Beijing’s growing interest in co-conspiring with Pakistan on Afghan soil adds to the growing tensions in the subcontinent, heightening concern over cross-border terrorism post US troop withdrawal.
By Mahika Sri Krishna
The Afghan government recently busted a ten-member Chinese spy syndicate who were allegedly in contact with the Haqqani network late in December 2020. This spy ring — supposedly linked to the Chinese Intelligence Agency, Ministry of State Security — is said to have been deported around the 10th of December 2020, arranged by the Chinese government.
While the details of their espionage activities in Afghanistan have remained undisclosed, various Indian media reports indicate alleged contact with members of both the Haqqani network and the Taliban. While China denies the deportation of Chinese nationals from Afghanistan on spying charges, the chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) confirmed the arrest of individuals from a “Chinese network” to the Afghan parliament.
Some reports have suggested the objective of the spy ring was to create a fake East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) module to track down ETIM operatives in the Afghan region. The ETIM, who has previously benefitted from the support of the Taliban, is an oft-cited security threat to the Xinjiang province of China.
In light of this development, it is worth taking a look at China’s concerns in an Afghanistan sans US troops.
Chinese strategic interests in Afghanistan
China has been steadily expanding both diplomatic and economic interests in Kabul. Spreading its roots into resource-rich Afghanistan has been a natural progression for Beijing, yet not as important as its desire for stability in the region. Considering its geographic proximity to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR), it is in Beijing’s best security interests to pursue a close relationship with the Taliban while officially declaring its support towards the Afghan peace process.
China has engaged in the peace process by expressing an interest in working with both the Taliban and the moderate Afghan leadership in order to safeguard their security interests in the region. Taliban representatives were invited to Beijing in September 2019, as China portrays itself as a player who closely cooperates with all parties to the talks. Yet, China continues to remain relatively on the sidelines of the intra-Afghan talks, despite its two important strategic interests.
The first interest is the aforementioned economic engagement with Afghanistan, in the form of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects and investment in Afghanistan’s natural resources. Despite the economic interests, Beijing has achieved little in terms of contributing to the stability and capacity of the Afghan state to see their industrial contracts through. China is known to take little initiative in the root causes of the Afghan conflict, and orchestrates its engagement solely through the lens of strategic goals.
Beijing’s second key interest is security engagement with Afghanistan, a critical interest for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to combat any separatism or unrest in Xinjiang. Over the last few years, China has attempted to amp up its security engagement.
The reports surrounding China’s military support have included offering millions of dollars of military aid to the Afghan government, setting up a Chinese military base on Afghan territory and offering training to Afghan soldiers. Regardless of the true extent of engagement, all security efforts have been largely self-serving against potential threats and influences across the border with the Xinjiang province, providing little impetus for the improvement of the Afghan security situation itself.
Often cited as a reason for China to justify its crackdown on the population of Xinjiang, the ETIM is an Uighur separatist movement being postured by Beijing as an active organised terror group responsible for multiple attacks in the region. In reality, there is little proof that the ETIM continues to exist and operate as portrayed by China, with the US having removed it from its terror list after nineteen years of it being listed as a terrorist organisation. The US has claimed that for more than a decade that there has been no evidence of any continued terror operations from the group.
China counterargues that continuing to recognise the ETIM as a terror organisation is essential to Chinese counterterrorism activities in Xinjiang and the Chinese have taken matters into their own hands by sending a spy syndicate to Afghanistan to root out ETIM members. If the ETIM is indeed defunct, Beijing could have been using this syndicate as a pretence to trace Uighur expats and create a false narrative around them, in order to further justify repression in Xinjiang.
However, are China’s claims over the ETIM exaggerated? Undoubtedly, the implications of this exposé are wider than what is being attributed as the alleged purpose of the espionage operation.
Wider implications and concerns over this exposé
Beijing was asked to submit a formal apology to salvage the situation, in return for its spies. While this incident is an embarrassment for the CCP, it’s not without its concerns. China is well-known for frequently deferring to Pakistan in its approach towards Afghanistan. China and Pakistan conspiring on Afghan soil, while not surprising, is quite concerning.
While harmony in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations is ideal for Beijing, the involvement of Chinese intelligence operatives with members of the Haqqani network immediately brings the Pakistani ISI into the equation. Chinese involvement with the Pakistani deep state on Afghan territory highlights the extent to which the Sino-Pakistani relationship is spilling into Afghanistan, addressing their respective key interests through mutual cooperation and understanding.
China is highly dependent on Pakistan to permit Sino-Afghan bilateral trade, in addition to its dependence in maintaining relations with the Taliban. Beijing desperately seeks the help of Pakistan in engaging with potentially destabilising groups in Afghanistan, especially along the 90-kilometre border with Xinjiang. Any destabilising factors in Afghanistan have the potential to foil China’s plans both for Xinjiang and neighbouring BRI projects.
Concern over this convergence of interests in Afghanistan grows when we take a look at Pakistan’s history of systematically supporting the Haqqani network and Taliban, a key strategic policy Pakistan adopted in case of conflict with India. Beijing’s growing interest in co-conspiring with Pakistan on Afghan soil adds to the growing tensions in the subcontinent, heightening concern over cross-border terrorism post US troop withdrawal. Considering the current state of Sino-Indian affairs, curtailing India’s influence in Afghanistan is of increased importance to the Sino-Pakistani relationship as well.
However, growing trust between China and Pakistan over Afghanistan does not come without potential for breakdown of the same, considering the region’s war torn history. Additionally, caught in the crossfire between the US and China, Pakistan faces difficult decisions internally and at international platforms.
What remains apparent at the moment is China’s move from calculated indifference to increased strategic engagement in Afghanistan. However, with a recently busted spy syndicate allegedly sent back after an official apology, and left unacknowledged out of embarrassment, China’s newer policy of active engagement in Afghanistan has indeed taken an odd turn.