What are China and Russia up to in Afghanistan?

Posted: November 5, 2021 in Nikkei Asia Review
Tags: , , , , ,

Another post from last month now to catch up on, looking this time at the question of how China and Russia might or might not be cooperating in Afghanistan for the excellent Nikkei Asia Review. It is a broader question which merits closer examination, and should the time emerge I hope to be able to dig into it. Some of the questions raised have touched on elsewhere and will feature in my upcoming book.

What are China and Russia up to in Afghanistan?

A coordinated pattern of engagement is starting to emerge

Members of the Taliban delegation, including its head Abdul Salam Hanafi, Afghan acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and representative of the Taliban political office Anas Haqqani, attend a media briefing following international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on Wednesday.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

When Russia hosted a meeting with senior Taliban leaders in Moscow this week — after both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping sent junior deputies to an earlier G-20 leaders’ meeting on Afghanistan — it raised the question of whether this is part of a broader strategic plan for how Beijing and Moscow plan to work together on the world stage.

Afghanistan represents something of a paradox for both China and Russia. Though fearful of the large American military presence that was on their doorsteps, Moscow and Beijing were secretly happy that Washington was taking responsibility for the security situation on the ground.

Now, irritated at the mess the U.S. has left behind, China and Russia have decided that the way forward is to engage with the Taliban and explore options together. Both engaged publicly with the Taliban long before Kabul fell, and both have left a substantial diplomatic presence since the Taliban took over. At the United Nations, Russia and China have both pushed for Taliban sanctions to be lifted, something highlighted during this week’s Moscow Summit.

China has strengthened its small base in Tajikistan, undertaking a number of bilateral exercises with Tajik special forces, and the Russians have bolstered the Tajik armed forces as well as strengthened their own 7,000-strong military presence there and participated in larger regional exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

But it is hard to tell how many of these actions are coordinated, with some reports hinting at Moscow’s frustration at the lack of cooperation with Beijing on the ground in Tajikistan. At the other end of the scale, both have engaged in regular large-scale joint military exercises on Russian soil, including regular exercises overseen by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Eurasian security pact that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

This year’s SCO Peace Mission counterterrorism exercise was specifically referred to as relevant to Afghanistan in the Russian media. Chinese media was more circumspect about the links to Afghanistan, but few could miss the connection. It was made particularly explicit during meetings, held shortly before Kabul fell, between the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military grouping that brings together a range of former Soviet forces.

On the ground in Kabul, there are some divergences. Early on, China and Russia worked together both out front and behind the scenes to try to influence the Taliban government to be inclusive. Russia now seems to have stepped back, while Beijing has leaned in, with China’s ambassador to Afghanistan making loud declarations of aid, then holding a floodlit ceremony at the airport to celebrate its arrival and then present it to his Afghan counterpart.

China has also proven willing to entertain Taliban entreaties for investment. Chinese companies responsible for two large mining projects that had come to a standstill under the previous government are now — at the Taliban’s urging — exploring whether they can restart operations. Discussions are also underway to reopen an air transport corridor with China to facilitate the export of pine nuts, though it is unclear who is going to subsidize the transport costs.

Moscow has not sought to match or offer assistance on any of these actions, instead deciding to restart a parallel international engagement track with the Taliban and other regional partners (including China) and pushing to get the US and west to foot the bill for any reconstruction. This is a way of trying to again influence the Taliban to moderate their behavior and actually build an inclusive government of some sort.

Both Beijing and Moscow recognize that this is going to be a more stable structure, but it seems Moscow is more willing to actually try to do something about it.

The multipoint proposals that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi put on the table at the G-20 summit earlier this month were a largely repetitive statement of the obvious: no terrorists from Afghan soil, humanitarian support, no sanctions against the Taliban government. Russian envoy Zamir Kabulov’s contribution showed a far more nuanced and targeted understanding of what needs to be achieved. His tough but engaging diplomacy reflects his long personal history on the issue.

What is missing from all of this is clarity of what division of labor that might exist between Beijing and Moscow. China appears to be publicly hugging the Taliban tighter, while it seems that Moscow is keeping them at one remove.

In turn, Moscow appears to be leading when it comes to the international engagement and recognition that the Taliban crave. On the ground, it is Russia that is providing hard security guarantees in Central Asia and leading on the military exercises. But ultimately it is Chinese investment that everyone is looking for — even though money has been limited, with the spigot unlikely to open up very soon.

It is possible that this is also an echo of the roles that China and Russia see for each other on the world stage. Beijing will use its financial resources to win friends and influence while Russia plays the aggressive leader willing to take risks and provide security backstops.

Russia can benefit from leveraging China’s potential as an investor to get the Taliban to act, while Beijing can step behind Russia when it comes to sharper points of difference. To use a musical analogy, maybe Moscow is the showy frontman while Beijing is providing the deep bass backup that keeps everyone dancing.

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