China’s Growing Role in the Afghanistan Peace Process

Following decades of cautious foreign policy, China is now taking a significant role in helping to secure peace in neighboring Afghanistan. China’s interest in Afghanistan is both economic and political: Afghanistan has abundant untapped natural resources, and China wants a stable Afghan government after U.S. and NATO forces leave. China is also growing more confident of solidifying its influence in Central Asia.

China’s overtures to Afghanistan are intriguing, given that for most of the 90s, Beijing viewed Afghanistan as a wellspring of radical Islam, and a risk to western China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which shares a short border with the Central Asian nation. Xinjiang has been a consistent domestic security concern for the CCP, which is continuing its “strike hard” campaign against the province’s Muslim Uighur minority, some of whom seek independence from China.

Roots of Unrest in Xinjiang

Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese population in Xinjiang share a historically uneasy relationship; Uighurs have a starkly different historical, cultural, and linguistic background from their Han neighbors. Uighurs identify more with their Turkic culture and comprise about 43 percent of Xinjiang’s population.

That percentage used to be significantly higher, before the Chinese government began bringing Han Chinese to Xinjiang to develop the mostly rural region. This corresponds with Beijing’s mission to shape Xinjiang as the hub of the “New Silk Road.” Xinjiang is considered an important pivot from China to Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East for trade and security purposes. China has established direct trade relations with neighboring Central Asian states, has invested massive amounts in infrastructure and natural resources projects in both Xinjiang and Central Asia, and has developed (some may say exploited) Xinjiang’s own oil and gas resources.

The resultant demographic and economic shifts within Xinjiang, from these Beijing-led interventions, has led to increased discrimination against the Uighur population. As part of a recently launched development plan, the Chinese government has razed traditional Uighur neighborhoods and relocated families in planned settlements. In the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch, Uighurs have faced “pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, and increasing cultural suppression justified by the government in the name of the ‘fight against separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism.’

These inequities have caused mass protests several times, notably the July 2009 Urumqi protests, and the spring 2013 protests throughout Xinjiang. In response, Chinese police have taken aggressive action against both unarmed and violent demonstrators. According to Radio Free Asia, rights groups and experts believe Beijing is exaggerating the Uighur terrorism threat to divert attention from domestic policies that justify the authorities’ use of force against Uighurs.

Xinjiang’s Role in Chinese-Afghan Relations

China’s “strike hard” campaign, which began in May 2014, also shapes its regional foreign policy. Last March, China blamed Xinjiang separatists for a bloody stabbing spree at a southern Chinese train station. Soon after, President Xi personally visited Xinjiang and vowed to send terrorists fleeing like “rats scurrying across a street.” His arrival was greeted with a train station bombing in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi.

Following these attacks, the Chinese government increased physical and electronic surveillance of Uighurs. Beijing has also boosted the number of armed personnel in Xinjiang, while increasing the frequency of forced-entry raids in the region to not only seize “unauthorized” religious materials, but also to detain prominent activists. However, this cat-and-mouse game has often boiled over into further violence as armed police shot Uighurs who resisted these raids.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uighur Congress (WUC) group, said the Chinese government had “created a range of terror tactics and persecution” and compared the Uighur raids to the political turmoil and kangaroo courts of the Cultural Revolution.

Along with the “strike hard” campaign, the Chinese government is also exerting pressure on neighboring countries to repatriate Uighurs who have fled from persecution in Xinjiang. These Uighurs are viewed as spies, potential suicide bombers, and illegal immigrants, according to an official for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Afghan government takes these Uighurs into custody, although some manage to escape, and sends them to waiting Chinese officials at Kabul airport, whereupon they are not heard from again.

William Nee, a Chinese researcher at Amnesty International, argues that the Chinese government has also exerted diplomatic pressure on Thailand, Turkey and other nations to repatriate Uighurs. In return for these repatriations, the Chinese government signs lucrative trade deals with these nations. For example, two days after Cambodia deported 20 Uighurs to China, Beijing signed a $1 billion trade deal with Phnom Penh.

China is pursuing a similar approach with Afghanistan in its peace process. During Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to China in October 2014, President Xi pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance, training, and scholarships to Afghanistan. Xi also offered to help the Afghan government in its peace talks with the Taliban. In return, Ghani declared support for China’s fight against the Uighur separatist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which China blames for several deadly attacks throughout the country over the last decade.

So far, only informal verbal agreements have been made between China and Afghanistan. However, according to Sultan Ahmad, the former Afghan ambassador to China, who now serves as a director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, Afghanistan sees this as a window of opportunity. “China is worried about their own security, and they need cooperation from all countries. They can help us with the reconstruction of Afghanistan and our relationship with Pakistan, with whom they share close relations. For us, it is very important to have a relationship with the Taliban and Pakistan,” Ahmad said.

It is worth noting that China’s interest in Afghanistan is rooted in self interest. First, there is China’s concern that Uighur separatists will spill over into Afghanistan, thus making their domestic security issue more difficult to contain. Also, China wants to prevent possible instability in Afghanistan spreading to the rest of Central Asia. Then, there is the issue of China’s image. Uighurs who have escaped beyond China’s borders can no longer be silenced and can spread awareness in the Muslim community of their treatment in China. This could potentially thwart relations between China and Afghanistan. This explains why China seeks to repatriate Uighurs: to contain both the extremists and the people who can spread awareness of discrimination against Uighurs.

While some Afghan leaders may remain sympathetic to the plight of Uighurs, they may view this issue as inconsequential relative to the potential gains to be made from a positive relationship with the CCP. However, according to Professor Clarke, a Xinjiang and Central Asia terrorism expert at Australia’s Griffith University, the Uighur community over the past two decades has increased its links to other hubs in the Islamic world. These communities may be a source of hope to Uighurs, but given the Chinese government’s adamant stance on repatriation, the solidarity Uighurs receive from other Muslims, particularly among the Afghan leadership, may only be lip-service.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L)  in Beijing on October 28, 2014. Source: Reuters/Jason Lee.

Afghanistan’s Perspective on Chinese Aid

President Ghani and most Afghan leaders view Beijing’s aid and investment favorably. According to Professor Clarke, Beijing is seen as a source of no-strings-attached commercial agreements, in contrast to the U.S.’s conditional aid, which requires improvements in governance or human rights to receive aid. Afghan leaders also see a lucrative opportunity in establishing natural resource trade with China. Reliable access to oil, natural gas, and various minerals is one of China’s vital goals, and it is often prepared to pay more than its competitors to obtain them. Professor Clarke mentions this has certainly been the case in Central Asia, in which China’s state-owned corporations outbid western corporations by providing various “sweeteners” to local governments, such as additional loans and construction of ancillary infrastructure.

Some are more skeptical about China’s role in the Afghan peace process. Regarding the Taliban’s recent visit to China, the meeting apparently did not include peace negotiations. Zhu Yongbiao, an associate professor at the Institute for Central Asian Studies (ICAS) of Lanzhou University, believes the main purpose of the talks was not to establish Beijing as a mediator, but to create initial contacts. Zhu also thinks China lacks direct means to contribute to Afghanistan’s peace process, but could still play a supportive aid-giving role.

Depending on how much China wants to invest in the Afghanistan peace process, China could reap significant benefits from this relationship. Afghanistan serves not only as a lucrative source of natural resources, its cooperation in repatriating escaped Uighurs back to Xinjiang is much needed from Beijing’s perspective. It is in the CCP’s best interest to contain the Uighur separatist movement within its own borders. If the Chinese government has to “strike hard” against Uyghurs beyond its borders, say in Afghanistan, that could damage relations with the Muslim community in Afghanistan.