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Tuesday 5 October 2021

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A Taliban fighter rides on a pickup truck mounted with a weapon in Kabul.

The Taliban has removed Uyghur militants from an area near Afghanistan's border with China, sources in the region told RFE/RL, in a move that analysts say signals growing coordination between Beijing and the Afghan militant group.

The Uyghur fighters that have been relocated inside Afghanistan are believed to be members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) -- an Uyghur extremist group that Beijing blames for unrest in its western province of Xinjiang and refers to by its former name, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

The Taliban allowed Uyghur groups to operate in Afghanistan during its rule in the 1990s and is believed to still have links with them. China has demanded the Taliban cut any ties with the militants.

Analysts say the Taliban's move marks a new step in its ties with Beijing, marking the first time the militants have taken action on the ground to assuage Chinese security fears since they seized power in Afghanistan in August.

An image taken from a 2008 video released by the Turkestan Islamic Party and obtained from the IntelCenter features a statement threatening the Olympic Games that year in Beijing.
An image taken from a 2008 video released by the Turkestan Islamic Party and obtained from the IntelCenter features a statement threatening the Olympic Games that year in Beijing.

"It's what China wants and what the Taliban needs to provide if it is to encourage deeper cooperation with Beijing," Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the U.S.-based Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told RFE/RL. "The real question is whether they can fully follow through."

The TIP militants were located in Badakhshan, a province in northeast Afghanistan along the country's 76-kilometer border with China, and have since been moved to other areas, including in the eastern province of Nangarhar, a former Afghan military official with knowledge of the developments told RFE/RL.

The Uyghur militants were present in Badakhshan until last week but have since been removed, a Tajik border guard from the area, citing intelligence reports, separately told RFE/RL on October 4.

It is unclear if the Taliban will hand over the fighters to the Chinese authorities, an official in Tajikistan's state border services, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media, told RFE/RL.

Beijing And The Taliban

China has forged a pragmatic and at times tense working relationship with the Taliban over the decades that has centered on counterterrorism.

Before the collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government, Beijing also had a close working relationship with Kabul and Afghan forces helped monitor and target Uyghur militant groups at China's request.

Since the group's takeover of Kabul on August 15, Beijing has moved to solidify its relationship with the Taliban, promising economic and development support in exchange for attention to Chinese security concerns, especially monitoring and denying sanctuary to any Uyghur groups in Afghanistan.

The Taliban-led government has called China a close partner and pushed for deeper cooperation with Beijing.

While the relocation of Uyghur fighters marks a notable step in ties between Beijing and the Taliban, analysts caution that the group is still walking a fine line in its burgeoning partnership with China.

During the Taliban's rule from 1996 to 2001, the group also relocated Uyghur militants from the border regions to other parts of Afghanistan to calm Chinese concerns but stopped short of handing over fighters to China, which strained ties between Beijing and the Taliban.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo in Tianjin on July 28.
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo in Tianjin on July 28.

Andrew Small, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin who tracks Chinese activities in South Asia, says that the Taliban may be looking to replicate that strategy.

"This is in keeping with what happened when they were in power before," Small told RFE/RL. "The Taliban have sought to avoid embarrassment with China as a result of any Uyghur militant activities, but it would be a very different matter if they actually handed them over."

Chinese Fears

The Taliban claimed in September that Uyghur militants were not operating in Afghanistan, but the relocation of fighters points to their continued presence in the war-torn country.

Chinese policymakers have long worried about Afghanistan being a base for Uyghur groups, which have been waging a decades-old struggle for an independent Xinjiang, which they refer to as Eastern Turkestan.

During a July meeting in China with the Taliban, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanded that the group sever any ties with the militants.

China has cited terrorism fears for one of Chinese President Xi Jinping's most controversial policies: a vast internment camp system that has incarcerated more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities since 2017.

Muslim ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population in Xinjiang and Chinese authorities have long been suspicious of their loyalties. The vast area bordering Central Asia has been the scene of terrorist attacks that Beijing has blamed on the TIP and its predecessor, the ETIM.

Counterterrorism and concerns of radicalization were central to the Chinese Communist Party's justification for its crackdown in Xinjiang and the creation of the camp network, leaked documents obtained by The New York Times in 2019 showed.

Chinese security personnel stand outside an alleged detention facility for Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China's western Xinjiang Province.
Chinese security personnel stand outside an alleged detention facility for Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China's western Xinjiang Province.

But the full scope of the threat posed by Uyghur militants is disputed, with many analysts saying that the groups lack coordination and the capability to launch large attacks.

In 2020, Washington removed the ETIM from its list of foreign terrorist groups, saying it believed there was "no credible" evidence the group still existed.

But a United Nations Security Council report from 2020 said that several hundred Uyghur fighters are believed to be in Afghanistan.

Beijing and the UN still recognize the ETIM as a terrorist group.

Uyghur Concerns

The stepped-up coordination between the Taliban and China is likely to spread fear among the broader ethnic Uyghur population in Afghanistan.

Many of Afghanistan's Uyghurs -- estimated to be more than 2,000 -- are second-generation Afghans whose parents left China decades ago.

A September 29 press conference at Kabul airport following the delivery of Chinese aid to the new Taliban government.
A September 29 press conference at Kabul airport following the delivery of Chinese aid to the new Taliban government.

As Beijing and the Taliban forge closer ties, many within the community fear they could be caught up in China’s expanding global crackdown against Uyghurs.

Beijing has aimed to censor and intimidate Uyghur activists and, in some cases, extradite them back to Xinjiang.

Four ethnic Uyghurs from Afghanistan, who spoke to RFE/RL under condition of anonymity for fear of Taliban reprisals, said they were afraid of being deported to China under the new Taliban regime.

Compounding their fears is that many of their Afghan ID cards, which were seen by RFE/RL, say "Uyghur" or "Chinese refugee" on them, making them easier to single out.

Although there is yet no indication that the Taliban plans to target the wider Uyghur community in Afghanistan, the recipe for escalation remains, analysts warn.

"The danger with the Afghan situation is how easy it is to label Uyghurs as militants when that's not the case," Jardine said. "China has abused this designation in the past, and unless there is accountability it's hard to know who is an actual militant."

A monument to Vladimir Lenin in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk. A growing number of Chinese visitors are traveling to the area due to its importance in history as the birthplace of the Soviet leader, whose birth name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.

ULYANOVSK, Russia -- From big gas projects to closer military cooperation and improved bilateral trade that reached a record of more than $110 billion in 2019, the China-Russia relationship has reached new heights.

But in Ulyanovsk, a region some 850 kilometers east of Moscow, a different portrait of Chinese-Russian ties is unfolding.

The city of 1.2 million -- and the wider region by the same name -- are home to a growing array of local initiatives connected to China that have been pushed against the backdrop of warming high-level ties between Beijing and Moscow.

At the local level, this has included deepening trade links, a burgeoning tourism sector, and future infrastructure deals -- including plans for a Chinese-funded highway project through Russia that is meant to connect Europe to western China.

There have been loud pronouncements from local officials about expanding ties with China and an eagerness from Chinese investors to explore opportunities across Russia.

But much cooperation in Ulyanovsk exists only on paper -- frozen due to budget issues and border restrictions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unpacking this complex dynamic is the focus of a recent series by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. It takes an up-close look at ties between the two countries at the ground level.

Through interviews with local officials, activists, and experts, the Ulyanovsk region is seen as a potential future location for China's economic footprint to grow in Russia.

But this development faces pushback from local residents. There are also difficulties in translating deals into real projects on the ground, despite the partnership's top-level endorsement.

"Relations with Europe and the West are in a tense state and the Russian economy, in my opinion, needs cooperation because domestic production is poorly established," says Vitaly Kuzin, a member of the Communist Party who sits in the Legislative Assembly of Ulyanovsk Oblast.

"China is a locomotive for the world economy, so our country needs to deepen its cooperation," Kuzin says.

All Roads Lead to China

Ties between China and Russia have improved markedly since 2014 when the Kremlin declared it would pivot to Asia in the wake of Western economic sanctions over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and Russia's role in the war in eastern Ukraine.

The deepening relationship is best seen in the interactions between the leaders of the two countries: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

They have met more than 30 times since 2013, with Xi even referring to the Russian president as his "best friend" during a 2019 summit.

These ties have fueled a flurry of deals since 2014, mostly connected to Chinese investments in Russian extractive resources, such as its lucrative oil and gas sector.

But in recent years, Beijing has also begun to cautiously eye other sectors. It has invested in high-tech industries and is increasingly using Russia to transport goods to and from Europe.

In Ulyanovsk, which sits on the European side of Russia, local authorities have attempted to expand their links to China.

In 2020, the first direct train from China arrived in the region. Its 53 container cars carried a mix of automobile parts and industrial equipment into Russia, then returned to China with a cargo of grain and sunflower oil.

The area is also home to a Chinese-Russian Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Founded in 2019, it received a modest investment of $1.5 million to start setting up a local technology center.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2019.

But many local officials have told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that restrictions brought by the pandemic have frozen this nascent local-level cooperation.

In February 2020, Russia enacted strict border measures with China to curb the coronavirus outbreak. Beijing also restricted movement into China following several local outbreaks linked to travelers arriving from Russia.

"Travel on this railroad has stopped since the start of the pandemic and the closure of the borders, and has not started since then," Tatyana Fadeeva, a spokesperson for the Ulyanovsk Region Development Corporation, told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. "We don't have any information on when the movement will resume."

Ulyanovsk, Russia
Ulyanovsk, Russia


Vladimir Kazantsev, an independent sociologist in Ulyanovsk, says the frozen transport links, as well as the obstacles and limits on bringing in large sums of Chinese investment, highlight the disparity between deepening Russia-China political and military cooperation and the realities for more remote regions.

"It is unprofitable to build production [in Russia] in order to bring finished products to China," Kazantsev told RFE/RL. "The economics don't add up."

'Red Tourism'

One area that has seen extended growth in recent years is tourism between China and the Ulyanovsk region. A growing number of Chinese visitors are traveling to the area due to its importance in history as the birthplace of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

So-called "red tourism" within China, where tourists visit locations with historic significance for Chinese communism, has been a priority promoted by Beijing over the last several decades.

In 2014, formal cooperation between the Chinese and Russian governments was established to bring more tourists to Russia.

Directions for Chinese tourists on a street in Ulyanovsk
Directions for Chinese tourists on a street in Ulyanovsk

Due to its connections to Lenin, Ulyanovsk has become a focal point for this type of tourism.

During a visit to Ulyanovsk in 2013, the then-chairman of the China National Tourism Administration Shao Qiwei referred to the city as "the beginning of China's red history."

Since 2015, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Ulyanovsk has increased annually by 20 to 30 percent, according to the local tourism board.

Overall figures remain modest, however, with an estimated 7,000 Chinese visitors passing through Ulyanovsk on tours along Russia's so-called "red route" -- which includes historic sites in Kazan, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, and is expected to expand to Yekaterinburg, Perm, Samara, Ufa, and Krasnoyarsk.

Chinese tour groups stand in line to see attractions in St. Petersburg, Russia. (file photo)
Chinese tour groups stand in line to see attractions in St. Petersburg, Russia. (file photo)

Expanding those links remains difficult because the pandemic has largely frozen the growth of tourism from China to the region. In fact, official statistics show an 86 percent drop in total tourism since 2020.

Despite these obstacles, many local officials see strong potential in communist-linked tourism from China and are pushing for more investment in the sector.

Aleksei Kurinny, a Communist Party member of the Russian State Duma from the Ulyanovsk region, told RFE/RL that, while investment with China is difficult to attract, tourism to the area has untapped potential.

"Investing in the tourism industry and attracting more tourists from China is not yet fully developed," Kurinny said. "We are considering moving in this direction as the main area for cooperation with China."

Navigating A New Era

This leaves deepening cooperation with China in the Ulyanovsk region at a difficult crossroads as ties continue to blossom between the Kremlin and Beijing.

Kurinny is apprehensive about how much direct investment his region can attract from China.

He says that he is aiming to attract projects focused on industries higher up in the supply chain, pointing to how his party moved against plans to build a Chinese cement plant in Ulyanovsk due to environmental concerns.

"The region today is interested in high-tech production, something that can contribute to its high-tech development and not simply aim to dig something up," Kurinny said.

Representatives of the Ulyanovsk Special Economic Zone and a Chinese medical company sign a cooperation agreement in February this year.
Representatives of the Ulyanovsk Special Economic Zone and a Chinese medical company sign a cooperation agreement in February this year.

It's for these reasons that Igor Toporkov, an Ulyanovsk-based human rights activist, is skeptical about the area becoming a regional hub for Chinese economic growth.

"There are some isolated projects, but I don't think there will be any big Chinese expansion to the Ulyanovsk region," Toporkov told RFE/RL.

Still, there are attempts to move large projects forward.

In November 2020, plans were announced to build a highway through Ulyanovsk that would serve as an important transit route for shipping goods between China and Europe through Russia.

The project has received high-level backing. But RFE/RL found there has been little public discussion about the plans and several legal procedures have been bypassed.

That has raised concerns about environmental risks during construction and how residents close to the planned highway route could be impacted.

"Due to the lack of public discussions, the rights of residents of those settlements near where the road would pass are being violated," says Aleksandr Nikolaev, a lawyer from nearby Chuvashia who focuses on transport issues.

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

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