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Will China Inherit Afghanistan’s War?

Op-ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Sept. 26 – As the United States continues its preparations to exit Afghanistan, comments made by ex-U.S. forces suggest that an alternative power may have to step into their shoes. Stating recent attacks made by the mafia-styled Haqqani family, Marc Sageman, an ex-CIA officer who served in Pakistan has been quoted in the press as saying “Whoever is in power in Afghanistan will have to make a deal with the Haqqani’s. It won’t be us, we’re leaving and they know it.”

That China and Pakistan enjoy strong diplomatic and economic relations is well known, as are the certainties of a U.S. pullout. But Pakistan, facing a choice between being overrun by Taliban, giving up Afghanistan to India, or pulling in the Chinese, may only have the one viable option – major Chinese involvement, whether China likes it or not. It may also suit a war-weary United States to sit back and watch developments, including whether China can step up to the plate as a global citizen and maintainer of peace.

That China may well have to do so appears increasingly likely. Recent bombings in Kashgar and Khotan in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region seem to have been orchestrated by Islamic militants that received training in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a development that has sprung seven visits by Pakistan’s military chiefs to Xinjiang this year alone as they try and assure Beijing that they have the situation under control. With militants long coveting Xinjiang as part of a pan-Islamic state, China may find itself dragged into a conflict it does not want in order to protect its homeland, just like the United States has tried.

Pakistani Asif Al Zadari was in Urumqi just last month to attend the Xinjiang Expo, where a heavy Chinese SWAT style team was said to have uncovered several terrorist plots, including apprehending a passenger armed with a knife attempting to board a domestic flight from Urumqi. Following the Uyghur-Chinese disturbances in Urumqi in 2009, Zardari endorsed China’s policies in Xinjiang. On that occasion, , Muslim Uighurs had rioted against Han Chinese residents in Urumqi, killing at least 197 people, most of them Han, although Islamic institutions suggest that Muslim fatalities were far higher than stated by official media. Just that statement alone will have inflamed passions among Muslim fanatics, who want to see the Han Chinese leave Xinjiang.

The options for China are limited. With no U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan may not have the resources or political will to deal with Islamic insurgents also intent on securing access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Intent was shown two years ago when the Taliban invaded the Swat Valley and progressed to less than 200 kilometers away from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. That Beijing was concerned about that development is understating it. Islamabad has regular direct flights to Urumqi and Beijing, and any increase in militancy towards China’s presence in Xinjiang could turn very nasty, very quickly.

As U.S.-Pakistan relations continue to deteriorate, the increased involvement of India, which enjoys booming U.S. relations, within Afghan politics will also alarm both Pakistan and China. India already has a significant military presence in Kashmir, which at one side is right up against Pakistan’s border, and to the east, with China. India has long claimed territories held by both as its own, and gaining military influence in Afghanistan suits its objectives to place both Pakistan and China under pressure on these borders.

Pakistan is almost certain to rely on China for weapons and military support to deal with both its internal instability and the threat of a resurgent Indian presence on their doorstep.

Such a scenario will also involve Iran, as the regime has funded much of the Afghan insurgencies against the United States. China enjoys good relations with Tehran, Pakistan less so as it is aware that the Iranians would dearly like to be more involved with controlling large parts of its territory.

Squeezed out of the equation Pakistan may well be, and it seems likely that Sino-Iranian deals will start to become much more in favor of Tehran’s bilateral trade with China as a result, as Iran twists the key to obtain concessions from China in return for ceasing to arm militants. Only time will tell if an Iran-Pak-China military triumvirate will succeed where the United States has left an inheritance. Afghanistan could become more stable if Iran ceases its involvement, but this could be ruptured if intent towards Pakistani territory becomes apparent. This is, after all, a country that fought a seven year war with Iraq.

But should violence in Xinjiang start to increase, such support may well lead to a short cut into direct Chinese military involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Chinese won’t like it. But with the United States watching from the wings, it may now only be a short time before China has to step up, get into Afghanistan, and see what it really means to limit Islamic insurgents on its own borders.

Related Reading

Islamic Group Claims Responsibility for Xinjiang Attacks in China

Weekend Violence in China’s Xinjiang Leaves 19 Dead

Attack in Xinjiang Leaves 18 Dead as China Again Struggles with Ethnic Unrest

China’s Territorial Disputes with India

Pakistan Offers China a Naval Base on Indian Ocean

This entry was posted in Culture & History, Featured, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Will China Inherit Afghanistan’s War?

  1. Maduka says:

    I doubt the Chinese will be that stupid.

  2. Yolvas Tiger says:

    After reading this interesting piece, I realized that the author has little understanding of the Uyghur situation as well as Chinese leaders’ political mindset.

    First, Uyghurs are not Islamic militants who want to achieve a pan-Islamic state. Uyghurs are an oppressed people, just like the Tibetans, under the brutal Chinese communist rule since 1949.

    Second, Uyghurs wanted to create a secular democracy. In 1944, Uyghurs, with other indigenous groups, established a secular state, which was destroyed by Stalin and Mao. As a result, Communist China annexed East Turkestan. A year later, China annexed Tibet.

    Third, China will never get directly involved in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. As strong as China seems today, China is really weak militarily. I am saying this because the Chinese military has never got a real war since 1977 during the war with Vietnam. Even then, poorly armed Vietnamese defeated the well-trained Chinese army. So the Chinese army do not have the real world of war experience. If China sends in its military to Afghanistan, that will probably be the end of China itself. If the Soviets and the U.S. can’t defeat Taliban, how can China defeat Taliban.

  3. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    @Yolvas Tiger: Thanks for your comments. Concerning the Uighurs, I understand their situation perfectly well thank you. I have visited Xinjiang on numerous occassions and in many locations. I didn’t suggest that the Uighurs are terrorists or Islamic militants. But what I did suggest is that the Uighur cause may be taken up by rather more nasty people who are bent on causing trouble in Xinjiang. There’s the difference.
    As for Chinese involvement in Afghanistan – if trouble brews in Xinjiang or serious problems develop internally in Pakistan then they may have no option but to get involved. As I said, they won’t like it but they may have little choice.
    I also note that today the US has asked China to assist with implementing bans on Iranian ships entering Hong Kong and Chinese ports. It’s happening. – Chris

  4. s wm carson says:

    thx for a good & thoughtful glimpse – can you kindly link to Stratfor? much appreciated

  5. Michael says:

    China is not an imperialistic power like the power mad West! Terrorism is nothing more than a tool the West creates to justify their aggression and occupation of foreign sovereign lands.

  6. Michael says:

    Yolvas Tiger “Uyghurs wanted to create a secular democracy” LOL

    It is you who do not understand the Uyghurs! Uyghurs are nothing more than terrorist and a democracy will never be what they want but a modern day THEOCRACY!!!

  7. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    @Michael – please tone down your comments in future. This is a debate about a very serious issue NOT a slanging match between Han Chinese and Uighurs. If I see more of that text will be deleted and we’ll ban you – and anyone else who makes inflammatory statements – from commenting. I hope I make myself clear.
    Sensible comments are welcome. Otherwise go and crap on someone elses blog. – Chris

  8. Frank says:

    Will China Inherit Afghanistan’s War? I do not think so.

    Chinese are very proud of not having any troops stationed outside China unless they are under UN commands. In the last 60 years, all kids in school were taught that China is a peaceful country because China does not station troops overseas.

    Chinese leaders will have a lot of explanations to do to their people and comrades.

  9. afzaal khattak says:

    chris. being resident of the troubled area of North west Pakistan. i have seen both taliban and the Pak Army. The frightening future you are portraying like taliban was close to islamabad by 200 km and gaining control etc. i do not agree. First , Peshawar is 53 km from Afghanistan and much less is swat area. so Sporadic presense of Taliban, mostly of whom are pathans living across the border is not that much to be afraid off.and that’s why Pakistan army did cleanse and combed the whole swat with in few months. Second
    just being a resident and not a professional political analyst, During Taliban’s rule across the border in Afghanistan in 90’s . There was no terrorism, no suicide bombing and no common cases of kidnapping for ransom in Pakistan. Rather, the traders and transporters of pakistan still recall the high sense of security prevalent in Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan.
    The trouble all started after 9/11.
    so now if the U.S forces pull out of afghanistan. obviously, there will be fight for power. So, any country, that can play a positive role in Afghanistan, is none other than Pakistan, because of one language, same culture and same religion and sect.U.S and the west will have to fund pakistan.But if U.S is repeating the same mistake,it did, after Russia defeat. That can be more dangerous this time, specially when U.S and the west have now become the declared enemies of Taliban.

  10. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    @ Frank, Afzaal; thank you for your considered responses. They’re much appreciated. – Chris

  11. Farrukh says:

    China is a great country and the word great, have many meaning for explaining china policy.

Comments are closed.

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