June 22, 2014

China’s post-2014 Afghanistan strategy

China’s approach to violent non-state actors is unlikely to make India or the United States happy.

As the United States draws down its combat troops from Afghanistan, other countries have stepped to the fore to assert their interests. Other than Pakistan, whose meddling in its neighbor’s internal affairs predates even the Afghan-Soviet war, China will likely prove to be the most important country in shaping Afghanistan’s future. China’s policies over the past few years have been seen as beneficial—its commercial interests have given China an interest in seeing stability in the country. But after the drawdown is complete, the differing approach that the United States, India, and China have toward Afghanistan’s various violent non-state actors (VNSAs) is likely to produce tensions.


China has certainly signaled that it intends to be more active in Afghanistan as coalition forces become scarcer. Near the end of 2012, Chinese security chief Zhou Yongkang paid a visit to Afghanistan, the first time since 1966 that a Politburo-level Chinese official set foot in the country. Underscoring the likelihood of growing Chinese involvement, Zhao Huasheng, director of the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, has noted that both the international community and Afghanistan “will generally expect China to assume a larger role in Afghanistan and participate more proactively.”

China perceives two major sets of interests in Afghanistan: exploiting the commercial investments it has made, and preventing Uighur militants (the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM) from finding safe haven in Afghanistan.

Chinese Commercial Interests
There is some linkage between China’s two major interests, as economic growth is one way China intends to address the state’s internal challenges. However, the concentration of Chinese economic activity has been in its coastal region in the east, which has produced widening economic disparity between the coast and the inland region to the west. To address this, particularly for Xinjiang province (where Uighurs make up around 45 percent of the population), China has developed a “go west” strategy.

The expansion of Chinese commercial interests into Afghanistan could further this development strategy. Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told me that “when China looks at Central and South Asia, it is wondering how to connect Xinjiang to the rest of the world so that it can become more economically prosperous.” For China, one part of the solution is to develop the area just outside its borders so that Xinjiang has more trading opportunities.

China’s major investments in Afghanistan are the Aynak copper mine in Logar province and development of oil in Amu Darya. The Aynak project has been beset by problems. Work at Aynak was delayed by controversy over Buddhist archeological sites in the area, and the site lacks some of the basic infrastructure upon which the success of mining projects depends.

The Amu Darya oil project is part of China’s efforts to secure deals in the Afghan energy sector. The US Geological Survey estimated in 2011 that the Amu Darya Basin provinces contain 962 million barrels of crude oil, 52 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 582 million barrels of natural gas liquids. Extraction at Amu Darya began with 1,950 barrels of oil per day.

Like Mes Aynak, the Amu Darya investment is sometimes troubled. In June 2012, militias affiliated with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum disrupted surveyors and engineers. China resolved that conflict by striking a deal with Dostum to ensure that his men didn’t interfere with their commercial project. China’s willingness to bargain with troublesome actors to guarantee the security of its commercial projects provides a window into its first line of defense against VNSAs, and in particular how it intends to hedge against Uighur militant groups gaining a safe haven in Afghanistan. It is this approach that will likely put China at odds with the U.S. and India.

Uighur Militancy
The largest demographic group in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the Uighurs are distinct from the Han Chinese because of both their ethnicity (Turkic) and religion (Islam). China sees Uighur militancy as a threat to internal stability in Xinjiang and elsewhere—and increasingly so, due to a spate of recent attacks.

There is a long history of Uighur uprisings against Chinese control, going back to the early twentieth century. In October 1933, Uighur separatists declared what they called the East Turkestan Islamic Republic in the southern Xinjiang city of Kashi. Though it lasted less than three months, this short-lived republic would be of lasting symbolic value. In 1944, Uighurs established another separatist “republic” in Xinjiang, in the northern city of Yining. It lasted less than two years.

These brief uprisings prompted China to crack down vigorously on Uighur separatism. Joshua Kurlantzick notes that “thousands of mosques were shuttered, imams were jailed, Uighurs who wore headscarves or other Muslim clothing were arrested,” and the Chinese Communist Party even “purposely defiled mosques with pigs.” At the same time, the Party tried to change the demographics of Xinjiang by forcing population control measures on the Uighurs while encouraging the migration of Han Chinese into the region.

Although the repression of Xinjiang declined, Uighur separatism found new life in the 1990s, and became married to the Islamic militancy that dominated Afghanistan during that period. Uighur militants were able to train in Taliban-run Afghanistan, and it is believed that ETIM’s leadership found shelter there by 1997.

After a period of relative inactivity from 2009-2012, ETIM has carried out increasingly worrisome attacks in China since 2013, and thus China now places a higher priority on countering ETIM. In June 2013, rioters in Xinjiang’s township of Lukqun “attacked police stations with knives and set fire to police cars.” The rioters reportedly killed 24. On October 28, a car hit dozens of pedestrians, killing five, near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and ETIM posted a speech from leader Abdullah Mansour describing the attack as a “jihadi operation.” Another instance of communal unrest occurred in December 2013: a Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokeswoman explained that a “violent terror gang” attacked police, and two policemen along with 14 attackers died.

2014 brought more high-profile attacks attributed to Uighur militants. At the Kunming railway station, a group armed with knives attacked passengers in March, killing 29 civilians and wounding over 140. The following month, a deadly blast struck Urumqi’s south railway station as President Xi Jinping toured Xinjiang, after which the president promised “decisive actions.” China has cracked down on Uighur activity in the east, and also applied pressure on Pakistan to go after ETIM sanctuaries in its territory.

One of China’s concerns is that the drawdown of coalition forces from Afghanistan could prove a boon to ETIM as the Taliban and other Islamist groups make gains. This could be particularly problematic for China if Pakistan’s crackdown were succeeding, and the net result was forcing ETIM over the border, back into Afghanistan.

China seemingly views engagement and negotiation with the Taliban and other Islamists as its first option for preventing a Uighur militant safe haven in Afghanistan. Andrew Small noted in 2013 that China had been “expanding its direct contacts with the Taliban” to discuss a range of issues that include militants targeting Xinjiang. There is precedent for such Chinese efforts: though China was deeply suspicious of the Taliban’s rise to power in the 1990s, it engaged in (ultimately unsuccessful) negotiations with Taliban leader Mullah Omar in an attempt to get him to promise that territory he controlled could not be used for militant operations against China. Small notes that even after the 9/11 attacks, China “quietly maintained a relationship with the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council based across the border in Pakistan.” Other than Pakistan, it seems to be the only country to have done so.

China’s policy of engaging Islamist VNSAs to try to strike a deal that can achieve its objectives is the most likely area for conflict with the U.S. and India over post-2014 Afghanistan policy. Neither the United States nor India is likely to be disturbed by its policies of engagement with more localized VNSAs, such as Dostum’s militia, but Islamist militant groups are a different story.

China will face its biggest dilemma if its engagement policy doesn’t succeed in isolating ETIM. Would China then assume a more active counterterrorism role in Afghanistan? Would it leverage its relationship with Pakistan, trying to get Pakistan to deprive ETIM of operating space in its neighbor’s territory? Or would China look for another proxy to go after ETIM?

The answers are unclear. China’s initial strategy for post-2014 Afghanistan is well established at this point, but how it will adapt if this strategy fails isn’t known. China’s strategy was tried in the late 1990s, and didn’t work then, and China now sees Uighur separatism as more of a threat than it did fifteen years ago.

Photo: The U.S Army

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