SCMP: US military withdrawal from Afghanistan might improve China’s security, analysts say

The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan may create uncertainty in neighbouring Xinjiang, but might improve China’s security environment in the longer run, analysts have said.

At Tuesday’s Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a video speech that China “will continue to do its best” in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process.

His remarks came at a crossroads of the Afghan peace process. The US is due to fully pull back its military forces from the war-torn country in May after 19 years with over 22,000 military casualties including about 2,300 fatalities.

“Foreign military forces should withdraw from Afghanistan in an orderly manner in a responsible manner, and resolutely prevent various terrorist forces from taking the opportunity to cause chaos,” Wang told the meeting of 15 regional countries and other international stakeholders.

“We will work in concert with all other parties of the Istanbul Process and the international community to bring peace to every corner of Afghanistan at an early date and deliver the benefits of development to the entire Afghan people,” he said.

Given Afghanistan’s geographic proximity to Xinjiang, the withdrawal of the US forces will probably add significant pressure on China’s counterterrorism effort in the short term, but more generally will be a positive development for the overall security of China, analysts said.

The intra-Afghan negotiations between Taliban and the Afghan government for a political settlement were still in stalemate. The next round of talks will be held in Turkey later this month under international diplomatic mediation as the May deadline approaches.

“The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan will put greater pressure on China’s Xinjiang counterterrorism efforts,” said Sun Qi, an international relations specialist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

The US withdrawal “may help further developing the Taliban terrorist organisation in Afghanistan, creating pressure on Xinjiang anti-terror work”, he said.

But other observers said although the absence of the Americans might result in some chaos and revival of terrorist activities in the region, both the Afghan government and Taliban have exercised restraint in supporting the Uygurs exiled from Xinjiang.

The real threat to China’s national security is the growing presence of Islamic State in the region, which is being suppressed by the Taliban, according to Yan Wei, a professor at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at Northwest University.

“From this perspective, the withdrawal of US troops will not pose a major threat to the security of China’s borders,” he said. “Although it may lead to a certain degree of deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan, in the long run, it will help solve the Afghan political issues and thus improve the security situation in areas surrounding China.”

If anything, Beijing is more concerned about the US military presence next door to Xinjiang, according to Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London.

Last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying showed a press conference a video featuring Lawrence Wilkerson, ex-chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell, in which he said the US presence in Afghanistan gave it the ability to destabilise China by instigating trouble in neighbouring Xinjiang.

“If the US stays and uses Afghanistan as a long-term base to influence Xinjiang, it could interfere with Xinjiang affairs through military campaigns, infiltration and cause problems such as Xinjiang independence,” Sun said.

In his speech on Tuesday, Wang mentioned that counterterrorism in Afghanistan should not have “double standards” and the ETIM, or East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uygur separatist group from Xinjiang, must be “completely eliminated” in the same way as al-Qaida and Isis.

He was referring to Washington’s removal of the UN-listed ETIM last November from its terrorist group list, a move Beijing said condoned terrorist activities and destabilised Xinjiang.

Analysts said there is an extremely low possibility of China sending troops to Afghanistan after the US pull-out, but it could help broker peace talks and provide economic assistance in the reconstruction.

But the fact that Wang delivered a speech through a video call instead of travelling to attend the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process session in Dushanbe suggested that Beijing is not very serious about getting deeply involved in Afghanistan, according to Pantucci.

“China has become increasingly sour on the idea of cooperation with the US in Afghanistan, and the recent US-led sanctions push against the leadership in Xinjiang is not going to make China want to do it any more,” he said.

“South China Morning Post”