China worried Afghanistan may become hotbed for Uighur militants as US plans to pull out more troops
Beijing: A wary China on Monday urged the US to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in an “orderly and responsible manner” amidst increasing concern here that the war-torn country, which shares borders with the volatile Xinjiang province, could become a breeding ground for Uighur Muslim militants.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s remarks came after acting US Defence Secretary Christopher Miller last week said that the US would cut its military presence in Afghanistan to 2,500 troops from 4,500 by January 15.
“China calls on foreign troops to leave Afghanistan in an orderly and responsible manner, give terrorist forces no breathing space and contribute to Afghanistan peace and reconciliation process,” Zhao told a media briefing here.
He also condemned the recent Islamic State attack on Kabul, saying “China will continue to firmly support the Afghan government and people in their efforts to combat terrorism and safeguard the national stability and their own security”.
Observers say that America’s latest plan to speed up the withdrawal of more troops from Afghanistan may have troubling consequences for China as Washington’s withdrawal also coincides with its move to lift the ban on the Uighur militant group — the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
Earlier this month, the Trump administration, in a sudden move, lifted the ban on the separatist ETIM, which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the UN’s 1267 counter-terrorism committee in 2002 for its alleged association with al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
China has deplored the US move, saying that “fighting ETIM is an international consensus and an important part of the international counter-terrorism fight”.
China accuses the separatist ETIM, which is entrenched in the Uighur Muslim majority province of Xinjiang, of being responsible for numerous violent attacks in the province and outside, including one at Forbidden City in Beijing, killing several people.
The US in recent months has stepped up criticism of China’s treatment of about 12 million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Since last year, China faced severe international criticism including from the UN and western countries over allegations that it is holding over a million people, mostly ethnic Uyghurs, in internment camps in Xinjiang in a bid to wean them away from religious extremism.
Resource-rich Xinjiang province is the home for Turkik speaking Uighur Muslims. The province is restive for several years over settlements of majority Han Chinese.
China defends the camps, describing the facilities as re-education centres aimed at de-radicalising sections of the Uyghur Muslim population from extremism and separatism.
According to Nishank Motwani, deputy director at Kabul-based think tank the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, the US troop pull-out will exacerbate a “power and military-security vacuum”.
The gap could be filled by terrorist groups and Taliban fundamentalists angered by China’s repressive policies towards ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, Motwani told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
While China found the presence of the US military in its own backyard unsettling, it used the opportunity to link Washington’s anti-terrorism war to its own drive to suppress Muslim Uygur opposition groups in Xinjiang, the Post report said.
Clashes between Uygurs and Han Chinese in 2009 killed hundreds of people.
Motwani said: “if Afghanistan spirals out of control in terms of security, the spillover effects of that conflict would be felt in China.”
He added that while ETIM was at present “severely constrained” in its ability to attack China, this could change if the Taliban increased its control over Afghanistan.
US-backed Radio Free Afghanistan in 2018 said the Taliban forces with dozens of Uygurs in their ranks had taken control of huge areas of rural Badakhshan, the northeast Afghan province which shares a 90 km border with Xinjiang.
Motwani said China’s strategy to mitigate any instability from the US withdrawal would centre on Pakistan.
“China is going to work more closely with Pakistan when it comes to Afghanistan as opposed to playing a leading role directly,” he said.
Pakistan also has strategic value to China because of its ties to the Taliban, mainly through its intelligence service.
Despite suffering terrorist attacks from the group, Pakistan sees value in the Taliban as a tool to wield influence over neighbouring Afghanistan, the Post report said.
Significantly, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan made his first visit to Afghanistan on November 19 during which he promised that Pakistan will do its utmost to end violence and establish peace in the country.
His visit coincides with the US announcement to drastically reduce its troops presence.