US and China Unite Over Taleban

Relations between Beijing and Washington may have improved as a result of the American-led war against the Taleban and its allies.

US and China Unite Over Taleban

Relations between Beijing and Washington may have improved as a result of the American-led war against the Taleban and its allies.

Washington's war against the Taleban and the al-Qaeda network is believed to have helped to ease tensions with China which has long accused the student militia of fomenting separatism in the west of the country.

Before September 11, Beijing's relations with Washington were at best tepid and at worst frosty, especially following the collision of a US P-3 spy plane with a Chinese fighter and after the bombing - accidental or otherwise - of Beijing's embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo campaign.

But after the attacks on New York and Washington, China and the US seem to have set aside their differences - albeit temporarily some suggest - as both are united in wanting to rid Afghanistan of the Taleban and its al-Qaeda allies.

China condemned the attacks in the US and backed Washington's calls for a crackdown on international terrorism. At the same time, Beijing was keen to emphasise that it has also suffered problems with the Taleban, accusing the student militia of training and infiltrating indigenous Uighur separatists across the Afghan-Chinese border into its restive western province of Xinjiang.

To this end, China offered Washington intelligence and said very little when the US began its bombardment of the Afghanistan, only warning that civilian targets should be avoided and that the bombing must not be a protracted affair. This was in stark contrast to the Kosovo campaign when China was highly critical of NATO's actions, and was even accused of assisting the Milosevic regime with arms exports.

In addition, China was uncharacteristically quiet regarding the decision of the Japanese parliament to send naval vessels to the Gulf in support of the American-led campaign against the Taleban.

Despite these apparent improvements, China and the United States are still at loggerheads over Taiwan. Washington's support for Beijing's errant province has always impeded Sino-US relations. This shows no immediate signs of abating, especially as President Bush has just authorised another tranche of arms exports to Taiwan.

There is also the ongoing saga of Bush's plans to place the US under a missile defence umbrella. Beijing fears that this will blunt its nuclear deterrent, and might even be used to protect Taiwan against any Chinese designs to reclaim the island by force.

Notwithstanding their differences though, Washington's move to target the Taleban will have had definite appeal in China. The "war on terrorism" is doing what China found impossible via the Shanghai Five - a collection of itself, Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan - tasked with devising diplomatic methods to curtail Afghan terrorism and drug-trafficking. In June, Kazak president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, remarked that "the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism is the instability in Afghanistan".

China's own efforts to curb what it sees as Taleban-backed separatists in Xinjiang have not proved to be very effective.

The Uighur population in the province has been agitating for its independence for many years. Bombs have exploded on buses and in post boxes. Beijing has retaliated with a harsh crackdown. Last September, several Uighur nationalists, convicted of violent offences, were paraded in front of local Communist Party officials before being taken away for execution.

The separatist movement shows no immediate signs of dissipating in spite of the crackdown. If anything, the attacks have increased in recent years. China has been well aware of the costs of continuing its heavy-handed strategy in the province, knowing that its activities, which are often accompanied by allegations of torture and maltreatment of suspects and prisoners, does it few favours internationally.

Over the years, China was at times seemingly rather confused over how it should deal with the Taleban. Unlike India, Russia and Iran, Beijing has not made overtures or offered explicit support to the Northern Alliance. Instead, it made informal contacts with the student militia, in an effort to stop it providing assistance to the Uighur separatists.

Beijing may well have calculated that it is in its interests to let the US conduct the attacks on the Taleban, al-Qaeda camps - some of which may be harbouring Xinjiang separatists. The removal of these bases could drastically reduce, or even eradicate the separatist's activities once and for all, and thus clear a major headache for Beijing.

By supporting Washington's actions, Beijing maybe able to diminish America's criticism of its human rights record and its activities in Tibet. Significantly, since September 11, China has agreed to discuss human rights with Washington. This was firmly excluded from any dialogue following the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

So what does all this mean for relations between the two countries. The US defence establishment has regarded China as public enemy number one since the end of the Cold War. The suspicions and enmities probably continue, but for the moment the US will not want to antagonise Beijing because of its willingness to back its war in Afghanistan. But, according to one China expert, "If the war ends and there is no immediate terrorist threat, hard-liners in the Bush administration will again voice their rhetoric about the China challenge!"

Thomas Withington is an independent defence analyst. His interests include South Asian security, air power, and Cold War history. He is also a Research Associate at the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London.

China, Tajikistan, Russia
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