How US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers promise and peril for China

Posted: May 3, 2021 in South China Morning Post
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Some more late posting on a subject been doing a lot of work on this year China in Afghanistan, this time for the South China Morning Post. Have a longer paper on this landing soon, and there is a whole chapter in my upcoming book which draws on some time I spent there a while ago. This is going to be an important year for Afghanistan, let us hope things go well for everybody there.

How US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers promise and peril for China

  • The balance in Afghanistan seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge for China as the geopolitical equation changes
  • Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid pitfalls, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland
US Marines patrol as they clear improvised explosive devices in Trikh Nawar on the outskirts of Marjah, Afghanistan, on February 21, 2010. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden’s decision for the US to leave Afghanistan is both a challenge and an opportunity for China. On the opportunity side, China rids itself of worrying US military bases near its border. On the challenge side, it leaves open the question of who will deal with the instability that might grow in Afghanistan.

China still lacks the hard power to do this itself, and it is unclear whether Afghan forces can deliver such security assurances. None of this is new for Beijing, but the balance now seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge.

China has long worried about instability from Afghanistan, but more indirectly than directly. This is based on an understanding of the region – the Taliban has not been known to attack north into Central Asia and are wary about irritating supporters in Pakistan – as well as the fact that Afghanistan’s border with China is remote and fairly firmly secured.

There is always the fear that Afghanistan could be a base from which trouble can brew, though. Militants who want to launch attacks elsewhere might see Afghanistan as a convenient home from which to operate. We have seen this play out with al-Qaeda and are seeing hints of it with Islamic State forces. China is worried Afghanistan might become a staging point for Uygur militants.

Since President Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang in 2014, there has been an increase in Chinese security attention on the border with Afghanistan to mitigate this risk. This was in part driven by the declaration that the US was leaving Afghanistan.

Beijing has supported border forces in Tajikistan and Pakistan, and it has worked with Afghan security forces to strengthen their side of the Wakhan Corridor. It has developed deeper relations with Afghanistan’s security apparatus, strengthening political links and providing support to build bases.

From Beijing’s perspective, this is a relatively small and tight seal at the moment, though complacency in these cases is lethal.

Afghan security officials appear conscious of these concerns. They continue to refer to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a potential danger, to soothe Chinese worries and as a snub to the US, which has removed the ETIM from its list of terrorist organisations.

In other words, Afghan leaders are referring to a specific threat the US says does not exist. Additionally, the Taliban has shown itself willing to engage with Beijing and mentioned a willingness to provide protection for infrastructure being built in Afghanistan.

Having covered security up to a point, China has the opportunity side to consider. The often overplayed economic opportunities are not the biggest prize, as basic economic geography dictates that China will be a major beneficiary of Afghanistan’s resources. Their slow uptake so far is a reflection of Afghanistan’s complexities rather than Chinese appetite.

From Beijing’s perspective, the removal of a US military base from its backyard as relations with the US become testier is a relief. There was always secret gratitude that the US was in Afghanistan, dealing with the Taliban and other worrying groups, but this was balanced by Beijing’s principal adversary operating in its backyard.

Now that this is gone, China has a clear sweep across the Eurasian heartland. With Iran and Russia as anti-American brackets on the other side of Central Asia, Beijing has geopolitical sway over the entire region. With India and Pakistan growing closer and New Delhi willing to step back from the brink along the Sino-Indian border, China finds itself comfortably placed in Eurasia.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes these countries as members or observers, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The SCO has been derided as a do-nothing entity, but the American withdrawal leaves a hole the China-led grouping is well-placed to fill.

This is not to say the SCO will deploy in force. Instead, it provides China with an existing framework to play a role in determining the region’s future.

The problem for Beijing is this role comes with responsibilities and issues that China has repeatedly failed to figure out how to address. The Taliban is not a responsible player and, like everyone else, Beijing will be sceptical about any assurances it receives.

At the same time, none of the other SCO members are enamoured by Chinese power or aspire to it; rather, they fear it. Governance by fear might be effective, but it leaves you exposed if those powers are presented with other options. Russia and Iran, for example, would probably turn on China if the West abruptly shifted its posture towards them. 

None of this appears to unduly concern China. It is focused on highlighting American behaviour and spreading conspiratorial narratives about the US using Afghanistan as a base to mobilise Uygurs to attack China.

It is going to get dragged into regional geopolitics in the longer term, though, and while China has managed to avoid such clashes so far, it will eventually have to make some hard choices.

Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid such forks in the road, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland. China might enjoy the American withdrawal from Afghanistan but, in the longer term, the scales might tip more towards challenge than opportunity.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

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