China would like to fill the vacuum left if US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, likely due to the country’s strategic significance. While that strategy may be sound, Beijing’s tactics remain questionable.
In December last year, Afghan security forces detained ten Chinese nationals accused of collaborating with a local terrorist group to gather intelligence. As often happens, the incident was kept secret and, after some behind-the-scenes negotiations, the individuals were expelled without any charges. The incident highlighted China’s forceful and coercive approach towards vulnerable states.
An Indian newspaper recently reported that Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) had uncovered a Chinese spy ring operating near Kabul and arrested ten Chinese nationals on charges of espionage. It alleged that the cell was in contact with the Haqqani Network, a regional terrorist group that works with the Afghani Taliban. During the raids, the NDS recovered arms, ammunition and drugs from two alleged spies. Afghan President, Mr Ashraf Ghani, asked the First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, a former NDS chief himself, to further investigate the matter. Mr Saleh, who has survived multiple assassination attempts by radical groups, accused China of betraying Afghanistan’s trust and asked for a formal apology for violating international norms or the accused Chinese agents would be prosecuted. In the event, nothing of the sort happened; Wang Yu, the Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan, met Afghan leaders, including Mr Ghani, several times after the incident and negotiated the repatriation of all ten Chinese citizens on a chartered flight on 2 January. Later, a somewhat disappointed official from Saleh’s office stated:
We cannot share the operational details or any other information apart from the fact that ten Chinese citizens were engaged in terrorism, fundamentalism, and extremism. Since we share a cordial relation with China, the case was closed.
The real agenda of the operatives remains unclear, but NDS believs that the Chinese individuals, with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, were working closely with the Haqqani Network to gather information on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that demands an independent state for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. China believes that ETIM members shelter across its border in Afghanistan and often blames ETIM, albeit without evidence, for spreading insurrection in Xinjiang. Many believe China continues to use this as an excuse to systematically crackdown on the minority Uighur community. The US declared ETIM a terrorist organisation in 2004, perhaps to gain China’s support against terrorism at the time. Still, in October 2020, the US former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed it from the list and an official stated, ‘ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist’.
Despite its seriousness, the incident was hushed up, likely saving China international embarrassment. The question of China’s agenda remains, however. Since former US President Donald Trump struck a debatable “peace deal” with the Taliban in February 2020 in his bid to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, Beijing could have reasoned that the government in Kabul would not survive long without their support, allowing the Taliban to return to power. General Secretary Xi Jinping understands that a good relationship with the Talibs could help him to terminate ETIM-sponsored terrorism in Xinjiang and, simultaneously, bring economic benefits from Afghanistan. The alleged atrocities inflicted by China on its Uighur Muslim citizens and its simultaneous decision to secretly fund a hardline Islamist militia like the Taliban depict Beijing’s use of double standards to suit its interests. Its actions undermine the US’s decades-long efforts to bring democracy, which is anathema to Beijing, and stability in the region. Similar to many other countries, China proposed loans to Afghanistan, but Kabul rejected them despite its national debt of US$1.3 trillion ($1.69 trillion). The momentum of growing China is almost impossible to fully counter, however.
In the current geopolitical environment, India cannot afford to let Afghanistan be overly influenced by China, especially when its neighbour, Pakistan, is a strong Chinese ally. A Beijing-supported Taliban and Islamabad would cause officials in New Delhi much concern because the two could jointly promote insurgency and sedition in Kashmir and instigate domestic unrest in general. India supports the democratically-elected Afghan Government and is engaged in many social-aid programmes in addition to providing military training to Afghan forces.
US President Biden’s stance on the US-Taliban deal, the outcome of intra-Afghan talks, India’s ability to counter Chinese influence and Pakistan’s future relationship with the Afghan Taliban are some of the factors that will likely determine the country that the Afghan people could get. Regrettably, it may not be the country they desire.