Afghanistan shows the limits of China’s Belt and Road

Posted: October 1, 2022 in Nikkei Asia Review
Tags: , , , ,

As the anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Kabul took place, did a bunch of work around what China has been doing and achieved during this first year. This first piece is for Nikkei, with a few more coming.

Afghanistan shows the limits of China’s Belt and Road

Despite its engagement with the Taliban, Beijing is unable to reach its goals

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, stands next to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, acting deputy prime minister of the Afghan Taliban’s caretaker government, in Kabul on Mar. 24: There is little trust in China on the Taliban side.   © Xinhua/AP

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.” (Oxford University Press)

A decade ago, Peking University international studies professor Wang Jisi set the conceptual foundation for what would become the Belt and Road Initiative with an essay called “Marching Westwards.”

In it, Wang decried the excessive focus of Chinese foreign policy on Washington and the Asia-Pacific region, highlighting instead the opportunities and threats along China’s western land borders.

Billions of dollars of BRI plans and projects later, though, China remains as obsessed with Washington and the Asia-Pacific as ever. At the same time, the limits of its foreign policy capabilities are coming into stark relief in Afghanistan.

Among Afghanistan’s neighbors, none have engaged more visibly with the Taliban regime that took power a year ago than China.

Its Kabul embassy has led Beijing’s diplomatic push, which has helped get Taliban officials included in various regional forums. Chinese institutions have extended millions of dollars in aid while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing has been a leading voice in calling for Washington to release $7 billion in frozen Afghan central bank funds. In general, Beijing rarely wastes an opportunity to condemn the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces last year and contrast it with China’s own contributions.

Yet all of this positive engagement has not advanced the goals Beijing actually wants to achieve.

Beijing hoped that the Taliban would form a broad-based government whose inclusiveness would support regime stability, but instead a single faction dominates the new administration.

The Taliban has failed to hand over Uyghur fighters as Beijing wanted or apparently even to curtail their activity within the country. Efforts to rein in militant groups seeking to undermine the Pakistani government, such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, have been limited. Indeed, the TTP appears to have offered training to Balochi separatists and other militants who are targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan. On top of that, the Taliban has confounded expectations by actively courting New Delhi.

The one lever Beijing has to play in Afghanistan is economic investment, but so far, it is not clear that it quite knows how to use that to advance its goals. There has been a surge of Chinese businessmen and traders going into Afghanistan, but this is most likely simply the result of entrepreneurs sensing an opportunity amid the decline in violence since the Taliban ousted the previous U.S.-backed government.

Growth in direct trade has been limited so far, and China’s big state-owned enterprises are treading carefully. The complete lack of infrastructure or managerial capability on the Afghan side limits their ambition, alongside concerns about what they might be getting themselves into.

In fact, economic activity may prove to be a millstone for Beijing. China could end up finding that the perceived economic engagement that it could offer Afghanistan will be seen as a silver-bullet solution to the country’s problems, raising expectations of what China can offer the country beyond what is actually possible.

The Belt and Road Initiative was always an ill-fit for Afghanistan. Most BRI maps showed routes running westward from China going around the country.

What BRI activity in Afghanistan could look like now is even harder to imagine at a moment when the wider narrative around the program is turning to ensuring returns on investment and focusing on viable opportunities. The most obvious link would be to build connections between the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Afghanistan, but this would require better relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

It is also clear that there is little trust in China on the Taliban side. Some Taliban factions are resisting any moves to curtail Uyghur militants who have given the movement support. Some are concerned about Beijing’s closeness to Islamabad. Incoming Chinese traders are often seen in a suspicious light too.

There may be a lot of noise around the potential opportunities China offers, but this is likely increasingly matched by skepticism about how much might actually materialize.

All of this is quite a turnaround for Beijing. Prior to the Taliban takeover, China enjoyed a far more propitious environment and government in Kabul.

While it was clear that trust levels were low and declining in the months before the government’s fall, there was at least a counterparty Beijing could deal with which would target militants it did not like.

Afghanistan used to be a place where China could run joint projects with India, the U.S. and others. Now instead, Afghanistan is increasingly seen through the light of great power competition as merely another place where Washington and its proxies might undermine Chinese interests.

The poor hand China has to play was most vividly articulated recently by the U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. To some degree, China had previously been able to count on Washington acting as a backstop for problems in Afghanistan, with U.S. forces even launching airstrikes on the Taliban’s Uyghur allies as a common enemy.

The U.S. still has enemies in Afghanistan and, as was seen with the death of al-Zawahri, the capability to do something about them, even in Beijing’s backyard, while China lacks these same kinetic tools and capabilities to go after its adversaries.

A decade on from the birth of the BRI concept, Afghanistan highlights Beijing’s difficulty in using its development model as a foreign policy concept to be replicated around the world. It also illustrates the limits of Chinese power projection and its ability to generate change on the ground abroad.

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