China on Wednesday feted Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, praising the insurgent group as an “important military and political force” in Afghanistan and asked it to make a “clean break” with all terrorist groups, especially the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – the Uyghur Muslim militant group from Xinjiang.
Amid deepening concerns over the regrouping of the ETIM, blamed by Beijing for all the violent attacks in its volatile Xinjiang province and elsewhere in the country, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Mullah Baradar at Tianjin and sought to prevail on him to build a “positive image and establish a broad and inclusive political structure that suits Afghanistan’s national realities”.
Most importantly for Beijing, with reports of the ETIM militants who fought till recently in the Syrian war along with the Islamic State (IS) regrouping in Afghanistan, Wang’s emphasis was that the Taliban, which is rapidly advancing in Afghanistan ahead of the complete withdrawal of the US forces, should not allow the Uygur militants in the war-torn country.
Mullah Baradar, who made the surprise visit to China, termed Beijing as a “trustworthy friend” and assured that his group will not permit any force to use Afghanistan’s territory.
A recent UN report said hundreds of ETIM fighters have gathered in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, which borders China’s volatile Xinjiang province, along with militants of Al-Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has been waging an insurgency against Pakistan, especially in its lawless tribal areas.
“Wang pointed out that the Afghan Taliban is an important military and political force in Afghanistan and is expected to play an important role in the country’s peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in his updated comments at the media briefing.
“We hope that the Afghan Taliban will put the interests of the country and nation first, hold high the banner of peace talks, set the goal of peace, build a positive image and pursue an inclusive policy,” Wang said.
Wang stressed that “the ETIM is an international terrorist organisation designated by the UN Security Council that poses a direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity”.
“Combating it is a common responsibility for the international community. We hope the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with all terrorist organisations, including the ETIM, and resolutely and effectively combat them to remove obstacles, play a positive role and create enabling conditions for security, stability, development and cooperation in the region,” Wang said.
The ETIM may have been listed as a terror group but the previous Trump administration has lifted the ban on it as the US stepped up allegations of genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The US and the EU, besides many other countries, have accused China of committing a genocide against the Muslim Uygurs in Xinjiang and called for an international probe by human rights groups.
China is vehemently refuting allegations of interning millions of Uygurs in mass detention camps which were officially termed as re-education camps.
The China-Taliban rapprochement took place after last week’s talks between Wang and Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi at Chengdu, where both the countries decided to launch joint actions in Afghanistan.
“After in-depth communication, we decided to launch joint actions,” which included making “every effort to pursue peace, give top priority to avoiding the spread of war, and prevent Afghanistan from spiralling into a full-scale civil war,” Wang had said after the talks with Qureshi.
Earlier, Wang worked on trilateral diplomacy, trying to iron out differences between the Afghan government, which has been accusing Pakistan of hosting the Taliban leaders on its soil, and Islamabad.
Appreciating the opportunity to visit China, Mullah Baradar told Wang that “China has always been a reliable friend of the Afghan people and commended China’s just and positive role in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process, according to the press release quoted by Zhao.
“The Afghan Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China,” Baradar said, without referring to the ETIM.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying that the meetings focused on the political, economic and security issues facing the two nations, as well as the peace process.
He said the group had assured China that Afghan territory would not be used to threaten the security of other nations, and that China had promised not to interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs but to help build peace and solve problems.
However, observers say it may be an uphill task for the Taliban to drive out or hand over Uyghur militants to China as they were part of the IS and Al-Qaeda mix.
Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund, told the Post recently that whatever benign language the Taliban use, China remains highly concerned about the security situation there. China previously hosted the Taliban in 2019.
Yan Wei, an international relations professor at Northwest University in China, said it was necessary for both the Taliban and China to engage each other.
“Regardless of whether the Taliban will become the government, it is a key force affecting the political development and security of Afghanistan,” he told the Post.
“The Taliban can constrain some other terrorist organisations in Afghanistan. China can through the Taliban put certain constraints on other terrorist organisations, which is useful for China’s security and regional security,” he said.