Why China cannot afford to take a passive role in post-US Afghanistan

Posted: July 1, 2021 in South China Morning Post
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Have now come to the end (I think) of the current China-Eurasia writing spell. Next few will likely go back looking at terrorism. The past burst was in part inspired by events (the US withdrawal announcement of Afghanistan as well as the SCO’s 20th birthday) and by the fact that I was doing some revisions on my upcoming book on the topic. This particular piece is for the South China Morning Post, and explores the fact that China has really not stepped into its possible role in Afghanistan. To those who have read other work I have done (everyone of course!), they will know I think this is a role China should be taking and have pushed a number of projects, papers and ideas that try to help this thinking along. Notwithstanding broader concerns around China, it seems to me they should be playing a more positive role in Afghanistan and it is huge loss to the region and Afghans in particular that they do not.

Have not done a media catch up for a while, so here’s a quick sweep. On the China side, spoke to the Guardian about NATO’s China push, to the Straits Times about China-Russia, RFE/RL’s China in Eurasia Briefing picked up my Oxus piece about the SCO’s 20th birthday, The National picked up my comments during the launch of the NATO Defence College paper on Afghanistan and regional powers, and on the terrorism side, spoke to the excellent Lizzie Dearden at the Independent at the end of the Fishmonger’s Hall inquest about ISIS claims, my comments on Maajid’s LBC show were picked up by the Daily Express, and spoke to The National about the big Global Counter-ISIS Coalition meeting taking place in Rome this past week.

Why China cannot afford to take a passive role in post-US Afghanistan

  • There appears to be little evidence supporting Taliban assurances that trouble will not spill over onto Chinese soil
  • China has spent many years hedging on Afghanistan but it needs to take steps to support the government in Kabul and visibly deploy more resources
Afghan militia members join Afghan defence and security forces during a gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 23. Photo: AP

China appears remarkably sanguine about the growing trouble in Afghanistan. The assumption that a government led or dominated by the Taliban will be a reliable partner is something Beijing has regretted in the past, and could end up ruing again. 

There is some consistency in China’s relations with Afghanistan. Beijing has been unwilling to commit to much, yet has sought to do a lot. Its economic projects have never quite got off the ground, while political mediation efforts have at best added to the noise.

There is no denying the effort, but it would be better if China actually followed through on all its promises with action. Instead, Beijing seems willing to let fate take its course and watch the Taliban come to power.

Media reports have indicated China has received assurances that a Taliban government would be sure to insulate Beijing from problems that might emanate from Afghan territory. China has also made a display of showing support for the administration of President Ashraf Ghani and significant factions within it.

These assurances have been backstopped by an increased security buffer around the Wakhan Corridor, as well as Pakistani assurances of being able to rein in any potential trouble.

Yet, what evidence is there that such assurances have worked in the past? Previously, in 2000, a Chinese delegation visiting Afghanistan, then under Taliban rule, and discovered a large contingent of Uygurs in Jalalabad. They were said to be linked to separatists seeking to strike inside China.

While the delegation appealed to the Taliban authorities to expel them, there is no clear evidence that this happened. Those particular groups may have been moved, but repeated independent reports from other foreign fighters who attended al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan later on highlighted the presence of Uygurs. 

When presenting its case for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation linked to al-Qaeda in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Chinese government pointed to the fact the group had launched attacks against China from Afghan bases. 

Since then, al-Qaeda has begun to champion a narrative of targeting China. It has praised Uygur militants for their battlefield actions and sought to harness some of the global anger against China for its treatment of Uygur minorities at home.

This might seem unsurprising, but it is an about-turn for al-Qaeda. In the late 1990s, it refused to even accept there were Uygur militants at its training camps and openly speculated that China might be an ally in its global struggle against the United States. 

There appears to be little evidence of a focus of violence towards China, but this is mainly because there are more attractive targets in the West. Above all, Beijing should be aware that there is little to show the Taliban has recanted or rejected al-Qaeda, or that al-Qaeda has been expelled from its territory.

While the US might be willing to accept Taliban assurances about ensuring violence does not reach American soil or that of its allies, the US intelligence community has also concluded al-Qaeda is no longer a direct threat. Afghanistan is far away, in any case, but China is next door and has a very different stake in this game. 

The current narrative from Beijing seems to be one of accepting the inevitable and blaming everything on America. The US might not have handled the situation entirely successfully but, for two decades, it has invested billions of dollars and used its hard and soft power to improve Afghanistan, something Beijing has profited from.

To simply point to American failings and apportion blame fits a tidy narrative. However, by not offering an alternative, China is failing in its duty as a rising power and also doing little to address its security issues. 

In contrast to 2012, when the US announced a major withdrawal from Afghanistan, it hasn’t engaged with China as much this time. This path was somewhat determined by former president Donald Trump’s administration when he pushed through a decision to remove ETIM from the list of proscribed terrorist organisations.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has followed through on this and, to China’s chagrin, has moved ahead without engaging Beijing on its decisions about Afghanistan. 

So, tensions are understandable, but this should not be the context in which Beijing makes its plans. Rather, China should consider that it now faces an unstable country on its border, which will pose a risk to many of its neighbours.

China has shown an interest in playing a role but never really stepped into it. Milquetoast promises are not going to suffice at this point. China should take on a more proactive role in supporting the government in Kabul and visibly deploy more resources to help out.

China has spent many years hedging on Afghanistan. The time has come to make a play and ensure the long-term stability of one of its most troubled neighbours.

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

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