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China In Eurasia

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Dushanbe on July 14.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

The China In Eurasia briefing is 6 months old and I want your feedback. Send me an e-mail and let me know what you like so far, what you want to see more, and what you think can be improved. Send your feedback to StandishR@rferl.org

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

Beijing Cautiously Treads Into Afghanistan

With the Taliban quickly gaining ground in Afghanistan, China is stepping up its presence in the country and the wider region as it cautiously takes on a larger leadership role. As I reported, Beijing is mostly focused on security issues, but also has a growing array of political and economic goals.

Finding Perspective: It began with a weeklong tour of Central Asia by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who visited Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan the week of July 12.

The scheduled visit covered a range of issues, from infrastructure to energy investment, but also focused on Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s offensive has left the country’s neighbors anxiously watching the security situation deteriorate.

Beijing’s main focus on Afghanistan is ensuring that the chaos doesn’t cross the border into China -- and to a lesser degree, spill over into Central Asia. Chinese policymakers are concerned about the country becoming a haven for extremist groups again, particularly Uyghur militants who would have their sights set on Xinjiang.

This has also led to ongoing talks between China and the Taliban centered on targeting Uyghur militant groups and denying them refuge in Afghanistan.

The Taliban appears to be receptive to the outreach and has recently been on a goodwill tour of sorts, praising Beijing and saying that the country would be a “welcome friend” in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has also refused to condemn China's repression of Muslims in Xinjiang, as I explored here in this explainer about the group’s decades-old relationship with Beijing.

For Beijing, the Taliban represents a means to an end, especially considering the militant group's ascendency in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban sees China as a pathway to international legitimacy and a reliable stream of investment for war-torn Afghanistan.

Why It Matters: Wang’s visit and Beijing’s complicated diplomatic game is about shoring up China’s growing clout.

Unlike in 2001, when the war began with the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, China is now a leading player on the world stage and especially in the region.

Beijing has lucrative and reputation-bearing investments in Central Asia and Pakistan through its Belt and Road Initiative that instability in Afghanistan could upset, and the region’s actors are looking to their large neighbor to the east to be a leader.

This holds both risk and opportunity for China. Beijing has valuable cards to play and already signaled that it hopes to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan, but getting increasingly involved also brings the danger of China getting stuck in the problems of its volatile neighbor.

Read More:

● Those fears of violence spilling over from Afghanistan coming from Russia and Central Asia today have been echoed before. My colleague Bruce Pannier has a good piece looking at the region’s complicated history with its neighbor.

● Is China ready to be a superpower? Here’s two different looks on the subject from Tsinghua University’s Yan Xuetong for Foreign Affairs and from Gideon Rachman for the Financial Times.

● For the latest developments on the fast-changing situation in Afghanistan, follow RFE/RL’s Gandhara website, which has everything from reporting on the ground to analysis from afar.

Expert Corner: China's Boots On The Ground?

Readers asked: “With Chinese companies increasingly being targeted, will Beijing fund a security presence on the ground to protect its investments?”

To find out more, I asked Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Kyrgyzstan and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who tracks Chinese private security companies.

“If we look at Chinese bases overseas in the last 10 years, their presence was justified as necessary for securing Chinese commercial interests in that region. China has openly admitted to having a base in Djibouti and at the same time framed that under the umbrella of protecting Chinese companies and projects across Africa.

“When we look at the rise of private security companies in Central Asia, specifically in Kyrgyzstan, this is the same rationale. China has also tried to set up private security companies in Kazakhstan, but the Kazakh government has resisted this.

“In the future, we are definitely going to see a higher security presence from China, specifically because we are expecting another wave of Chinese infrastructure investments in Central Asia and Afghanistan.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Beyond Pakistan And China's 'Iron Brotherhood'

The death of nine Chinese workers in a bus bombing in Pakistan on July 14 has underscored the security risks attached to China's overseas projects and highlighted flaws within Beijing and Islamabad’s otherwise close relationship, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reported.

What Happened: The bus was carrying around 40 Chinese personnel to a hydropower dam construction site in Pakistan's northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province near the border with China.

China is building the Dasu hydropower project under an investment plan that is part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Shortly after news of the attack, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian quickly spoke out, expressing "shock and condemnation over the bombing" and urged Pakistan to "severely punish" those responsible and "earnestly protect" Chinese nationals and projects.

This appeared to be at odds with the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, which issued a statement initially contradicting Beijing, saying that the bus “plunged into a ravine after a mechanical failure, resulting in the leakage of gas that caused a blast.”

The Pakistani side later backtracked this earlier conclusion and a Chinese investigative team was dispatched to examine the bus.

Looking Ahead: China is Islamabad's closest regional ally, but the security of Chinese workers in Pakistan has long raised concerns in Beijing.

It appeared that the discrepancy in accounts led to some initial strain between Beijing and Islamabad, with China canceling a meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee -- a planning body for the multibillion-dollar CPEC.

Expect the topic of security in Pakistan to continue to be on the agenda. China’s ambassador to Pakistan met Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa on July 19 to discuss how the Pakistani military can better protect Chinese personnel.

2. Kyiv Inches Toward Beijing

The Ukrainian government is chasing Chinese loans and trying to attract more Chinese companies into the country, according to a report by my colleague Ievgen Solonyna from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

Ukraine Looks Further East: Kyiv and Beijing reportedly inked an infrastructure agreement shortly after the Ukrainian government was accused by Western diplomats in an AP report of removing its name from a statement at the Human Rights Council in Geneva that condemned repression in Xinjiang in order to get preferential access to Chinese vaccines.

The agreement is short on specifics but outlines broad cooperation to attract Chinese investment into railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure in Ukraine.

China and Ukraine have a complicated relationship. Ties were strained earlier this year when Kyiv blocked Chinese investors from acquiring the Ukrainian aerospace company Motor Sich.

But Kyiv still has its eyes on Chinese cash, especially as it looks to untangle itself from Russia’s economy and search for new ways to inject a financial jolt into its lagging economy.

3. A Solution At Last for Montenegro’s $1 Billion Debt?

After months of speculation and political posturing, Montenegro appears to have reached a solution on its $1 billion China-owed highway debt -- at least for the time being -- according to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

What's In Place: Milojko Spajic, the country’s finance minister, announced on July 8 that the interest rate on the loan owed to the Export-Import Bank of China for the highway project was reduced, which would save the country 8 million euros from its annual budget.

The deal is the result of a refinancing agreement reached with two American banks and one French one and will give the Montenegrin government, which is besieged with an array of political and economic problems, room to breathe.

It’s not a long-term fix to the country’s budget woes or for its debt owed to China, but it eliminates the frantic crunch that Podgorica found itself under. For more background reading, check out our previous report here.

Across The Supercontinent

Bosnian Coal: Russian billionaire Rashid Serdarov, the owner of Comsar Energy Republika Srpska (RS), signed an agreement with a state-owned Chinese and Polish-Chinese company on a strategic partnership to build a new thermal power plant and coal mine in Bosnia-Herzegovina, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.

Backing Beijing: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan came under fire from politicians and commentators for his praise of China’s autocratic one-party system, which he said offered a better model for countries compared to electoral democracy, Daud Khattak of RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal and I reported.

A Third Shot: Hungary relied on a mix of Chinese, Russian, and Western vaccines to protect its population against COVID-19, but an increasing number of those inoculated with China’s Sinopharm shot are reportedly still getting the virus, RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service reported.

The Serbian Connection: Reuters reported on July 7 that the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) is using genetic material collected from prenatal tests around the world for military research. RFE/RL’s Balkan Service takes a look at BGI’s operations in Serbia and the issue of collecting personal data.

One Thing To Watch

The United States and other Western countries on July 19 accused China of hacking the popular e-mail platform Microsoft Exchange as part of a global cyberespionage campaign headed by Beijing.

Chinese authorities angrily denied the accusations, calling them “fabricated.”

Microsoft blamed a Chinese cyberespionage group for exploiting a vulnerability on its e-mail platform. The group, known as Hafnium, was found by Microsoft's Threat Intelligence Center to be state-sponsored and operating out of China.

The incident marks a stepped up and more aggressive use of cybertools from the Chinese, as well as a rare and coordinated rebuke from a broad group of countries.

Similar accusations have circulated in Afghanistan and Central Asia. On July 1, the cybersecurity firm Check Point said that it found a Chinese campaign to target Central Asian governments after hackers had infiltrated Afghanistan’s National Security Council and then posed as senior officials in an attempt to gain access to Central Asian government networks.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will arrive in your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (third from left), the Taliban's top political leader, arrives with other members of a Taliban delegation for talks in Moscow on May 28, 2019. 

As U.S. troops draw down in Afghanistan, Chinese officials have stepped up contacts with the Taliban as it surges across the country and builds strategic footholds against Afghan government forces.

On paper, Beijing and the Taliban are strange bedfellows.

China is an atheistic, communist state that is running an internment camp system in its western Xinjiang Province that is believed to have detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. The Taliban, meanwhile, is a fundamentalist militant group that previously governed Afghanistan as an Islamic caliphate.

So what’s driving the two sides together?

While there is little shared ideology, both sides are managing to forge a transactional relationship based on mutual self-interest.

China -- which is positioning itself to play a defining role in the region -- sees the group as an undeniable part of Afghanistan’s political future, while the Taliban views Beijing as crucial for its international legitimacy and a much-needed potential investor in the country.

In recent weeks, Taliban representatives have said China is a “welcome friend” in Afghanistan and gone out of their way to signal that they will not interfere in Beijing's domestic affairs, while promising that territory under the Islamist groups’ control would not be used against other countries.

This outreach may seem abrupt but is actually the product of a complicated, decades-old relationship that experts say is defined by pragmatism and an underlying distrust of the other. As the political reality in Afghanistan continues to shift quickly, both Beijing and the Taliban are looking to explore how closely they can cooperate.

“There’s a lot of skepticism of one another in this dynamic,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL. “The foundation of it is that each side views the other as a means to an end.”

Why Are They Talking Now?

Stability, specifically its own, is the top concern for China.

Central to Chinese worries in Afghanistan is the country once again becoming a haven for extremist groups with international ambitions like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Beijing is particularly focused on Uyghur militants that have their sights set on China and could cross the country's 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

Ensuring that fighting or chaos from a potential power vacuum won’t spill over is paramount to Chinese policymakers.

An Afghan militia fighter keeps watch at an outpost against Taliban insurgents in the Charkint district of Balkh Province on July 11.
An Afghan militia fighter keeps watch at an outpost against Taliban insurgents in the Charkint district of Balkh Province on July 11.

The existence of Uyghur extremist groups -- based in Afghanistan and elsewhere -- have been part of Beijing’s justification for its sweeping dragnet against Muslim minorities in neighboring Xinjiang.

The Taliban’s recent gains indicate it could well be part of Afghanistan’s political equation or perhaps topple the government in Kabul. With this in mind, Beijing has moved to engage the Taliban to ensure that its security interests will be protected.

“The Chinese can see that the Taliban are likely to cement power and Beijing also doesn’t want to get sucked in and overextended in Afghanistan, so that means they need to have a working relationship with the Taliban,” Pantucci said.

The militant group has taken Chinese concerns to heart and tried to show goodwill, calling for talks on reconstruction and drawing in Chinese investment to begin as soon as possible.

The Taliban has also signaled that it has little current interest in getting involved with events in Xinjiang.

“We care about the oppression of Muslims, be it in Palestine, in Myanmar, or in China, and we care about the oppression of non-Muslims anywhere in the world,” a senior Taliban representative told The Wall Street Journal. “But what we are not going to do is interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

Can Beijing Work With The Taliban?

This isn’t the first time the two sides have been pushed together by events on the ground in Afghanistan.

In the late 1990s, China decided that the best way to manage a potential extremist threat from the country was to engage with the Taliban.

In 1999, a group of Chinese officials flew to Kabul and opened diplomatic and economic relations, with China’s ambassador to Pakistan seeking a meeting with Taliban commander Mullah Omar.

That meeting took place in 2000, at which Beijing pressed Omar to stop harboring ethnic Uyghur militants allegedly operating in Afghanistan with a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). In exchange, the Taliban hoped China would provide diplomatic support at the United Nations and help roll back sanctions placed on the group.

While analysts say Mullah Omar did restrain ETIM in the country, he did not expel the group. No deal with Beijing on the matter was ever formalized, and the Taliban was pushed out of Kabul following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan.

“There’s always been a level of mistrust that the Chinese have toward the Taliban,” Andrew Small, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund, told RFE/RL. “Regardless of what deals they strike and whether they are kept, [Beijing] is also concerned that the group’s success could provide inspiration to other groups.”

Following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the Taliban’s top leadership relocated to Pakistan. According to Small, Islamabad -- the group’s chief patron and a close Beijing ally -- helped facilitate Chinese-Taliban ties over the following years.

Those talks picked up steam in more recent years and once again centered on the Taliban denying Uyghur militants safe haven and curbing the activities of ETIM.

Starting in 2014, Taliban delegations began to publicly and regularly visit China, culminating in secret talks that China facilitated between Kabul and the Taliban in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

“The Taliban have been dealing with the Chinese for decades now and [the militants understand] their concerns,” said Small. “It’s an unusual relationship, but it's been one of the Taliban’s most consistent since it's been in exile in Pakistan.”

What Is ETIM?

Central to Beijing’s engagement with the Taliban are concerns over Uyghur militants -- specifically ETIM -- gaining a home base in Afghanistan.

But the group has a complex and disputed history. While Uyghur militants do operate in Afghanistan, their size and sophistication has been a source of disagreement among analysts and governments.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) listens to Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (center) as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu walks by at the Central and South Asia 2021 conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on July 16.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) listens to Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (center) as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu walks by at the Central and South Asia 2021 conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on July 16.

As George Washington University’s Sean R. Roberts writes in his book, The War On The Uyghurs, no group ever used the name ETIM, but it became associated with a small band of Uyghur militants who relocated to Afghanistan in the late 1990s with the goal of launching attacks against Beijing’s rule in Xinjiang.

Beijing would go on to accuse the group of helping to orchestrate attacks inside China and, in 2002, as the U.S.-led war on terror was ramping up, the group was officially recognized by Washington as a terrorist organization.

Little was heard from the group throughout the 2000s, especially after its leader was killed in 2003, until a group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) issued an online video in 2008 in which it threatened to attack China during that year's Summer Olympics. TIP said it was a successor to ETIM, although Beijing still refers to it by the older name.

TIP has since developed into a larger militant group based in Syria, but as Roberts wrote for The Guardian in 2020, “there is no evidence that this group has ever orchestrated violence inside China itself.”

This has led critics to accuse Beijing of exaggerating the connections between militant groups and developments in China in order to justify its repressive policies against Uyghurs and the ongoing crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang.

As Beijing currently engages in talks with the Taliban with a focus on Uyghur militants, several hundred fighters are believed to be in Afghanistan, according to a 2020 United Nations Security Council report.

But the administration of President Donald Trump removed ETIM from its terrorist organization list in 2020, saying it believed there was “no credible” evidence the group still existed.

What Is China’s Game Plan?

Despite its growing ties with the Taliban, Beijing still recognizes President Ashraf Ghani’s government and has also engaged with Kabul in monitoring Uyghur militants in Afghanistan.

Beyond security, Beijing also has some longer-term economic hopes for the country, with Chinese firms involved in the massive Aynak copper mine and exploration in the Amu Darya oil field.

For the time being, however, China is looking to strengthen its relations with both sides and use that leverage to push for a political solution between Kabul and the Taliban. Beijing is also dangling future investment and deeper efforts to integrate Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative as a way to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

A convoy of Afghan special forces is seen during the rescue mission of a police officer besieged at a check post surrounded by Taliban fighters in Kandahar Province on July 13.
A convoy of Afghan special forces is seen during the rescue mission of a police officer besieged at a check post surrounded by Taliban fighters in Kandahar Province on July 13.

“It’s one of the few levers that China has to push for a stable political settlement in the country,” Small said.

Those strengthened ties give Beijing a special role to play in any future peace process, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on July 13 during a tour of Central Asia.

China has also stepped up its security engagement and cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia, as well as with Pakistan, as part of what Pantucci calls a “hedging strategy” to prepare for any possible outcome from the current situation in the country.

“The Chinese are negotiating with the Taliban, and the Taliban are being receptive so far,” he said. "But the Chinese have actually built themselves an insurance policy by building a strong regional security presence [to cover]" for any outcome.

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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.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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