China launches regional alliance to combat Islamist militancy | News | DW | 04.08.2016
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China launches regional alliance to combat Islamist militancy

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan have joined a security alliance headed by China. Concerned about an Islamist insurgency in its Xinjiang region and Afghanistan, Beijing is seeking to increase regional cooperation.

Military leaders from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan met with their Chinese counterparts in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region Wednesday to announce the formation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism alliance.

The four countries pledged to work together to counter terrorism and share intelligence.

"All parties reaffirmed they would cooperate to respond to these (terrorist) forces, and safeguard all member countries' peace and stability," the official Xinhua news agency said Thursday.

The Uighur problem

In the past few years, the Chinese government has acted strictly against the Muslim separatists in Xinjiang.

In 2014, the Chinese government blamed Xinjiang Islamists and separatists for a spate of violent attacks at transport hubs throughout China. Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to follow a "strike-first approach against terrorists in the region," stating that long-term stability in the region was "vital to the whole country's reform."

Beijing is equally worried about the expansion of "Islamic State" (IS) in neighboring Afghanistan and a surge in violence in the war-torn country. It believes that the Taliban and other radical groups in Afghanistan are providing assistance to Xinjiang militants.

Muslim men of the Uighur ethnic group leaving the Id Kah Mosque after Friday prayers in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China (Photo: EPA/HOW HWEE YOUNG)

Uighur Muslims have long faced persecution by the Chinese authorities

"China is worried about IS gaining a permanent foothold in Afghanistan, and establishing links to Uighur militants," Wahid Mazhdah, a former employee of the ousted Taliban regime, told DW.

Uighur Muslims, a Turkic-speaking minority in China's northwestern Xinjiang province, have long faced persecution by the country's communist authorities. They are a distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. However, Uighurs feel increasingly oppressed and view Beijing as a "colonizing power" attempting to undermine their cultural identity, political rights and religion and to exploit their region's natural resources.

Faiz Mohammad Zaland, a Kabul University lecturer who recently met with a Taliban delegation in Qatar, has a similar view. "China wants to make sure Uighur militants do not have sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Beijing wants this issue to be part of the negotiations," Zaland told DW.

Beijing assuming a bigger regional role

Experts say these are the reasons behind Beijing's offer to support the Afghan government in reconciling with the Taliban. Media reports said a Taliban delegation had held talks with Chinese officials on two occasions in June.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last year in December that his country was seeking a leading role for Islamabad to resolve conflicts in Afghanistan, pointing out that "Pakistan is an important nation for Afghanistan" and "has a special reach there."

"Broad-based and inclusive national reconciliation" was necessary to ensure Afghanistan's durable stability, Yi commented, and the country would need international support in the process.

Afghan president Asharaf Ghani (L) shakes hands with China's Vice President, Li Yuanchao at a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on November 3, 2015. (Photo: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images)

What does China want from the Afghan peace process?

China and Pakistan are close allies, and with the Islamic country's frayed ties with Washington, Beijing is exerting its influence on Pakistani authorities.

"Obviously, the Chinese want to challenge the American hegemony in the region and this looks like their stamp of authority on some sensitive matters," Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general and security expert, told the DPA news agency.

Economic interests

Experts say that another important reason behind the diplomatic push may be China's level of economic engagement in these two countries. For instance, China signed deals worth $46 billion (41.3 billion euros) with Pakistan last year. President Xi Jinping also inaugurated the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor designed to create a network of roads, railways and pipelines linking China's restive west to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan.

According to Afghan experts, Chinese officials are striving to keep the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan under control so Beijing can implement its economic projects and protect its investments.

"China's primary goal for its increased involvement in the Afghan peace process is to secure its economic interests in the region," analyst Zaland said.

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