadist organization,” he said. Groups like ETIM are connected to a complex network of other Islamist militants across Central Asia, he added, and the Taliban risks infighting if it targets one or the other.
Roberts said the Taliban may promise China that it won’t allow Uyghur militants to attack Chinese projects or institutions, but “it’s still a question as to whether the Taliban can control everybody within its orbit.”
Gao, the former Foreign Ministry official, said China will be happy to deal with the Taliban if it does not lead to more radicalization in the region. But he said there was the possibility that the Taliban may return to its practices from two decades ago.
“China may suffer more from radicalization in Afghanistan,” he said.
Alicia Chen contributed to this report.