Is Taliban a Worry for China?

August 07, 2021 9:43 AM

As part of National policy for achieving a favourable demographic shift, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has presided over the migration of Hans in XUAR region in general and important cities like Urumqi in particular to dominate the region economically and politically.

The general perception is that China and Russia may restrict their support to Afghanistan to economic help and avoid entering the so called “graveyard” of Afghanistan. (File image: AP)

By Farooq Wani

China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has always been a trouble spot for China. On 5 July 2009, a series of violent riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital city of XUAR following the Shaoguan, Guongong incident. These riots were dealt with heavily by China’s People’s Armed Police, resulting in the killing of over 500 Uyghurs, thousands injured and hundreds missing. Later, China blamed Uyghurs for inciting the riots and sentenced 35 persons to death.

As part of National policy for achieving a favourable demographic shift, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has presided over the migration of Hans in XUAR region in general and important cities like Urumqi in particular to dominate the region economically and politically. As per 1953 census, the population of XUAR comprised 6% Hans, 75% Uyghurs and remaining were Turkik. By 2000, Hans constituted 40.57% and the number of Uyghurs shrank to 45.21%. It is estimated that now about 75% Hans, 12.8% are Uyghur, and 10% are from other ethnic groups. Likewise other cities developed post 1949 like Karamai have 75% Hans and Shihezi has 94% Hans. 90% of the infrastructure such as hospitals and communication means are concentrated in these cities and controlled by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). There were three fold geo-strategic, geo-economic and military reasons behind their population transfers, that is, to check centrifugal tendencies, to secure the areas from Russian influence and to exploit the natural resources. Uyghurs have constantly been denied basic human rights, their properties were confiscated and they were kept under constant watch through electronic surveillance. Due to separatist movement of Uyghurs and East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), XUAR has always been restive; however PRC has been managing the region by ensuring a heavy presence of PLA as well as Armed Police troops.

US decision of delisting ETIM from the banned terror outfits, withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and Taliban sweeping through northeastern Badakhshan province to get closer to the border with China’s Xinjiang province, there is great possibility for resurgence of terrorism in XUAR. China has ceased with the situation ever since the Trump administration had started indicating withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and accordingly, started creating conditions to enhance the security of XUAR. In fact, one of the theories relating to PLA’s border skirmishes and encroachment in Eastern Ladakh of India also suggests that China was creating a justification for enhancing troop levels in XUAR and occupation of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). In this piece, the deliberations will be restricted to assessment of threats to China.

Nature of Threat to China from Taliban

The threat to China is likely to emerge in two ways. One, by terrorists infiltrating through Wakhan Corridor, two, threatening China and Chinese interests through Central Asia countries. In either situation, there is no denying that the worsening of the situation in Afghanistan will have a direct bearing on China. Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and other diplomatic overtures are related to the spillover of security threats coming from the worsening situation in Afghanistan. There is a growing concern in China that after Russia and the US, Afghanistan should not become the “Graveyard of Chinese Empire.”

With just a few days left for US-led troops withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban continuing to gain ground, the signs of instability in Xinjiang have started emerging. Media reports such as by France 24 are already claiming of “spawned blowback” in China’s anti-terrorism measures. When it comes to China’s counter measures, PLA has already established camps in areas South West and North of Wakhan Corridor and it will not be difficult to block this 90 kilometers long corridor, but what is worrying is the assets such as BRI, minefields, oilfields, universities, colleges, and so on that are located in Pakistan and Central Asian countries. It is estimated that over 45000 engineers and workers of China’s XPCC and other companies are operating from Pakistan. Any threat to them will lead to them moving back to china. XPCC, a quasi military organization with ten divisions (or 176 regiments equivalent to Brigades) and lakhs of workers will become idle This will have twin impacts, one on Debt Trap Diplomacy and two, on unemployment.

There is another threat that terrorist outfits such as Al-Qaeda whose working space was compressed due to US forces might gain ground again. The very fact that China has started engaging with Taliban and started extracting statements such as one

by Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen who said that his organization sees China as a “friend” to Afghanistan and is hoping to talk to Beijing about investing in reconstruction work “as soon as possible”, reflecting the worries that China has. Notwithstanding these assertions, if at all Taliban stands by these statements, it will surely extract costs from China.

The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is likely to quickly spread to Central Asia, with hundreds of Afghan servicemen and refugees crossing the border with Central Asian countries in response to advances and atrocities by the Taliban. China hopes that Russia will come to its aid but what if Russia itself faces the heat as some terrorist groups may infiltrate Russia through these former Soviet Union states with the spread reaching the Caucasus and Chechnya.

The ‘graveyard’ expanding into Russia and China

The general perception is that China and Russia may restrict their support to Afghanistan to economic help and avoid entering the so called “graveyard” of Afghanistan. Even if the reports published on the website of The Hill, stating that China plans to “swoop in” and “fill the vacuum” left by the withdrawal of US troops and China will be the “next empire to enter the Afghan graveyard”, don’t come true, can Russia and China prevent the “graveyard” itself expanding to the areas where their interest lies. Roughly there are 147 countries where the interest of XPCC alone lies. Of this, major share is in the countries where Taliban effect may expand into. In case these powers choose to stay out of Afghanistan militarily, the situation may worsen and ultimately demand intervention.

It is equally important to note that once the Taliban comes to power, the other outfits that are under its influence will develop conflict of interests. This will result in fragmentation of the monolith. Realizing that the Taliban is acting against its interests, ETIM itself may get out of control. In case Taliban decided to adopt moderate means and wishes to focus on governance, it will not be able to rein the militias that have got used to drugs, human trafficking, gun culture and violence.

Sudden decision by the US to withdraw forces from Afghanistan is not a decision taken in jiffy; it is part of a well thought strategy to get out the “graveyard” creating a vacuum for China and Russia to get sucked into. The all weather friend Pakistan may also, at one point of time decide to stay out of it as it has enough problems to handle. Moreover, Russia and China may not be in a position to pay Pakistan to the magnitude which the US did in the 1980s and 2000s. Pakistan’s economy, the internal situation, the situation at borders and the internal political turmoil may force it to recoil and re-join US camp. In a scenario like this, the “graveyard” will engulf XUAR and some Central Asian countries.

(The author is Editor Brighter Kashmir, TV Commentator, Political Analyst and Columnist. He can be reached at farooqwani61@yahoo(dot)co (dot)in. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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