China is encroaching on the space being vacated by the US in Afghanistan, but familiar challenges remain.
China is playing an increasingly prominent role in Afghanistan as the US withdraws its troops from the country.
– A political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, while unlikely, could give Beijing greater scope to realise its Belt and Road ambitions in Afghanistan
– China risks becoming a target of transnational terrorism as it becomes more involved in Afghanistan’s security and political process
– A power vacuum in Afghanistan may allow groups like the Uyghur East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to consolidate in the country and organise attacks against China or its citizens and interests in the region
– An expansive Chinese role may worsen tensions between Beijing and New Delhi
BEIJING WADES INTO THE AFGHAN QUAGMIRE
In February, the US and NATO allies signed a deal with the Taliban to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in 14 months. The conditions of the deal require the Taliban to begin negotiations with the Afghan government and deny transnational extremist groups from operating in the country. Despite a surge in attacks against the Afghan government by Taliban forces, American troops are pulling out of the country ahead of schedule, leaving a peaceful political settlement in doubt. The Trump administration’s eagerness to substantially withdraw military forces from Afghanistan ahead of the US presidential election in November has opened up space for China to fill the political void.
China is playing an increasingly important role in attempting to reconcile the Taliban and the Afghan government. When President Trump called off peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban in 2019 after an attack left an American soldier dead, Beijing quickly attempted to bring Afghan factions together for negotiations. Taliban officials visited Beijing twice in 2019 for talks, and Beijing has repeatedly urged the two sides to reach a political settlement. The tense current situation is developing as China is deepening its engagement in Afghanistan more broadly. On the security front, China has provided funds to the Afghan government to establish a training camp to counter terrorism in the Wakhan Corridor — a thin strip of inhospitable land that links the two countries — and more recently, China has donated substantial medical assistance to Afghanistan to aid its fight against COVID-19.
SECURING CENTRAL ASIA
A primary motivator of Beijing’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan is securing its restive and geostrategically crucial region of Xinjiang. To combat the real and perceived threat of Uyghur separatism and extremism, China has made use of draconian internment camps to detain and indoctrinate at least one million Uyghurs and individuals of ethnic minorities. Uyghur militants, including the Uyghur East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), are established and active in Afghanistan, and several thousand are estimated to be a part of Al-Qaeda’s global network. To prevent radicalised fighters from flowing across its border, Beijing has established a monitoring post in Tajikistan to monitor the Wakhan Corridor.
China’s concern over instability in Afghanistan is so great that it does not seem to be encouraging a hasty US withdrawal despite the obvious discomfort at the American military presence in a border country. Chinese officials have stressed the importance of withdrawing foreign troops in an appropriate and orderly manner; Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that ‘[t]he US troop withdrawal must proceed in a responsible way without undermining the interests of Afghanistan or other countries in the region.” Some Chinese writers have even suggested the US hopes that Afghan instability spills into Xinjiang to undermine China amid intensifying competition between the two powers.
Beijing’s other geopolitical aim is to tie Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China is already Afghanistan’s largest business investor and Chinese firms own mining rights and natural gas concessions in the country. Chinese and Afghan officials are hailing joint efforts to establish BRI projects, and in the long-term, Beijing hopes to link Central Asia to Pakistan and on to China via a network of highways and railroads across Afghanistan.
BEIJING’S DELICATE BALANCING ACT
Expect Beijing to continue to cultivate ties with both the Afghan government and the Taliban, closely monitor the conflict and bolster counter-terrorism efforts in the country. China has provided tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Afghan government to shore up its counter-terror capacities and is likely to continue using multilateral institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to provide training and unite Central Asian allies in countering transnational terror — even if those counterterrorism forces are used as coercive branches of government.
While China recognises the enormous potential of harnessing Afghanistan’s natural resources and integrating it into the BRI, Chinese diplomats and strategists stress that preventing attacks against China from Afghanistan is Beijing’s top priority. If political relations between the Taliban and Afghan government continue to deteriorate, extremist groups like the ETIM may consolidate their position in the country and pose a threat to Chinese citizens and property in the region. However, Beijing is scathing in its critiques of the US-led military debacle in Afghanistan and is adamantly opposed to repeating the Soviet and American experiences in militarily occupying the “graveyard of empires.” Many Chinese experts are sceptical that the US would fully withdraw from Afghanistan after 19 years of fighting and $2 trillion spent on the conflict. Therefore, China is likely to increase its activity in monitoring terrorism and drug trafficking in Afghanistan and work with local partners to counter these threats, but there is little chance that the People’s Liberation Army will play a significant role in the country.
The regressing security situation in Afghanistan poses a threat to relations between China, Pakistan and India. The US presence in Afghanistan allowed India to invest in that country, and New Delhi has a substantial interest in keeping the Afghan government in power. The US-Taliban peace deal has undoubtedly increased the odds of the Taliban at least partially governing the country, and factions of the militant organisation like the Haqqani group have close ties with Pakistan and are suspected of organising terror attacks against India. China’s increasing ties with the Taliban and participation in the Afghan political scene could lead to diplomatic crises if groups under the Taliban umbrella conduct attacks against India.
Beijing is stepping into a literal minefield in Afghanistan. The American drawdown in Afghanistan presents it with the opportunity to increase its regional presence and expand the BRI in South and Central Asia. However, by becoming involved, China may become the target of extremist groups and could ultimately worsen already tense relations with India.