China detained Uyghurs at home to prevent extremism, yet courts Taliban extremists who target Western national interests.
By Austin Bodetti*
As officials in Beijing continue to battle coronavirus, China’s notorious campaign to oppress its Muslim ethnic groups into submission is receiving less attention from the news media. Chinese leaders frame the imprisonment of a million Uyghurs as counterterrorism, arguing for the need to reeducate Muslim minority groups in China to prevent extremism. Chinese policymakers’ efforts to engage with militants considered terrorists by the Western world, however, speaks to a far more complex reality in Beijing’s halls of power.
China has long sought to distinguish between domestic militants in the Uyghur-heavy region of Xinjiang, whom Chinese officials consider a national security threat, and foreign extremists who target Western national interests. China’s relationship with the Taliban provides the best example.
In an effort to expand China’s sphere of influence in Afghanistan, Chinese officials have often held meetings with the Taliban. A Taliban delegation traveled to Beijing in September 2019 to discuss the Afghan peace process. China has also spent years deliberating with the insurgents on separatists in Xinjiang as well as discouraging the Taliban from supporting Uyghur training camps in Afghanistan and from harming Chinese investments there.
China’s communications with the Taliban, while tentative, mirror Pakistan’s motives for backing the insurgents. China and Pakistan hope to appease the extremists to prevent attacks at home in addition to the possibility of a strong Afghan government friendly to India or the United States. Pakistan, like Russia and Iran, has gone much further than China by supplying the Taliban with arms. American diplomats too have met with Taliban officials to facilitate an end to the war in Afghanistan, and, for its part, China has leveraged its connections with the insurgents to support peace talks between the Taliban and the United States.
For now, the United States is inching toward an agreement covering a peace process for all parties in Afghanistan. These negotiations, which address US troop withdrawal, could last a year or more. Many of Afghanistan’s neighbors expect an American withdrawal to strengthen the Taliban if not give the insurgents complete control of Afghanistan.
If China were only talking to the Taliban to push the militants in the direction of the negotiating table and stabilize Afghanistan, the officials’ actions would merit little criticism. US policymakers are pursuing a similar foreign policy. Chinese officials have communicated with a Taliban faction for which their American counterparts have little love. According to the 2014 book The China–Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Chinese policymakers have maintained contact with the Haqqani network, a group operating in southeastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The United States has labeled the Haqqanis as terrorists. The group has made driving the US-led coalition out of Afghanistan and restoring Taliban rule its goal.
The extent and nature of China’s ties to the Haqqanis remain shrouded in mystery. Nonetheless, the connection likely angers the United States and many of China’s other rivals. The Haqqanis have killed many American soldiers in battle; the United States has only ever engaged with the group to negotiate the release of American hostages. India, meanwhile, holds the faction responsible for bombing its Kabul embassy in 2008.
China’s interactions with the Haqqanis and the Taliban as a whole seem even riskier in light of the insurgents’ ties to Uyghur extremists and separatists. Uyghur militants who relocated to Afghanistan have long fought alongside the Taliban. The head of the Turkistan Islamic Party, an American– and Chinese-designated terrorist group comprised of Uyghurs in Afghanistan and Syria, has called on the Taliban to express solidarity with persecuted Muslims in China. Even if the Taliban has not harmed Chinese national interests, the Taliban’s Uyghur allies have and represent a threat all their own.
Chinese officials may see their relationship with the Taliban, and the Haqqanis in particular, as a hedge against Uyghur militants in Afghanistan. The more influence China has over the Taliban, the more the East Asian power can pressure the insurgents to keep their Uyghur allies in line and out of Xinjiang. Even so, China’s powerbrokers may expose themselves to blowback if their ties to the Haqqanis become an issue for the extremist group’s many victims.
Pakistan, a Chinese ally, has long used the Haqqanis as a pawn in its proxy war against Afghanistan’s Indian-allied government and India itself. Given its own suffering at the Haqqanis’ hands, the United States has long pressured Pakistan to cease support for the group. In 2018, US officials withheld more than $900 million in military aid from Pakistan, a response to officials’ failure to offer convincing assurances that Pakistan was curtailing Haqqani activities. Flush with Chinese financial assistance, Pakistan seems in little hurry to return to the US orbit.
China’s contradictory connections to foreign Muslim extremists have dominated headlines more than once. In at least one case, militants used China to acquire materials to conduct attacks. In 2009, an operative working at the behest of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah traveled to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to buy ammonium nitrate, which found its way to factories for bombs in Cyprus and Thailand. While China likely had no advance knowledge of plot, the scheme demonstrates China’s failure or lack of interest in curbing the activities of foreign militants.
In a similar fashion, Hezbollah’s bankrollers in Damascus and Tehran often turn to China to evade an ever-growing number of US economic sanctions. The United States has even sanctioned Syrian businesses operating in China as well as Chinese businesses that violated US sanctions by opting to assist Iran. Seeing Iran and Syria’s success, Hezbollah thought to take advantage of what it viewed as a permissive environment in China. Other militants hostile to Western national interests may be doing the same.
If China’s pivotal role in a Hezbollah-orchestrated scheme alarmed decision makers in Israel, the militia’s existential enemy did nothing to convey its concern. However, additional incidents could do permanent damage to Chinese-Israeli relations. China and Israel cooperate on foreign direct investment and international trade, but the Jewish state tends to prioritize national security over economic growth. Israel has even proved willing to reexamine bilateral trade with China at the request of the United States, which has waged a trade war with China since summer 2018.
In the event of an American, Indian or Israeli diplomatic row with China over its suspicious ties to anti-Western militants, Chinese officials have little choice but to reconsider the contentious policies that have enabled Hezbollah and the Taliban’s connections there. For the immediate future, China has opened itself to charges of hypocrisy.
China characterizes the internment of Uyghurs as the latest advance in stopping violent extremism at the source, trying to position itself at the forefront of counterterrorism. The Taliban’s interactions with Chinese officials, though, bring this commitment to defeating extremists into question, as the Haqqanis and other Taliban factions have conducted the same types of attacks that China claims to preempt. So has Hezbollah, which China failed to prevent from purchasing Chinese-sourced ingredients for bombs likely intended to kill Israeli civilians.
As the West campaigns for respect for human rights in China, the East Asian world power and its allies have rallied around the idea that officials in Beijing are curtailing terrorism. This dispute harkens back to one of the War on Terror’s greatest weakness: The international community has not agreed on an acceptable, comprehensive definition of terrorism.
By engaging with groups labeled as terrorists by the West and facilitating their operations, China demonstrates that it cares less about battling terrorism than about cowing the many Uyghurs who live within its borders. Whether this contradiction invites pushback from India, Israel, the United States and others will determine China’s approach to counterterrorism.
*Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture and politics in Africa and Asia. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.