China ‘deeply concerned’ about Uyghur militants in Afghanistan, ambassador says

Foreign Affairs

Zhang Jun, China’s envoy to the UN, raised concerns over a Security Council report on Afghanistan-based terrorism. The Uyghur militant group that Beijing is particularly concerned about, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), is not considered to be an organized threat by the U.S.

China’s ambassador to the UN, Zhāng Jūn 张军, speaks at a Security Council meeting on March 10, 2020.
China’s ambassador to the UN, Zhāng Jūn 张军, speaks at a Security Council meeting on March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri.

A UN Security Council report warned about Afghanistan-based terrorism, and estimated that between 200 and 700 fighters with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) “​​had been relocated from their traditional stronghold in Badakhshan province, on the border with China, to Baghlan, Takhar and other provinces as part of the Taliban’s efforts to both protect and restrain the group,” per the South China Morning Post.

China’s ambassador to the UN, Zhāng Jūn 张军, said that the “withdrawal of foreign troops has created a vacuum in the security situation,” reemphasizing Beijing’s earlier anxieties about the U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan.

  • The move has stoked Beijing’s deep-rooted fears about Uyghur militants in Afghanistan, particularly ETIM — a Uyghur separatist group that Beijing blames for stoking unrest in Xinjiang.
  • China has signaled it is willing to work with the Taliban, as long as they comply with Beijing’s request for it to clamp down on the group.
  • Zhang said that China is “deeply concerned” about reports that ISIS has recruited fighters from ETIM. “ETIM fighters in Afghanistan even clamored to ‘return to Xinjiang for Jihad,’” the ambassador added, per Xinhua (in Chinese here).

The significance of ETIM as an organization is contested. While Beijing considers the group to be a threat, the U.S. State Department removed it from its terrorist list in 2020, and scholars such as Sean R. Roberts consider ETIM to have “mostly hovered on the edge of extinction as a poorly resourced, loosely organized bunch with aspirations, but no capacity, to launch militant operations.”

Nadya Yeh