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China’s Balancing Act In Afghanistan

  • Afghanistan’s geographic location along the BRI, it is a vital state for China’s efforts to develop both Central Asia.
  • China has been cautious toward Afghanistan due to concerns that insecurity at its borders could spill over into Xinjiang.
  • The current situation in Afghanistan confronts China with both opportunities and challenges.

In late June, a severe earthquake struck southeastern Afghanistan. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced it would provide 50 million RMB ($7.2 million) in emergency aid, including tents, blankets, cots and other sorely needed supplies to the impacted areas (People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs (FMPRC), June 25). Beijing invests in Afghanistan to further its long-term economic, strategic and political interests. Since the U.S. withdrawal last year, China has had an opportunity to advance its interests and deepen its clout in Afghanistan. When Kabul fell, China did not condemn the move and announced that it respected the choice of the Afghan people—a sign of goodwill from Beijing to the Taliban that it subscribes to the narrative that the new government has the full support of the population (Xinhua, August 16, 2021). China has never been militarily involved in Afghanistan. Uyghur militants have found safe-haven in the country for decades, but the level of threat they pose to the PRC is debated even among Chinese analysts (China Brief, February 11). Despite such long-running concerns, Beijing was unperturbed by the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan last year. The PRC kept its embassy open through the fall of Kabul, and Beijing has sustained extensive diplomatic contact with the Taliban leadership to safeguard its security, economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan (Global Times, August 17, 2021). In fact, the PRC is seeking to carry out a complex balancing act in Afghanistan. Concerns about Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for extremist groups that could target neighboring states persist, but Beijing also perceives huge opportunities in Afghanistan’s natural resources, markets and potential to serve as a key node linking western China with South and Central Asia. In order to achieve a stable and secure Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which will advance China’s interests throughout Central Asia, Beijing needs a stable Afghanistan.

China and Post-9/11 Afghanistan

The basis of PRC policy toward Afghanistan are the five principles of peaceful coexistence: non-intervention, peaceful co-existence, mutual non-aggression, respect for sovereignty, equality and mutual benefit (FMPRC, July 1, 2014). Moreover, China has economic, security, and strategic equities in Afghanistan, which provide a basis for its involvement in the country. China-Afghanistan relations have generally remained smooth throughout their diplomatic history, except from 1979-1989, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and China refused to recognize the Soviet-installed government. Similarly, Beijing did not recognize the Taliban government from 1996-2001. [1]

Following the September 11 attacks, the U.S. proposed a resolution in the UN Security Council for military action targeting Afghanistan. China favored the resolution, which allowed Washington to move forward with its military campaign. In Beijing’s view, the U.S. toppling the Taliban was beneficial from a security perspective, as under the Taliban, Afghanistan had become a hub for militants, including substantial numbers of Uyghurs from China’s western Xinjiang region. However, from a geopolitical perspective, an entrenched U.S. security presence on China’s western flank was not in the interests of Beijing, which had established good relations with the Taliban. In order to support the peace process in Afghanistan, China hosted several Taliban delegations (Xinhua, July 28, 2021: South China Morning Post [SCMP], June 20, 2019). Moreover, China never used the term “Taliban” while denouncing terrorism and militant activities in Afghanistan. China did not condemn the capture of Kabul and looked instead to continue a smooth relationship with the Taliban. For their part, Taliban leaders have repeatedly made assurances to Beijing not to allow their territory to be used to harm China or its interests (FMPRC, March 25; Guancha, July 28, 2021).

Economic Incentives

Afghanistan is an underdeveloped country with vast natural resources, in particular, lithium, cobalt, copper, gold, natural gas, coal, and oil. The country has 16 trillion cubic feet of gas, 500 billion barrels of liquified natural gas, and 1.6 trillion barrels of crude oil, per the U.S. Geological Survey (IOP, 2020). The total estimated value of Afghanistan’s natural resources is $1 trillion, which was a source of attraction for China after the U.S’s exit (The Times of India, August 25, 2021). Due to its growing domestic energy demand and tight global supplies since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, China is concerned about both energy security and access, and wants to explore new options in addition to producing clean energy (China Daily, August 15). Similarly, Afghanistan is a market for the export of Chinese goods, which further encourages Beijing to remain engaged with the country.

Moreover, given Afghanistan’s geographic location along the BRI, it is a vital state for China’s efforts to develop both Central Asia and its Western territory. As a result, Chinese efforts in the Afghan peace process aimed to foster stability in Afghanistan, which would ultimately serve China’s economic and strategic interests. In a meeting with his counterparts from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “we will jointly build the Belt and Road Initiative, extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, and help Afghanistan participate in regional connectivity” (Global Times, March 31). However, the bigger question is: will the Taliban be able to provide sufficient security to protect Chinese projects and encourage further investment? In addition to facing international isolation, the Taliban government in Kabul is struggling with a feeble economy. In dire straits, the Taliban cannot be picky when it comes to foreign economic and political support. However, the Taliban regime has high expectations for China, which is primarily due to its strategic rivalry with the U.S. Moreover, Beijing is seeking to pave the way for Afghanistan’s inclusion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is often termed the BRI’s flagship mega-project. During Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Afghanistan in late July, he expressed the PRC’s desire to extend the CPEC to Afghanistan (Li Bijian, Twitter, July 29). Nevertheless, Beijing has still displayed a degree of caution in handling the Taliban government and has refrained from providing any economic aid to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

The PRC has not been forthcoming with aid, but Beijing has still sought to economically bolster the Taliban in other ways. For example, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the PRC announced a tariff waiver on 98 percent of Afghan goods (FMPRC July 29). The PRC statement further read: “China hopes to push the alignment of the Belt and Road Initiative with the development strategies of Afghanistan, support the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, and share China’s development opportunities.” China also resumed the issuance of visas to Afghan nationals (Khama Press, July 30).

China’s Security interests in Afghanistan

China has been cautious toward Afghanistan due to concerns that insecurity there could spill over into Xinjiang, which has a large ethnic minority Muslim population that has been subject to increasing state control and repression over the past decade (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 29, 2021). One of the reasons that China supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which began in late 2001, was the activities of militant groups there that threatened China’s security. The U.S. operations and presence in Afghanistan were favorable as this diminished several security threats to the regional countries, including China. At the same time, however, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was a potential threat to China and its interests in Afghanistan. According to Andrew Small, an expert on China’s involvement in South Central Asia at the German Marshall Fund, “The U.S. presence was understood as a geopolitical threat, much like the Soviet military presence in the 1980s, but Beijing had grown to see it as the lesser of two evils.” [2] Hence, the U.S. presence had both merits and drawbacks for China.

Likewise, Beijing is worried about the terrorist spillover into neighboring countries, especially Pakistan, its “all-weather friend” and strategic partner. China has hugely invested in CPEC as a core component of the BRI. However, the Baloch insurgency and the activities of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) pose a serious threat to CPEC projects as well as Chinese nationals (China Brief, July 15). The threat from the Baloch militants intensified this April when a female suicide bomber staged an attack on the Confucius Institute in Karachi, which represented a dramatic shift in  the tactics of the Baloch insurgency (Terrorism Monitor, May 20). For Beijing, the threat to CPEC underscores that its interests entail more than protecting its territory; it also drives home that the PRC has a strong interest in promoting regional security to safeguard its investments, workers and partners. The rise of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the Afghanistan-Pakistan regions are severe concerns for China. [3]

In an effort to mitigate the regional security challenges it faces, Beijing has been constantly engaged with the Taliban since the group established a political office in Doha,Qatar in 2013. A month after the Taliban captured Kabul, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting was held in mid-September 2021, wherein Chinese president Xi Jinping reiterated: “We need to follow the journey of upholding our common security. We need to pursue common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and take tough actions against the “three forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (FMPRC September 17, 2021). Beijing wants to promote a more moderate Taliban in Kabul who can run the country effectively and extricate Afghanistan from its economic crisis through engagement with the outside world. However, promoting a functioning government in Kabul is also motivated by China’s desire to hold the Taliban to its promise not to allow Afghan soil to be used by terrorist and extremist groups. China is reportedly providing drones to the Taliban in order to strengthen their capacity to neutralize their opponents. The risk for China is that the still comparatively radical Taliban will not be able to stabilize Afghanistan politically nor integrate it economically with the world. The Taliban remains a pariah in the west due to its negligence of human rights, including girls’ education and providing safe havens to al-Qaeda, as demonstrated by the U.S. strike in downtown Kabul that killed al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in late July (SCMP, August 2).

China’s Broader Strategic Interests in Afghanistan

China’s engagement with Afghanistan in general, and the Taliban in particular, has intensified over the last decade. China has long promoted economic development as the cornerstone of achieving a peaceful, stable Afghanistan, but its strategic interests in the country cannot be overlooked. China’s strategic interests in Afghanistan are to forestall the country from becoming an arena of geopolitical competition; prevent Afghanistan from falling back into the orbit of the West; and promote stability to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for extremist groups.

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In the long run, China has adopted a diplomatic and developmental posture to secure its strategic interests in Afghanistan. In 2014, China appointed Sun Yuxi as its special envoy for Afghanistan in an effort “to step up the communication with Afghanistan and all parties concerned and safeguard lasting peace, stability and development of Afghanistan and the region.” [4] In October 2014, China hosted the Heart of Asia Conference, a forum to discuss regional issues, especially Afghanistan (FMPRC, July 14, 2014). During the conference, Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed talks among various factions in Afghanistan that could help resolve differences among them. At least in part, China sought to reduce the level of insecurity in Afghanistan so that there was no further justification for the U.S. to remain. Beijing’s frequent hosting of Taliban delegations and support for the Afghan peace process were a part of this strategy to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan. On the other hand, China’s economic aid and investments aim to strengthen its foothold in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, due to its strategic location, Afghanistan has great importance in China’s strategic calculus. Afghanistan is key to China’s Belt and Road Initiative because it lies at the crossroads of three regions: South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East (China Brief, August 17, 2021). Beijing recognizes that its long-term strategic objectives cannot be met unless Afghanistan is stable and peaceful, with an emphasis on economic development. Unlike the West, China has not thrown its weight behind democracy in Afghanistan but does share the international community’s interest in achieving a stable Afghanistan. Beijing recognizes that Afghan society is multi-ethnic, and as a result, an inclusive government with broad support from different ethnic groups is a condition of stability  (China Daily, August 18, 2021).

Conclusion

China’s post-9/11 interest in Afghanistan has intensified since the U.S. departure last year. Much of this interest stems from Beijing’s desire that Afghanistan achieve peace and stability so that it ceases to be a hub for terrorist and militant groups. For its part, the Taliban government has high expectations that China can provide sorely needed economic aid and political support. Moreover, the Taliban expect China to extend diplomatic recognition. Despite the close engagement between the Taliban and China over the last decade, whether such a move is forthcoming is uncertain.

The efforts by China to promote peace over the last decade demonstrate that Beijing understands that a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is integral to its broader political, economic, and strategic interests. [5] However, the current situation in Afghanistan confronts China with both opportunities and challenges, and whether Beijing can succeed, particularly over the long term, in transforming Afghanistan into a peaceful, stable waystation on the Belt and Road, remains to be seen.

By The Jamestown Foundation

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