Taipei: China, most likely, has assumed, and assessed, that the sudden US-Taliban peace agreement and the rapid withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will be an unfriendly move or more like a trap which may jeopardize China’s security framework in Xinjiang. And that without a professional and comprehensive intelligence network in Afghanistan, China does not have a way to escape the trap.

Ahmad Zia Saraj, the chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate Security, confirmed to the Afghan Parliament recently that a Chinese spy ring was arrested for espionage in December 2020. He pointed out that “this is a sensitive case” and that he could not “disclose details” about it. More interestingly, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, in a media briefing in January 2021 said that they were “unaware of” the case, and highlighted that “China and Afghanistan’s relations have always been very friendly, and our cooperation is very friendly in every field and is proceeding normally”.

Except for in Pakistan, China does not seem to have a resilient and reliable international intelligence exchange network in West and South Asia. Therefore, to encounter such a harsh situation without a professional intelligence backup, China’s tactics to gather information involves going to the informal social networks with informants from all sectors, which may be inefficient in intelligence gathering, but could successfully penetrate the grassroots. That is why it is reported that the Chinese spy ring in this Afghanistan case were construction worker, carpenter, medical doctor, bakery and restaurant owners, a total of 13 people.

This amateurish Chinese intelligence network was easily exposed and also revealed China’s profound anxiety on the clandestine Uyghur militants and settlements in Afghanistan and surrounding areas. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, in November 2020, urged the US to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in an “orderly and responsible” manner. It seemingly implies that the US withdrawal would leave a mess, making Afghanistan a hotbed for Islamism to flourish once again. What was not uttered was that Beijing probably reckoned that the US might even deliberately devise a milieu where the Uyghur jihadists could survive and offset China’s possible expansion in Afghanistan.

China prefers to refer to the Uyghur jihadists collectively under the title of “East Turkistan Islamic Movement” (ETIM), which intends to establish an independent country violently, and reportedly has initiated numerous murderous riots in Xinjiang since the early 1990s. Their irredentist declaration assuredly irritates the Chinese authority and turns out to be the justification of the latter’s punitive crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang now.

Sean Roberts, in his recently published book, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority (2020), argues that soon after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, in order to seek China’s support in launching a global war on terrorism, the US and its allies—the UK, European Union etc.—designated the ETIM as a foreign terrorist organization for its alleged association with Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and imposed sanctions on it.

The fact is that the ETIM was never convincingly forceful enough in military terms. One of the founding jihadists of the organization, whom I interviewed in Istanbul in the summer of 2015, explained to me that ETIM was renamed as Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) shortly after the war on terror began in Afghanistan in 2002, for the purpose of mobilizing support and to recruit new blood from Central Asia’s Turkic ethnic communities. The new name, TIP, was to prevent confusing it with other jihadist organizations, as ETIM was dedicated solely to fight for Uyghur independence in Xinjiang. East Turkistan is parallel to Xinjiang, while Turkestan literally widens its connotation to include Central Asia, and all ranges inhabited by Turkic ethnic groups.

The ETIM’s haunt was around the unmanned tribal zones of Northern Waziristan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and three of its leaders, Hasan Mahsum, Abdul Haq and Abdul Shakoor al-Turkistani were exterminated or seriously injured by US drone attacks in the war of terror. Additionally, Pakistan began a full-fledged military raid called “Operation Zarb-e-Azb” from 2014 to flush out comprehensively all foreign and local militants hiding in North Waziristan. It is reported that China assisted in the military operation with another name, i.e.  Jingwai Qingyuan, literally meaning “clearing up abroad”. As a result, the Uyghur militants were forced to emigrate and transfer to Syria where they jointly fought the civil war with the Jabhat Al-Nusra (later renamed as the Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham Front, or Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham), an extension of Al Qaeda in Syria.

It came as a shock when the Trump administration removed the ETIM from the US’ terrorist list. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “there is no reliable evidence” that the organization still existed. In other words, the US implied that Uyghur terrorists no longer existed. Meanwhile, there were reports and leaks from the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey that a bundle of Uyghur militants, who once fought in Syria, had followed Abdul Rashid Dostum (the Afghan Vice President and Marshal, and twice exiled in Turkey in 2008 and 2016) back to his stronghold in northern Afghanistan in 2018.

Dostum is an ethnic Uzbek and a warlord, having his personal fiefdom in north Afghanistan. Dostum embraced the US campaign in Afghanistan, and reportedly tortured and executed thousands of Taliban prisoners in the early days of the US-led war on terror. Dostum’s territory, commonly known as Afghan Turkestan or South Turkestan, geographically has proximity to Badakhshan and also to the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan where Uyghur militants are active. There are then allegedly two factions of Uyghur militants; one is under the shadow of Dostum, while the others with the Taliban forces are spread over a large area of rural Badakhshan, sharing a 90-kilometre border with China’s Xinjiang.

From China’s perspective, it’s a completely unacceptable development for north and east Afghanistan to be occupied by hundreds of experienced Uyghur militants. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, in a November 2020 news briefing, called upon the US “not to backpedal international counter-terrorism cooperation”, and expressed “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to the US decision. He also requested the US to “refrain from whitewashing terrorist organizations”, which might imply that US troops withdrawal is a tentative conspiracy, which would allow anti-China Uyghur militants to fill the vacuum and possibly fabricate turbulence on Xinjiang’s back door.

China’s Afghanistan peace plans are twofold. One is to establish the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, which promotes joint counterterrorism and trade activities between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. Beijing has also approached the Taliban leadership, with the support of Pakistan since 2019, to lay the groundwork for future collaboration. Beijing apparently underlined the need for not permitting the Uyghur insurgency gaining space in Afghanistan as a precondition for Chinese support for the Taliban resuming a political role in Kabul during the intra-Afghanistan talks.

What we should bear in mind is that the Afghan Taliban, while being in power in the 1990s, was allies with Uyghur militants and provided them with weapons and other equipment. America’s troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, will inevitably create a power vacuum there, which will likely be filled by local and foreign pro-Taliban militant groups. Beijing is aware that there is no certainty that the Taliban will keep their words if they regain a degree of power in Kabul. And Dostum would be another problem, with his own militia that contains Uyghur militants in north Afghanistan. The Uyghurs’ ability to launch cross-border attacks into Xinjiang is weak at present, but this could change quickly if China cannot settle the matter with and “comfort” the Taliban, Dostum and all the other political factions.

Encountered with such critical and mutually distrustful circumstances, China trying to construct its own intelligence network in Afghanistan should not come as a surprise. They were perhaps hoping that their Afghan counterparts would help eliminate the threat from the Uyghur militants in Afghanistan. But the failure of the Chinese spy ring in Afghanistan should have taught Beijing a lesson on its limited strengths when it comes to political manoeuvrings in Afghanistan.

Chienyu Shih is the Secretary General of Taiwan Association of Central Asian Studies, and also lectures on Central Asian international relations and Terrorism at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan.