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August 25, 2021 11:00 am
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Why China-Taliban Cooperation Could Be Derailed by the Uyghur Issue

avatar by Maya Carlin / JNS.org

Opinion

A pro-Uyghur demonstration in Hong Kong, Dec. 22, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Lucy Nicholson.

JNS.org – Many adversaries of the United States are jumping at the opportunity to fill the void created by America’s hasty military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not one of them.

Although Beijing will no doubt try to take advantage of Afghanistan’s vast supply of mineral resources and celebrate America’s failure in the country, it will also have to contemplate its own security prospects as the Taliban projects terrorism and radicalism in the region.

Beijing is guilty of committing atrocious human-rights abuses, under the guise of counter-terrorism in its Xinjiang province, against the country’s Uyghur Muslims. The Taliban’s historic connections with a controversial Uyghur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), worries China’s leadership, which considers this group a terrorist organization.

The Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims who are native to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the country’s northwest. Beijing views this minority group as a threat to Han nationalism and fears calls for Uyghur separatism.

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As part of its effort to promote supposed cultural unity, the PRC perpetuates modern-day slavery in Xinjiang by forcibly detaining Uyghurs in makeshift concentration camps. Chinese officials have been accused of committing crimes against humanity for the torture and abuse of this minority community. Uyghur women are systematically sexually abused, sterilized and indoctrinated. Uyghur men face similar fates in Xinjiang.

Chinese officials for years have cried terrorism when referring to the Uyghur population and claim that their detention, indoctrination and “re-education” efforts are aimed at limiting the terrorism threat posed by the minority group. Beijing points to the ETIM to back up the claim that Uyghur splinter groups, specifically in Xinjiang province, have and will continue to carry out crimes against ethnic Hans. However, the origins and even the current existence of the ETIM are disputed.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the term ETIM first surfaced following a 1999 meeting in Afghanistan, when a Moscow-based newspaper reported that Osama bin Laden promised funds to both the ETIM and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. China alleges that ETIM is closely tied to the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), a group that claimed responsibility for a handful of terror attacks on civilians in Beijing in 2008.

Although the connection has not been confirmed, China claimed that “Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan had provided the ‘Eastern Turkestan’ terrorist organizations with equipment and financial resources and trained their personnel,” and that one particular organization, the “Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM), was a “major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.”

Now that the Taliban has become the de-facto government of Afghanistan, Chinese officials are concerned that Uyghur separatists could be encouraged and potentially aided to rise up against their oppressors.

Recent press reports suggest that Chinese and Taliban officials reached an agreement not to meddle in one another’s countries and to establish diplomatic relations once a Taliban government is in place. During an Aug. 18 webinar on the Afghanistan crisis, Center for Security Policy senior analyst Victoria Coates said that a new Taliban government may agree to work with China, accepting aid and investment—and not try to assist China’s persecuted Uyghurs—because it will be “transactional” and corrupt.

On the other hand, the Taliban—a hardline Islamist movement—may not agree to work with a nation that detains, tortures and indoctrinates its Muslim population. The Taliban might initially cooperate with the PRC to establish a working government to validate itself in the international community, but a long-term partnership may not be possible due to China’s brutal oppression of Uyghur Muslims.

Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. 

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