Time for China to stop hedging its bets in Afghanistan

Posted: August 30, 2021 in South China Morning Post
Tags: , , , , , ,

More catching up from what has been a busy period for short pieces. There are some longer ones in the pipeline which will eventually land as well as the book early next week. This was for the South China Morning Post exploring the missed opportunities of China’s engagement with Afghanistan.

Time for China to stop hedging its bets in Afghanistan

  • The flak Beijing has drawn for its Taliban engagement is not just unfair but also misses the point. If China’s Afghan strategy is to be faulted, it’s for doing too little
  • China has the influence and tools – not to mention incentive, as Afghanistan’s neighbour – to take a leading role in fostering peace
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

Now that Kabul has fallen, there is a growing narrative about Afghanistan that China is siding with the Taliban in some sort of nightmarish new alignment. The truth is that Beijing has been engaging with the Taliban in the same way that everyone has.

It is difficult to understand why we should condemn China for meeting publicly a group that the United States had earlier bolstered with meetings and a formal agreement in Doha. And it is not the only one.

Where China could be accused of failing Afghanistan is in not stepping forward to take a more proactive role in fostering an agreement, rather than simply waiting for some resolution to work itself out through bloodshed. As it turns out, this is also an echo of the approach Washington has decided to take.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood is not new. It has existed since before the September 11 attacks, growing in fits and starts.

The exaggerated narratives around Chinese potential economic plundering of Afghanistan have not played out as predicted. This, it should be noted, is much to the chagrin of the former government in Kabul, which would have loved to get the tax and investment benefits from the exploitation of the country’s natural wealth.

The Belt and Road Initiative is still a concept in Afghanistan, rather than something tangible. China has strategic and economic investments in almost all surrounding countries, but surprisingly limited investment in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, China has largely hedged. It developed relations with the Afghan government and various factions and groups on the ground. It has strengthened its direct contacts with the Taliban rather than relying solely on Pakistan to provide the connections. And it has strengthened its direct and indirect borders with Afghanistan to create a security buffer around the Wakhan Corridor.

All of this is a reflection that Beijing does not trust the Taliban any more than the US or anyone else does.

In direct security terms, Beijing has provided some military aid and support, but not much and largely non-lethal. Chinese views on the US presence have oscillated between a sense of concern that the US had active military bases on its borders to a secret sense of gratitude that the US was fighting a conflict it did not have to worry about.

The one constant in Chinese engagement has been a focus on Uygur militancy, and fears that Afghanistan could be used as a base to strike within Xinjiang. While Beijing’s views about who is supporting these Uygur fighters seem to have shifted over time, and there are questions about the scale and scope of the actual threat, it is an undeniably constant concern that China articulates at every juncture.

This is often its main point of discussion when it focuses on Afghanistan. And it is likely to be the primary concern that Beijing worries about now it has new interlocutors in Kabul.

Beijing has also engaged in multilateral diplomacy of all kinds. It has played a limited role in some of the larger international engagements around Afghanistan, offering some support and money during international donor aid rounds.

It has fostered regional multilateral engagements, and has used Afghanistan as a point of engagement with its adversaries – both Washington and New Delhi, for example, have run training programmes for Afghan officials jointly with Beijing.

And, outside direct engagement, China has tried to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to play a more substantial role in Afghanistan. It helped bring the country in as an observer member and fostered the creation of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. What this SCO action might look like in practice is unclear, but it is something that China has continually pushed.

But this also highlights the real failure of Chinese engagement in Afghanistan. Beijing has, sadly, not stepped in to take a more prominent and leadership role when it could have tried and clearly has all the links and tools in place to do so.

Beijing is ultimately going to be Afghanistan’s most powerful and influential neighbour. Pakistan may have deeper ties on the ground, but Islamabad is highly dependent on Beijing and likely to be even more so going forward.

Iran and Central Asia have also made large bets on Chinese economic partnership. China is now going to be seen as the major power across a wide swathe of the Eurasian heartland.

With all these connections, power and influence, China should logically have been a greater leader in Kabul. Admittedly, Afghanistan is a difficult country and China has little experience in conflict resolution of this sort, but it could have been hoped that it would have taken a more proactive role in a country with which it shares a border.

There will doubtless be a certain amount of joy in Beijing as the narrative is advanced that Washington is leaving from China’s neighbourhood with its tail between its legs.

And Chinese officials will seek to play up the idea that this is the end of Pax Americana and a further demonstration of American fecklessness, something they will use in their larger narratives of confrontation with the US. But the US and the West were at least trying to bolster Afghanistan and help it transform.

Pre-eminent in Beijing’s concerns should have been the realisation that, while America may have played a role in making this mess, it is China that will have to live next to it at the end of the day.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s