China in Afghanistan: The Year of Moving Gradually

Posted: September 25, 2022 in Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale
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Still working through the backlog, this time a piece for the excellent Italian think tank ISPI on the anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul looking at the China-Afghanistan relationship. Lots more on this topic to come.

China in Afghanistan: The Year of Moving Gradually

Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 created a problem for China on the border of one of its most volatile regions in Xinjiang. While Beijing was not always entirely enthusiastic about a US military presence on its border, it could see the benefits of having someone else take on the security burden. It even went so far as to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan – something which stood in stark contrast to the rest of its relationship with the US. The Taliban takeover forced some re-calculations, and while Beijing has visibly leaned into its relationship with the new rulers in Kabul, the thrust of the engagement has remained not dissimilar to how Beijing was engaging with the Republic.

China’s primary preoccupation with Afghanistan has always been security. Beijing’s enduring fear is that the country becomes a base from which its enemies can plot against them. This has tended to focus on fears of Uyghur militants using the country to create instability in Xinjiang, a concern that persists, but has now been joined by a growing fear that other adversaries might seek to use Afghanistan as a base to target China or its interests in the wider region.

Under the Republic government, Beijing was relatively content with the security relationship it had in this regard. From the Republic government’s perspective, the Uyghur militants fighting alongside the Taliban were no allies of theirs and they were happy to hunt them down. Even the United States targeted them alongside the Taliban.

The Taliban takeover in Kabul has complicated this picture for Beijing. In the early days, the Taliban seem to have failed to keep control of a group of some 30 Uyghur militants the Republic was holding in prison who were freed when the Taliban emptied the prisons they found. While the Taliban have continued to say they will not let their country be used as a base for militant activities against others, it is clear that Uyghur militants under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) continue to gather there. In the most recent display, leader Abdul Haq showed himself celebrating Eid in the country alongside a few dozen allies and their family members. A report from the UN Monitoring Group in February highlighted member state reporting that there were some 200-700 fighters associated with TIP in Afghanistan. The report suggested that they had been moved from Badakhshan to Baghlan, a decision that was in other reporting meant to have been stimulated by Chinese sensitivities.

The most recent Monitoring report from July, however, suggested elements close the group had already disregarded this Taliban request and re-established a footprint in Badakhshan, including strengthening relationships with Tajikistan focused group Jamaat Ansarullah as well as the Pakistani focused Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This last element is particularly worrying for China as it illustrates a larger problem for China that has sharpened in the past year – the growing targeting of China by an ever-widening range of militant groups in the region.

Pakistan is the biggest locus of this threat, with the threat picture towards China widening from mostly separatist groups (Balochi and Sindhi’s) to now TTP and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) seeming to target China. In October 2021, ISKP deployed a Uyghur bomber to target a Shia Mosque in Kunduz, making specific reference to the Taliban’s cooperation with China in their claim of responsibility. ISKP’s propaganda has continued to highlight China as an enemy. July’s UN Monitoring report highlighted one member state reporting that some 50 Uyghurs had reportedly defected from TIP to join ISKP.

All of this serves to highlight the very different security support that China gets from the new leadership in Kabul. While there have been persistent rumours of China seeking to develop security relations with the Taliban – including being involved in meetings between Chinese, Pakistani and Taliban intelligence – very little public evidence has emerged of security contacts. It is also notable that while China is seemingly of greater interest to apparently much freer militant groups in Afghanistan, we have not seen reports of Chinese interests or nationals being directly targeted in the country.

This comes at the same time as China’s visible presence in Afghanistan has increased. Since the Taliban takeover, China has sent vaccine aid, earthquake relief, food aid (around the country, from the central government in Beijing, regional governments and companies). Chinese companies have returned to discuss possible projects, as well as explore new ones. This has come in the form of large state-owned enterprises that have long engaged in the country, as well as new ones exploring opportunities. Very little of this has so far actually moved forwards, though there has been a notable surge in low level Chinese entrepreneurs and businessmen exploring opportunities in the country.

At a more tactical level, the government has supported the re-establishment of a pine nut air corridor to enable Afghan farmers to sell their products directly to the Chinese consumer market. They have also talked about finding ways of encouraging greater volume of sales of Afghan gemstones, saffron, almonds, fruits and other products. They have said they would drop tariffs on goods to zero, and re-started visas for Afghans eager to travel to China. They have spoken of linking Afghanistan up to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and of finding ways of integrating the country into the wider regional connectivity boom.

But while all of this is very positive, very little of it is entirely new. And it is unclear how quickly the big-ticket state-owned enterprise led projects will take to get going. All of these other pieces of the economic pie are positive, but ultimately quite limited: the long-term answer to stability in the Afghan economic situation comes from large-scale investment. And so far, it is not clear that China is pushing this that rapidly ahead. Whilst the Tunxi Initiative that Beijing pushed out (as part of a much wider set of regional engagements which built on the web of minilateral institutions that China has fostered across Eurasia) was high on positive sentiment towards engagement and encouraging regional connectivity with Afghanistan, it is not clear what metrics were established to move things forwards.

China’s increased activity in many ways is a reflection of the fact that China is one of the few big players still visibly present in Afghanistan. The western withdrawal left a gap which has highlighted more clearly China’s activity (in the absence of everything else). But it is not clear how much it has materially changed or increased to the level the Taliban government want. They continue to court multiple actors, and are eager to get projects going, but with the Chinese ones at least, still finding many of the same problems that the Republic government encountered. It is not impossible that the problems will eventually become unblocked, but it is clear that at the moment, there is still a sense of hesitation and uncertainty about what is actually going to happen on the ground and how much the Taliban are really in control of the entire country.

Where China has been far happier is in terms of using Afghanistan as a stick with which to rhetorically beat the Americans on the world stage. Highlighting the fact that their planes are bringing aid to Afghanistan, while the US is bringing more weapons to Ukraine. They continue to advocate for the US to unblock the Afghan government money which is tied up abroad, and call for the US to step back to fix the situation on the ground, blaming them for everything that has happened. While this is not an entirely surprising narrative given the global context, it is in fact a true shame for Afghanistan, which used to shine as a beacon of cooperation between the US and China. Great power conflict has quite clearly been brought back to the country.

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