The Chinese Ministry Foreign Affairs recently dispatched Deng Xijun, an experienced Asia-policy trouble-shooter, to Afghanistan as China’s special envoy (MFA, November 12). Mr. Deng met with Afghan political and military leaders, where he reemphasized China’s commitment to the peace and stability of Afghanistan. This meeting comes at a critical moment. As China pursues its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) strategy, it is working to ensure that instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan do not disrupt the realization of President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project. With U.S. and NATO presence drawing down, China then is left with an “Af-Pak” dilemma of its own—now more than ever—responsible for balancing the two and holding this fragile part of its western border together.
China’s approach to Afghanistan to date has been focused on achieving political reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban—what it terms an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process—and fostering economic development (MFA, January 6; MFA, February 12). Recent examples of this approach have included Chinese participation in a special meeting in Moscow with other regional stakeholders to discuss the future of Afghanistan, and China’s hosting the Fourth Foreign Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan in October 2014 and major investments in the resources sector such as the Mes Anyak copper mine (Ministry of Defense Online, October 9; Xinhua, October 24, 2014; China Daily, October 29, 2014).
A key element of Beijing’s strategy to encourage a political settlement has been built on the assumption that it can leverage its influence with Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.  The continued practicality of this approach is now under question due to a number of developments. First, the death of Mullah Muhammad Omar and the fracturing of the group under his successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour, undermines China’s push for a political settlement. Beijing is left with the situation of only being able to negotiate with a faction of the group, rather than a true leader. Second, the multiple bomb attacks by the Taliban in Kabul on August 10 and 12, 2015—which Afghan Prime Minister Ghani described as an example of Pakistan’s “undeclared war” against his government—suggests that Beijing’s goal of a peaceful settlement in the Afghanistan is not shared in Islamabad (Dawn [Pakistan], February 12). Additionally, the unwillingness or inability of its “all weather” friend Pakistan to eliminate Uyghur militants based along its frontier with Afghanistan strikes at Beijing’s primary interest in ensuring the security and stability of Xinjiang. Finally, there have been suggestions that China’s enunciation of the OBOR, the situation in Afghanistan and Beijing’s concerns regarding Uyghur militants have created an alignment of interests with those of the United States to such an extent that they could form a real opportunity to develop greater Sino-U.S. cooperation. While Beijing and Washington both have an interest in countering radical Islamism in the region, the underlying geopolitical logic of the OBOR and China’s own “war on terrorism” in Xinjiang are at odds with the interests of the United States.
Beijing’s OBOR: An Opportunity for Sino-U.S. Cooperation?
A major problem in the current climate of Sino-U.S. relations has been to identify areas in which the interests of both parties overlap to “mutual benefit” more than they diverge. China’s OBOR strategy, President Xi’s signature initiative, which seeks to enhance Eurasian economic connectivity through the construction of a Silk Road Economic Belt and a Maritime Silk Road, is one such area that has been seen as holding positive potential here.
In 2011 the Obama administration launched its “New Silk Road Initiative” that sought to make Afghanistan a north-to-south economic corridor between Central and South Asia.  Since then administration officials have regularly argued that China’s own initiatives such as the OBOR are “mutually reinforcing” of U.S. efforts to “support peace, stability, and prosperity” through the enhancement of economic opportunity and connectivity “in what is the least-economically integrated region in the world today” (U.S. State Department, October 25, 2013). From this perspective, Beijing shares Washington’s desire to see a stable and secure Afghanistan due primarily to Beijing’s own concerns with Uyghur terrorism in Xinjiang.
The strength of this view is primarily based on two major factors. First, the OBOR itself, while growing out of a decades-long agenda to firmly integrate Xinjiang and overcome Uyghur separatism and terrorism through the delivery of economic development, looks set to engage China more directly in the problems of the region. With its focus on the development of trans-regional infrastructure links and investment such as the planned $46 billion “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CEPC)—linking Kashgar in Xinjiang’s south-west with the largely Chinese built deep-water port of Gwadar on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast and the Anyak copper mine in Afghanistan’s Logar province—the OBOR looks set to give China a greater stake in the future security and prosperity of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan (China Brief, July 31; The Express Tribune [Pakistan], February 15, 2014).
Second, the increasing number of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, which China has attributed to militants based in the Af-Pak tribal areas, has arguably revealed to Beijing that it can no longer rely on the partial “outsourcing” of its security to the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan nor the Pakistani military along the Af-Pak frontier (Dawn [Pakistan], November 8, 2014). Rather Beijing, as it pursues the OBOR, must revise its to-date largely “hands off” approach to the security situation in Afghanistan.
Yet deeper consideration of both of these factors suggests that the potential overlap between U.S. and Chinese interests should not be overstated.
China’s Interests in Af-Pak: Geopolitics, Xinjiang, and Uyghur Terrorism
Prominent Chinese scholar Wang Jisi has argued that China’s “march westward” embodied in the OBOR is a “strategic necessity” as the “eastward shift” in strategic focus of the Obama administration (i.e. the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia) threatens to lock Sino-U.S. relations into a “zero-sum game” in East Asia. If China’s “march westwards” succeeds “the potential for U.S.-China cooperation” will increase and “there will be almost no risk of military confrontation.” For most of its history, Wang notes, China was strategically oriented to the east due to the “traditional development advantages” of the country’s eastern provinces and the fact that the major strategic and military threats to the country emanated from its maritime frontiers. Now the “march westwards” is a necessity in order to ensure that: “harmony and stability” in Xinjiang (and Tibet) are not threatened by “extremism, terrorism and other hostile external forces”; “the supply channels for oil and other bulk commodities to the west of China’s borders remain open”; and China can expand its economic cooperation (including the provision of economic aid) with “all West Asian nations.”  From this perspective, Central Asia emerges as a geopolitical “safety valve” for the expansion of Chinese influence given the perceived decline of U.S. influence and interest in the region after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. 
Greater Chinese security engagement in Afghanistan promises not only to make it a more overt target for radical Islamists, negatively impacting the security of Xinjiang, but also to damage Beijing geopolitically by bringing it overtly into conflict with Pakistani interests. China could also incur significant reputational costs given its previous insistence on contrasting its doctrine of “non-intervention” to that of the West’s recent record of direct intervention into the affairs of others.
Despite recent developments on the ground in Afghanistan—including the possible fracturing of the Taliban in the face of the emergence of Islamic State, in the country—it appears that China’s approach to the country remains cautious. Indeed it is difficult to discern a fundamental shift in approach to that described by Beijing’s previous Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi, when he noted in July 2014 that: “Preserving Afghanistan’s stability is not a matter of adding troops but of helping Afghanistan to quickly rebuild” (MFA, July 28; China Brief, December 5, 2014).
Beijing’s concern with the threat of Uyghur terrorism in Xinjiang and its links to Af-Pak are arguably increasing with the drawdown of the United States’ and NATO military presence in Afghanistan. Beijing has recently made concerted efforts to draw links between attacks such as those carried out by Uyghur militants in Kunming and Urumqi in 2014 and radical Islamists beyond China’s borders in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the wider Middle East. While a small number of Uyghur militants have travelled as far afield as Syria and Iraq to fight with Islamic State, the primary source of foreign support for Uyghur militants in Xinjiang is much closer to home along the Af-Pak frontier (Al Arabiya, July 28, 2014).
Chinese government spokesmen, for instance, linked the Kunming attackers to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) (Xinhua, March 30, 2014). The attack was subsequently claimed by the leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP)—believed to be a successor organization to ETIM (Reuters, March 14, 2014). ETIM functioned from the late 1990s to early 2000s and was dealt a severe blow after the death of its leader, Hasan Mahsum, during a Pakistani military operation in Waziristan in October 2003. Despite Chinese claims, however, there has been little concrete evidence that ETIM ever mounted successful attacks in Xinjiang during that time. 
TIP emerged around 2006 and is believed to consist of hundreds of militants based near Mir Ali in North Waziristan and allied with the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), one of Central Asia’s most resilient Islamist movements (Terrorism Monitor, March 17, 2011).
The connections between ETIM, TIP and the IMU and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban pose a number of challenges for Beijing. Since the U.S. and NATO-led invasion of the country after the events of 9/11, China’s approach to Afghanistan has been defined by a focus on the protection of its own narrow self-interests, namely insulating its restive province of Xinjiang from the destabilizing influences of Afghan-based radical Islamism and drugs trafficking, securing access to the natural resources of the country, and encouraging a negotiated political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban (China Daily, June 21, 2013).
China’s pragmatism vis-à-vis the Taliban since its emergence in the mid-1990s was famously underlined by its then ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin, meeting Mullah Omar in Kandahar in November 2000 to seek assurances that Uyghur militants from Xinjiang would be restrained.  Even after the events of 9/11, and U.S. and NATO intervention to oust the Taliban, Beijing continued to seek similar assurances from the group’s leadership council in exile in Pakistan, the Quetta Shura. In November 2014 it even reportedly hosted a number of senior Taliban representatives for talks in Beijing (The News [Pakistan], January 2). Ultimately, Beijing’s approach has been based on the judgement that the Taliban will remain a core political actor in the country and that its goals remain limited primarily to Afghanistan. Prominent Chinese analyst, Zhao Huasheng, has argued that “China is not opposed to the organization but is instead opposed to terrorism, separatism and extremism.” 
This approach now appears to be of diminishing utility. In particular, the reduction of U.S. and NATO military presence in the country and reports of the spreading influence of Islamic State amongst sections of the Taliban suggests that Prime Minister Ashraf Ghani’s government will face a mounting security challenge (Pajhwok [Afghanistan], February 2).
The reported switch of allegiance of groups such as the IMU to Islamic State will also be of major concern for Beijing given that the IMU has in the past hosted Uyghur militants in camps along the Af-Pak frontier. The ongoing nature of this particular threat was underlined in February 2015 when Afghan government security forces arrested fifteen Uyghur militants in Kunar Province along the border with Pakistan who had formerly been affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban (Al Arabiya, February 20).
There now appears to be public debate in China about what the country’s role should be in Afghanistan. The Global Times, for example, published an editorial in October 2014 suggesting that while greater involvement in Afghanistan “will bring huge risks” Beijing has no choice but to “be there” and “bear the cost of being a major power” as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw (Global Times, October 30, 2014).
The extent of such risks were also neatly captured in a commentary published by China Military Online after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) 2014 anti-terrorism exercises, which argued that such exercises had a “profound significance” for regional security as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan “will leave a huge security vacuum” that could be filled by not only a resurgent Taliban and associated groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Uyghur extremists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) but potentially Islamic State (China Military Online, September 9, 2014).
With the Taliban fracturing, Islamic State influence on the rise and the utility of its close ties to Pakistan in the Afghan context potentially declining, the question remains as to how high a cost Beijing is willing to pay to secure its interests as a “major power” in Afghanistan? Given the mix of incentives behind Beijing’s current level of engagement in Afghanistan, one may suggest that while Beijing may no longer be aloof from the country’s problems it nonetheless will remain extremely cautious about deepening its level of engagement due to the potential risks to the security of Xinjiang, its broader geopolitical interests in Central Eurasia and its international reputation that may flow from such a decision. This would not appear to be conducive terrain for the development of closer Sino-U.S. cooperation.
Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, Australian National University. He is the author of Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia – A History (Routledge 2011).
- Andrew Small, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, (London: Hurst & Co, 2014), pp. 134–140.
- “U.S. Support for the New Silk Road,” U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/p/sca/ci/af/newsilkroad/
- Wang Jisi, “‘Marching Westwards’: The Rebalancing of China’s Geostrategy,” International and Strategic Studies Report, 73 (Center for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University: October 2012), pp. 7–8.
- Tao Xie, “Back on the Silk Road: China’s Version of a Rebalance to Asia,” Global Asia, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2014, pp. 70–76.
- Sean Roberts, Imaginary Terrorism? The Global War on Terror and the Narrative of the Uyghur Terrorist Threat, PONARS Eurasia Working Paper, March 2012, pp. 11–26; Also see Michael Clarke, China’s “War on Terror” in Xinjiang: Human Security and the Causes of Violent Uighur Separatism, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 20, Iss. 2, 2008.
- Abdul Salam Zaeef, My Life with the Taliban, (NY: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 135.
- Zhao Huasheng, “Chinese Views of Post-2014 Afghanistan,” Asia Policy, Number 17, January 2014. pp. 54–58.