Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Another piece on Afghanistan, this time for RUSI looking through the lens of Central Asia to understand better how the region is worrying about what is going on and trying to engage with major powers to mitigate its risks. Been doing quite a bit on Afghanistan in its region of late, and a few more short pieces to come, as well as (hopefully!) some longer ones. All of this of course helps tee things up for the book early next year. As ever, comments, thoughts, criticisms, and more welcome!

Central Asia and Afghanistan: Old Fears, Old Actors, New Games

The countries of Central Asia have reason to be concerned about Afghanistan in the wake of the Western withdrawal. Yet it remains unclear how they will mitigate the security risks, and what major power support to do this might look like.

Leaders attending the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China in June 2018 pose for a group photo. Courtesy of Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo


Just over 20 years ago, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded, with mitigating risks from Afghanistan as one of its key objectives. In his opening comments at the first session, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan characterised the country as ‘the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism’. Two decades later, security concerns around Afghanistan remain alive and well in Central Asia. This was evident recently in Tashkent, as Uzbekistan hosted a major summit focused on Central and South Asian connectivity. One of the first large-scale international events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, much of its focus was on Afghanistan, a country which ties the two regions together.

Traditionally, international attention towards Afghanistan has tended to focus on its southern border, given the Taliban’s deep links with Pakistan, as well as the Pashtun communities that tie the two countries together across the still ill-defined border. The attacks of 11 September 2001 brought the focus of international terrorism concerns to Afghanistan. Yet long before 2001, Central Asia had many reasons to worry about security threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The five-year Tajik Civil War which raged during the 1990s was in part fuelled by groups operating out of bases in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan was invaded by militants linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the summer of 1999 and 2000. And in February 1999, a series of six car bombs in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent killed 13 people. All of the networks and groups behind these incidents had links to Afghanistan, highlighting President Nazarbayev’s concern over the country, and providing an animating issue for the SCO to group around.

Yet, despite the SCO being created as a vehicle which could – among other things – help coordinate a response to the problems emanating from Afghanistan, the organisation did nothing. In fact, following the September 11 attacks and the abrupt US return to the region, the Central Asian members quite rapidly pivoted to support the renewed US push into Afghanistan. US bases were welcomed into the region, to veiled scepticism in Beijing and Moscow. And for two decades, the SCO did very little practically in support of Afghanistan.

China’s Stake

This was not for want of China trying. Beijing sought to push the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, bringing the country into the organisation as an observer member and fostering the creation of an SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group. But these efforts achieved little. Ultimately, Beijing lost its patience and ended up doing more bilaterally with various partners around Afghanistan than through the SCO.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of the region again served to highlight this approach. He attended an SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, stopped off in Tashkent for a regional security conference organised by the Uzbeks, and completed his tour in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. At each stop he held high-level bilateral engagements and talked about working together on Afghanistan in vague terms, focusing on border security, cooperation and working towards an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution. No clear or new answers were proffered within or outside the SCO format.

US Involvement

At the same time, the US has participated in a series of engagements in the region. On the fringes of the Tashkent conference, the US held the latest C5+1 format session, bringing together the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries and the senior US representative attending the conference. The final statement emerging from the meeting focused heavily on Afghanistan, highlighting a desire to encourage trade links, improve regional connectivity with Afghanistan, and ensure that the country would not be a threat to the C5+1 or others.

Eager to highlight its particular brand of diplomatic nous, Uzbekistan also managed to work with the US to establish a new regional Quad grouping of Afghanistan–Pakistan–US–Uzbekistan to support an ‘Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement’. What this all means in practical terms, however, remains unclear, with many of the statements repeating what has been seen and heard before. The US is a major investor in Central Asia, but it demonstrates little committed strategic attention in a region where high-level geopolitics is the order of the day.

… And Russia

Not to be left behind, Russia has also stepped into the game, generously offering to let the US have access to its bases in the region – a move that highlights Moscow’s habit of forgetting that the Central Asian states are now independent. But at the same time, Russia announced military drills with Uzbek and Tajik forces near the two states’ respective borders with Afghanistan, something the Central Asians have welcomed. They have deep historical links to Russian security forces, and Tajikistan hosts a base, Kyrgyzstan an airfield and Kyrgyzstan a missile testing range used by Russian forces. In the wake of the recent escalation in fighting in Afghanistan, Tajikistan called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian construct which seeks to retain some of the security links that existed during Soviet times – to come to its aid. While it is not clear whether the entity itself will respond, Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to come to Dushanbe’s aid, boosting its capabilities in particular at its military base in the country near the border with Afghanistan.

Rising Concerns

As the fighting in Afghanistan gradually moves closer to its neighbours’ borders, Central Asian concerns are increasing. In early July, hundreds of Afghan soldiers and some civilians fled across the border into Tajikistan. The Tajiks let them in, though they ultimately repatriated some of them. In Uzbekistan a similar scene played out, though the Uzbeks were much faster in turning border-crossers around. In Turkmenistan, fighting at the border became so bad that shells started to land in Turkmen territory, leading senior Turkmen officials to reach out to the Taliban to try to bring an end to the fighting.

Prior to this, the region had been somewhat unclear in its response to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. It had sought to engage with both the Taliban and the government in Kabul, though with varying degrees of publicity. The Tajik government has played a major diplomatic role this past year, hosting high-level sessions of the SCO, the CSTO and the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process – a Turkish-Afghan initiative seeking to focus on Afghanistan’s regional connections as the answer to its long-term problems. Meanwhile, the recent summit in Tashkent is the latest effort by the new government in Uzbekistan to try to tie Afghanistan closer to Central Asia, and Kazakhstan has sought to initiate other regional diplomatic engagements as well. But through all of this, it is not clear that the region has developed a firm plan for how it will manage the potential chaos in Afghanistan in the future.

While all the Central Asian countries now seem to agree that Afghanistan is a key part of their region, they do not seem quite as clear on how to deal with it collectively. Their continuing need and desire to engage with large outside powers as part of their response, however, highlights a concern about being left to cope with this responsibility alone. What is striking is that among the big powers, Russia remains the only one that continues to offer practical answers to the problems Afghanistan might present to Central Asia.

While China has been far more active in its engagement recently across the board in Afghanistan, it is still not clear that Beijing has much intention of stepping in to fill the vacuum left by the US. Rather, it seems that Beijing is eager to soothe regional concerns, while Washington is merely talking about them; only Moscow is stepping in to actually do something. The key unanswerable question at this stage is the degree to which Beijing and Moscow are coordinating their activities, and whether this is the solution that Central Asia actually wants. It is, however, likely to be what it will get.

Been a busy period for short pieces. Some longer ones are still working their way through the pipeline, and been doing more work on the new book, but all of that still to come, but watch this space. Returning to the present, a new piece for the Financial Times which is a rather morose contribution to the current conversation about Afghanistan looking at it from the perspective of the global jihadist movement. The problem may be reduced, but it certainly does not look like it has gone away. There is some more thinking that needs doing into why it is we are unable to ever resolve conflicts against such groups, and whether the problem is our fear of underestimating them. But that is for another day.

We might be done with jihadis but they are not done with us

Taliban fighters and villagers celebrate the peace deal in Laghman Province, in March last year © Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty

There is a wind of optimism sweeping through the global jihadist community. A narrative of victory is gaining momentum just as the west tries to turn the page and focus on great power conflict with China and Russia. 

Scanning the horizon, they see victories in Afghanistan and Mali as western forces announce their withdrawal. In north-western Nigeria and Mozambique, Isis-affiliated groups are gaining ground. And in north-eastern Syria, an al-Qaeda linked group is rebranding itself as an acceptable government. 

The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been made as the Taliban are ascendant on the battlefield. The deadline of September 11 this year only seems to highlight the inconclusive nature of what the west has tried to do there. In the wake of the attacks on the US in 2001, President Bush lumped the Taliban in with the responsible al-Qaeda terrorists they were hosting. He warned: “They [the Taliban] will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.” Yet two decades later, the Taliban have not handed over any terrorists, broken with al-Qaeda or shared their fate. 

Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks. A decade after 9/11, Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by the US. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in hiding and there is speculation of his demise. In contrast, Taliban leader Mullah Omar is believed to have died of natural causes. His successors are still fighting and their narrative is that they are going to take power in Kabul. Al-Qaeda’s media has praised the Taliban’s “historic” victory. 

This sense of success is bolstered by France announcing its withdrawal from Mali and Isis affiliates taking territory in Nigeria and Mozambique. In Idlib, Syria, al-Qaeda spawned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is rebranding itself as a government willing to negotiate with the west. In an interview with US television, its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, presented himself as a politician who is simply trying to govern.

Yet none of these groups have given any indication that they have changed their views. Seen from the perspective of the jihadist community, the overall trajectory looks positive. Very few of the problems that created the groups in the first place — bad governance, inequality or ethnic tensions — have been addressed. Arguably, they have multiplied. Jihadist terrorism is erupting in more places than before. Prior to 2001, it was not a concern in some parts of Africa, where it now thrives. A 2018 report by US think-tank CSIS showed the number of groups have almost tripled since 2001. And the chaos following the announcement of withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions about what has been achieved with 20 years of conflict. 

All of this is likely to rejuvenate the global jihadist movement. With creative reporting, it can portray itself as ascendant, with the US withdrawal giving it tangible evidence of success. This will motivate individuals and groups elsewhere around the world, who will see that their struggle is winnable if they just stick at it for long enough. 

While this may lead to suffering on the ground, it will not necessarily result in an immediate upsurge in terrorism in the west. The world is far more attentive to these threats, and Afghanistan is not the country it was pre-9/11. But in contexts where we see jihadist groups, a sense of triumph may animate them and push them forwards. 

Over time, this will probably evolve in ways that will surprise us. No one expected Isis to rise so abruptly from the ashes of Iraq’s insurgency. Violent Islamist terrorism in Africa has also spread in ways that were not immediately predictable. Few would have expected the growth of Isis affiliates in Congo or Mozambique. But all of these groups have a perspective and outlook which is anathema to the west, and support Isis’ global aims.

The threat is festering rather than going away. We may have tired of the groups and narratives of the war on terror — but those we are fighting have not. They will take this moment and savour what they see as their success. In the longer term they will present a new kind of problem that we will have to address. They will find a way of violently capturing our attention with dramatic attacks against western targets in unexpected places or new battlefields that draw in foreigners.

Whitehall and Washington may want to focus on China but jihadist conflicts are still very much with us. Given that we seem unable to resolve the issues that animate these movements, we are obliged to simply manage them. But handing them rhetorical victories is not helpful.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

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

I seem to be on a particular China over its western borders scribbling jag at the moment. Here is my latest, again circling around the twentieth birthday of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), this time for the Straits Times. Have another piece on a related topic which has just landed and will post later, but for the time being enjoy this. For those more interested in terrorism, there are a few bigger pieces on that topic lined up, just been focused quite a bit on China of late as the book goes through another wave of effort ahead of publication next year.

What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

Nato soldiers conducting an inspection near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

While the world’s attention was on the G-7, Nato and Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) turned 20 last week. Bringing together China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, and built around counter-terrorism cooperation, the SCO is sometimes described as Nato of the East.

But this misses the bigger impact it has had in terms of providing China a vehicle through which to shape the Eurasian heartland.

As it quietly breaches its second decade, the SCO has given China an ever-deepening foothold in the heart of the planet’s super continent.

We mostly think of Chinese connectivity through the lens of belts and roads. Since President Xi Jinping’s pair of speeches in 2013 that launched his foreign policy vision that has now been enshrined in Chinese Communist Party doctrine, we tend to see that as the starting point for China’s concepts of connectivity.

But contemporary Chinese thinking on these issues goes back further than this.

The roots can be found in the end of the Cold War as China suddenly found itself having to abruptly adjust to the reality of going from having a single neighbour (the Soviet Union), to four new countries with which it shared borders and communities.

Out at Xinjiang’s northern and western borders, the concept of nationhood is still developing.

Central Asian communities – from Uighurs, to Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Dungans and more – are all now bound in national borders, but have familial links back and forth across the region.

This reality made it important for China to establish strong connections there early to be able to manage its own communities and security concerns, as well as to try to help Xinjiang develop.

This is the starting point for China’s interest in fostering greater webs of connectivity around it.

THE LINKS WITH THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE

In 1994, then Premier Li Peng carved a path in trying to establish these links across China’s western border. On a visit to all of the Central Asian capitals except Tajikistan (which was in the midst of a grim civil war), he championed the idea of a new Silk Road across the region.

In 1996, then President Jiang Zemin created the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to discuss border delineation and demilitarisation.

When in 2001 they welcomed Uzbekistan into this group and transformed it into the SCO, they married up these two strands on security and prosperity, describing it as the “Shanghai Spirit”. The idea was that they would all peacefully move forward and engage without treading on one another’s toes – an articulation which is an echo of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is about using connectivity with the world through economic engagement on the premise of joint prosperity.

The resonance is important as it helps us understand better China’s longer-term vision through the SCO, and more generally its aims for the Eurasian heartland.

For China, the SCO is a vehicle to strengthen bonds and normalise its position as the pre-eminent power. The SCO has developed from a high-level organisation into an institution that has annual meetings of ministers from the member states. It has created a post-graduate university exchange scheme which offers opportunities for students from member states to do a year at a school in another member state.

It has working groups that bring together officials, businessmen and institutions at every level.

It has a secretariat in Beijing, a counter-terrorism centre in Tashkent, an interior and border ministry training centre in Shanghai, and an economic development centre in Qingdao.

It has helped harmonise security approaches, legislation and standards across the region – mostly in a Chinese direction.

A recent report by the United States think-tank, the Rand Corporation, concluded that China’s international leadership would be focused on “exercising a partial global hegemony centred principally on Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa”. Such leadership would be characterised by “a reliance on finance, diplomatic engagement and security assistance to exercise influence while maintaining a modest overseas military presence”.

The SCO is the perfect vehicle to achieve this, offering a broad range of links which fit as a tidy parallel to the more specific projects offered under the BRI.

But at their core, both of these are interwoven into the broader goal of placing China as an ever more significant actor across the Eurasian landmass.

THE AFGHAN PROBLEM

China’s dilemma with this, however, is that with great influence comes great responsibility. And it is assuming leadership in an unstable neighbourhood.

As the SCO turned 20, Nato was discussing its plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, a country sitting on China’s border where it increasingly looks likely that a government controlled or heavily influenced by the Taleban is going to take over.

While Beijing seems surprisingly comfortable with this outcome, some of Afghanistan’s other neighbours are less so.

Shi’ite Iran is worried about the prospect of a return of Sunni hardliners to Kabul. Under the previous Taleban administration, Iran saw its diplomats murdered and religious minorities targeted. The likely waves of poor migrants that are also likely to cross into Iran will put a strain on the already fragile Iranian economy.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan suffered a number of large-scale border incursions with links to Afghanistan, while Uzbekistan saw a series of massive car bomb attacks in its capital.

The Tajik civil war of the mid-1990s was fuelled by camps in Afghanistan. And even Pakistan with its strong connections to militant groups in Afghanistan is concerned about a too-powerful Taleban taking control of the country, worrying about the consequences for the violent Islamist groups within its borders (and the potential exodus of migrants).

The one thing that all of these border countries with Afghanistan share is a link (through membership or participation) to the SCO, suggesting that it might be a good vehicle to try to bring some resolution to the country’s longer-term problems. And yet, much like China, the SCO has done nothing to really advance peace and stability in Afghanistan.

This is not for want of trying. Chinese leaders repeatedly try to get the SCO to do something about Afghanistan. This was hammered home again recently at a summit meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his five Central Asian counterparts. A key takeaway from the summit (the first China has hosted since the pandemic) was that they would do something on Afghanistan.

Yet, few hold much hope for that happening, with the statements of intent joining a long list of such declarations over the past years.

But this is the central problem for the SCO which China is going to have to address at some point. Not only the realities of having a Taleban-dominated leadership in Kabul at the heart of the SCO’s territory, but also the fact that Beijing has been building all of this influence and connectivity with little evidence of wanting to step in to fill the security vacuums that are likely to emerge as the West withdraws from this region.

The famous British geographer Halford Mackinder once described Central Asia as the geographical pivot of what he termed the “world island”, comprising the Eurasian landmass. As he put it, “who rules the heartland commands the world-island; who rules the world-island commands the world”. Through the SCO, Beijing can make a compelling case of laying the foundations to trying to control the “world island”; the dilemma China has yet to come to grips with is to acknowledge the responsibilities that are likely to go alongside this influence.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

Not quite finished in a busy week of China-Afghanistan writing, and one more to come after this. This one for the Diplomat touches on the very challenging question of how this is going to change China’s relationship with Central Asia. Big thanks to the wonderful Niva for getting this idea going. We have some more in the pipeline together, looking forward to seeing them go live.

China’s Afghanistan Challenge and the Central Asian Dilemma

None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing plays a more substantial role in Afghanistan.

Credit: Kyrgyz MFA: https://twitter.com/MFA_Kyrgyzstan/status/1392445892930715648

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is underway and is due to be completed by September 11, 2021. In the early days of the War on Terror, U.S. military bases in Central Asia were central to mobilization in Afghanistan, but regional pressure led to their closure. While a narrative persists in the press that the United States will want to keep some substantial presence in the region after the drawdown, it is unclear that anyone in Central Asia has actually been asked.

Russia is unlikely to step forward very far to fill this vacuum, instead preferring to continue to play a supportive role where it serves its interests. To the extent that the United States does appear to want to stay engaged, it seems to be focused on reviving the New Silk Road concept that connects Central Asia to South Asia through Afghanistan, alongside positioning some over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities.

The key uncertainty is whether China is going to finally step forward to take up some mantle of responsibility toward Afghanistan and follow through on its repeated security promises.

Central Asian politics have changed since the United States vacated the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan in 2014. At the time the overriding discourse was how Moscow was going to fill the ensuing security vacuum. Yet, the narrative of the intervening seven years has not been of Russian dominance, but of Chinese expansion. From politics to security, language and economics, China is the rising power in Central Asia.

On May 12, China hosted the second China plus Central Asia (C5+1) Foreign Ministerial talks in Xi’an. The five Central Asian foreign ministers were the first group of foreign officials invited to China since the start of the pandemic. Political ties between China and the Central Asian states have grown exponentially in the past decade. 

Afghanistan was an obvious topic of discussion. Central Asian states fear the potential spillover of conflict and are looking for a security guarantee from within Afghanistan, as well as the other major powers in the region. While urging the U.S. troop withdrawal to “proceed in an orderly and responsible manner to avoid a resurgence of terrorist forces,” China (like Russia) has no desire to see the return of U.S. bases in Central Asia. Yet, at the same time, Beijing has failed to deliver tangible security plans to support its neighbors on the western periphery in the event of an escalation of instability in Afghanistan. The joint statement on Afghanistan released at the end of the Chinese C5+1 meeting was thin on details.

In the past few years, China has emerged as an active player in Afghanistan. China has opened a number of multilateral diplomacy channels around Afghanistan, participated in regional talks, worked with the United States and Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and repeatedly pushed (albeit to no avail) to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to do more about Afghanistan. China has offered some limited support to Afghan, Tajik, and Pakistani border forces, and reportedly built its own base in Tajikistan. But these efforts are single-mindedly focused on Chinese border concerns.

The story has been similar on the economic side. China has expanded measures to induce economic incentives for peace in Afghanistan, something that Chinese policymakers have put forward as the most appropriate contribution China can make. A bilateral economics and trade committee was set up in 2015. Direct cargo flights between Afghanistan and China opened in late 2018. After building the Mazar-i-Sharif to Hairatan train line, a cargo train corridor between China and Afghanistan was inaugurated in summer 2019, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Bilateral trade between China and Afghanistan doubled from $338 million in 2013 to $629 million in 2019, according to data from Chinese customs. And Beijing has repeatedly spoken about bringing Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative foreign policy vision – increasing Afghan connectivity with Central Asia, China, and Pakistan.

In reality Beijing has achieved little. China’s most recent promises include reported security contributions to help with counterterrorism efforts, but it is not clear what these will look like. Economically, China’s stake in Afghanistan has grown, but it has failed to deliver on the massive extractive project in Mes Aynak its firms signed contracts for in 2007, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) project in northern Afghanistan has also been suspended. Beijing has not lived up to its economic potential in the country yet.

None of this is going to get any easier in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. With the possible outcome that the Taliban will regain control of a greater part of Afghanistan, rule by Islamist ideology may then become an inevitability and that will have consequences for China. While Beijing has clearly been bolstering its relations with factions in the government in Afghanistan, its analysts are equally certain that some Taliban return to power is likely. This confusion in part reflects the baffling complexity of the Afghan battlefield, but it also highlights a dissonance within current planning.

It also illustrates where China’s post-American Afghan strategy likely falls down. With Washington present in force, Beijing can largely apportion blame and responsibility to the U.S. for anything that happens. Once the U.S. is gone, this excuse may still have some rhetorical currency, but it will lack tangible use on the ground. And while China may be able to ensure that its security concerns are addressed, its neighbors in Central Asia will expect it to use its weight and gravitas to play a more substantial role in stabilizing the situation. None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing will play a more forward and substantial role in Afghanistan — a role that actually helps stabilize and calm the situation — rather than hedge and watch while it collapses in on itself.

Its been a busy week on various fronts, but in particular in work on China-Afghanistan. But it seems apt given the SCO celebrated its second decade. Have a couple more pieces to post from the week, but for the time being here is a piece for the excellent Oxus Society (established by Edward to whom I am very grateful for publishing this) which draws on my various experiences meeting with the Organization over the years. You will find a lot more of this coming in the book which is due out early next year, but for the time being enjoy. As ever comments, criticisms, corrections welcome.

The SCO Turns Twenty

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was born almost exactly two decades ago, on June 15, 2001 at a glittering event overlooking the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Celebrating the birth, President Jiang Zemin articulated a vision for the organization that spanned everything from counter-terrorism, regional trade agreements, to pragmatism, solidarity, a pioneering spirit and openness. The last was delivered without a sense of irony to a room of leaders who (for the most part) had taken power with little public ratification. The key, President Jiang said, was to maintain the ‘Shanghai Spirit’ that had brought them all to where they were today.

This was very different to the birth story I was told almost exactly a decade later sitting in the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were told that the SCO was “a baby that was born of a time.” It was an “illegally born child” to its parents China and Russia who could not agree on a way forward, hence they decided to form a family called the SCO. But like any family, our Kyrgyz interlocutor informed us, there were “certain frictions” usually involving money, and over time there was “psychological exhaustion by the parents.” A more cynical view that over time I discovered was more typical from the region to what I would hear in Beijing.

A year later, I had my first physical encounter with the organization. After chasing various contacts and colleagues in Shanghai, I fixed a meeting at the Organization’s headquarters in Beijing with a fellow researcher. We had aimed to meet with the Secretary General, but ended up getting passed along to some lower-level diplomats. A Kazakh and a Russian official who were posted to the Organization from their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs. The more elderly Russian was in a playful mood and clearly enjoying what he saw as a sinecure role. 

Sat in a grand and slightly dusty meeting room which had a cabinet full of football trophies in the corner, we listened as he expounded about the organization’s processes and procedures downplaying any of the more menacing aspects. Projects were nascent and slow moving, he told us. Everything was done by consensus. Terrorism – something he described using the Chinese phrasing of the Three Evils (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) – was a major concern. Economic aspects were still under discussion. The overriding message we got from them was nothing to see here, move along, move along.

The overriding question from all of these encounters was what really was the point and aim of this organization? Western diplomats we met in Beijing or Central Asian capitals would largely rubbish the organization as a large talking shop. Chinese officials we spoke to, however, would talk about it as a foundational element in their vision for Eurasia and the world. Westerners, they would tell us, missed the gentle consensus building that the SCO brought to the table. As a Chinese expert at one of the more influential think tanks in Beijing told me when I asked what the SCO had achieved “to not do anything is to do everything.”

The initial seed of the SCO was planted in the wake of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union fell apart, there was an imperative for China to clarify its western borders. China had shared a long, porous and remote border with the Soviet Union. Once China was suddenly confronted with three new border countries, this vagueness no longer worked. From this was born the idea of establishing a grouping to discuss de-militarization and border delineation between China and the new states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Meeting first in Shanghai in 1996, the grouping was imaginatively called the Shanghai Five, upgraded later to the SCO when Uzbekistan joined at the glittering event in Shanghai.

China’s vision was larger, however, than just borders and security. It was about economic connectivity and prosperity across the entire region. The larger concept could be found in a visit in 1994 by then-Premier Li Peng to Central Asia, when he swept through all of the capitals except Tajikistan. China was opening itself up after the setback of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres and Premier Li had been at the forefront of promoting the new China, taking groups of businessmen around with him and trying to encourage western firms to come and invest. Central Asia was critical both in terms of being a border region to China, but also given the deep cross-border security concerns that existed with Beijing worried about Uyghur dissidents using the region as a base to launch attacks within China. 

This blend of security and prosperity is what has been at the heart of Chinese interests in the SCO. Focusing on terrorist threats in particular is something that all of the member states find themselves agreeing on, and economic prosperity is always appreciated. Counter-terrorism in particular developed its own home. 

The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS), first announced in 2001, and then formally opened in Tashkent in 2004 was established as a hub for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism activity. When I visited in 2012, I found a sleepy institution in a bright pink building where the Chinese officials refused to speak Mandarin to me, while their bosses told me about the meetings and conferences their institution hosted and some of them fell asleep during our meeting. This dozy welcome, however, masked the institution’s role in creating a common roster of enemies and the growing legal harmonization in counter-terrorism and countering online extremism that RATS helped foster. 

Counter-terrorism has also provided China with a way into other forms of engagement. China pushed forwards the development of a training center in Shanghai which offered courses for Interior and Border Guard forces across the region – providing an opportunity to develop relationships at multiple levels in local security forces. Through the SCO it has hosted and partnered with numerous regional partner forces on joint military exercises. The regular large-scale military exercises provide not only an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations, but also for Chinese forces to practice with the vastly more experienced Russian forces. It has also increasingly given China an opportunity to show-case some of their military hardware – in particular drones – to potential customers. 

But the organization has over time developed a much wider range of activities beyond this, creating an entire cultural roster of actions and events to encourage what they describe as the ‘Shanghai Spirit.’ A whole series of cultural activities bringing SCO nationals together. A marathon, a film festival, young businessmen forums, a traveling festival of culture which I once came across by chance in Tashkent which included exhibitions from key cities in each member state, a university exchange program which allows for post-graduate students to spend a year at a university in another member state university offer a sense of the SCO’s broader activities. 

Not everything Beijing wanted to achieve has succeeded. Notwithstanding putting almost one billion dollars on offer, the idea of an SCO Development Bank or Fund has never taken off. Repeated efforts to establish an SCO Free Trade Area have gone nowhere. And after having tried to get the Organization to do something specific about Afghanistan rather than just host meetings, China seemed to accept it was too complicated. In 2016, China established a new mini-lateral entity called the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brought together the Chiefs of Army Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Notwithstanding continued Chinese efforts, they realized nothing was moving forwards within the SCO on Afghanistan and so they built a parallel entity to handle their direct security concerns. This is not to say that China has not continued to push the idea of the SCO doing more in Afghanistan forwards – most recently, after meeting with his Central Asian counterparts in May 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once again hammered home the point that the Organization needed to do something about Afghanistan. Everyone agreed, though it is still not clear anything will happen.

But China’s relentless persistence with the Organization has paid dividends. And the Organization has only continued to grow over time, now also encompassing Pakistan and India, with Iran a regular courter. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are official Observer states, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are Dialogue Partners. The Organization is growing and at current count claims to be the largest regional organization by population and geographical coverage – representing about half of the world’s population. Whatever Jiang Zemin released in Shanghai in 2001 has proven to be attractive. 

Beijing has also shown itself to be highly dynamic through the Organization, echoing in many ways their global growth in other areas as well. When one path is blocked they seem to find another. Having been repeatedly stymied in their grand economic goals, China has now managed to start to advance them through its tech and digital giants who have started to work with the SCO to advance China’s Digital Silk Road. Chinese applications, Chinese online markets, Chinese online health and educational platforms, have all become increasingly dominant within the SCO. Central Asians working with the Organization tell me working with Chinese tech is one of their biggest tasks. The capstone of all of this activity was laid in November 2020 with the establishment of the China-SCO Development Zone in Qingdao, which was inaugurated with $8.6 billion worth of projects focusing on China’s digital and tech sector.

China’s SCO partners were not very visible during the event, however, but had supported its establishment during an earlier Summit in Qingdao in 2018. They have continued to attend, participate and host, even as other tensions have developed between them. Notwithstanding the violent border clashes and technological tensions between Delhi and Beijing last year, Prime Minister Modi attended the SCO leaders Summit and paid respect to the Organization, while his country has taken the lead in establishing a working group looking at digital commerce and start-ups ahead of this year’s twentieth anniversary. China and India may be at knifepoint at the border, but Delhi still sees great value in participating in the SCO.

And this is the ultimate goal of this now two-decade old entity. To create an Organization in China’s image that has captivated the Eurasian heartland with its non-judgmental appeal. The constant meetings, conferences and encounters have developed a web of relationships across the Eurasian heartland that are all fostered around a vision of the world articulated by China. The world may be obsessed with what China is doing in the seas, but it is through the SCO and over land that the longer-term play can be seen. It is here that the real impact and effect of China’s webs of connectivity can be found, and a vision of what China’s new world order might look like.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. His work focuses on terrorism, counter-terrorism and China’s Eurasian relations.

It is a big week for Eurasia, though much of the attention is focused on President Biden’s Europe trip. In parallel to his visit to NATO, the G7 Summit, a meeting with President Putin and more, a number of other things are happening – most curiously from my perspective the SCO is turning 20. More on that later. First of all though, a paper on China in Afghanistan for a NATO Defence College paper edited by excellent colleagues Aniseh and David. This was initially written a little while ago, and has had some updating as we have gone along. I think its has managed to stay accurate given the constantly changing events on the ground, but it is surprising to me how little attention Afghanistan has been getting during the NATO Summit. Something that really reflects the total disinterest that you now find about staying in country. More on that topic to come as well.

China

What China wants

China has taken a largely neutral view on Afghanistan, repeatedly calling for all sides to agree and for violence to de-escalate. It has sought to engage with Afghanistan through multiple regional and global formats, never taking a leadership role while carefully cultivating relationships with every side of the conflict – including the Taliban with which it brokered informal talks in 2015.144 It seems that Beijing is fairly ambivalent about who will ultimately come to power in the country, though it would likely prefer not to see the Taliban solely dominant.

China’s public passivity might reflect a genuine expression of Beijing’s view on the Afghan Peace Negotiations (APN) and the end state in the country. It has not taken any public position on the APN beyond stating its support for any Afghan-led and Afghan-owned discussion.145 In December last year, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “We hope both sides of the Afghan peace talks will put the nation and people first, act on the people’s will, meet each other halfway and reach consensus on peace as soon as possible. China will continue working with the international community to play a constructive role in this process.”146 This has been the official line delivered consistently, with a different MoFA spokesman (and former Deputy Chief of Mission to Islamabad) Zhao Lijian stating in March, “China calls on the Afghan Taliban and all parties in the country to grasp the opportunity to start the intra-Afghan negotiations as soon as possible, and to negotiate for political and security arrangements acceptable to all so as to realize lasting peace and stability of Afghanistan.”147 When the APN started in September, Foreign Minister Wang Yi sent some opening remarks calling for all sides to agree,148 and special representative Liu Jian later visited Qatar.

This neutral expression towards the talks masks the fact that Beijing places much of the blame for failure on the talks with the US, whom they see as posturing and refusing to acknowledge the outsized role they play in the problem. China believes the US has a responsibility to resolve the issues in Afghanistan. These are the very same issues they have contributed to creating, and Beijing does not see much chance of success.149 More recently, a more aggressive tone has crept into China’s commentary about the US role in Afghanistan. In a late March 2021 MoFA Press Conference, Spokeswoman Hua Chunying played a video in which Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, spoke of how the US’s decision to invade Afghanistan was part of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plan to develop assets to attack China from within in Xinjiang.150 Such rumour has long circulated in Beijing, but its elevation to official discourse by the MoFA shows a willingness to far more aggressively confront the United States in Afghanistan. It closes the door on possibilities for cooperation, while also potentially signalling that Beijing may view NATO’s operations in Afghanistan with more hostility than previously. A leaked intelligence report in December which suggested that Chinese agents were offering bounties for American casualties in Afghanistan is an example of how this souring narrative can drag Afghanistan into the heart of the US-China clash.151

The advent of the Biden administration does not appear to have changed the trajectory of US-China relations, and arguably it has been getting worse. Many of the key figures in the new American administration are individuals who had previously worked in the Obama administration and helped shape the cooperation between China and the US in Afghanistan. And while there are suggestions that Afghanistan could lend itself as a useful platform for cooperation between the US and China152, this seems unlikely this time around. The steps taken by the outgoing Trump administration might have sealed the conflict with China. Some of these have direct salience to Afghanistan – for example, the decision to remove the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from the list of proscribed terrorist organisations. In Beijing’s eyes, the US is negating the existence of China’s primary concern in the country: Uyghur militants and affiliates’ activities in Afghanistan.153 By raising the spectre of US manipulation of Uyghurs to attack China from within, Beijing is linking Afghanistan to its core domestic security concerns in Xinjiang – something which has also become a focus of US sanctions towards China. Afghanistan has thus now been tied to the very heart of the US-China confrontation.

The US decision to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan is unlikely to have much direct impact on Chinese behaviour in Afghanistan. China has for the most part developed a complicated set of tools to help hedge against what it perceives as its direct security threats from Afghanistan. As a result, Beijing is likely less concerned about whether the US is there dealing with terrorist groups than it was before. An additional concern was that the United States would use bases in Afghanistan as forward staging posts against China. This fear has shifted. While China seems more concerned about secretive CIA deployments, it is less focused on military deployments. Ultimately, a substantial US drawdown will only further assuage this concern.

Overall, China is likely to maintain a watching brief in Afghanistan, refusing to step forward, except where its most direct interests are involved – such as the security of its direct borders with Afghanistan or concerns about Uyghur militants. Undoubtedly China would prefer a stable Afghanistan on its borders. But at the same time, it is not clear how concerned it actually is about having an unstable Afghanistan next door. Beijing has now hardened its direct links and borders with the country, meaning China likely feels it has cauterized its direct security concerns. Senior Afghan officials repeat Chinese talking points about Uyghur threats, while they appear to have a path for discussion with the Taliban. Given the relative absence of much activity by Uyghur militants targeting Chinese interests, China is most likely fairly comfortable with the current relative instability.

Playing the Eurasian chessboard

To some degree, Chinese concerns with Afghanistan are shaped by Beijing’s fears of the potential for instability in the country to affect Pakistan and Central Asia. China has invested a great deal in both Pakistan (through the fabled China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC which is reportedly a cumulative investment package of between $30 and $50 billion) and Central Asia (where Xi Jinping first announced his keynote Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Chinese influence and presence has been growing for the past 20 years). These investments are closely linked to China’s long-term project to stabilize its western region of Xinjiang. Consequently, tensions and difficulties between Afghanistan and its southern neighbour Pakistan are of potential concern to Beijing (there is far less tension between Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries). At the same time, China’s long-standing and close relationship with Pakistan means that China is likely to favour Islamabad over Kabul.

In fact, the relationship with Pakistan plays a substantial part in China’s relationship with Afghanistan. While Islamabad used to be the conduit of China’s relationship with Afghanistan, Beijing is now more confident in its direct relationships with Kabul and has crafted a policy which is developed around its specific interests. At the same time, its relationship with Pakistan is still significant, and much of what China does is done with taking into consideration the impact on Pakistan’s interests.

The consequence of the proximity between Islamabad and Beijing has been a knock-on effect on India and its role in Afghanistan (and the broader region). Already locked into a tense confrontation with India after border violence in Ladakh, China’s security apparatus is increasingly pushing for a more confrontational approach towards India. Taken alongside the growing hard-line set of relationships with Pakistan, this suggests Beijing might be more willing to accede to Pakistani positions on India’s role in Afghanistan. This is unlikely to be a major driver of the Chinese policy on Afghanistan, but it will play into its considerations. The suggestions floated during President Xi and Prime Minister Modi’s one-on-one meetings that they would focus their efforts on finding ways to cooperate in Afghanistan154 are likely to be shelved for the time being due to broader tensions, and Pakistani fears about Indian activity in Afghanistan are likely to get a positive hearing in Beijing.

Taken to its most extreme, this could result in China and India waging a proxy war in Afghanistan. Hints of what this could look like might already be seen in the repeated attacks against Baluchi groups operating from bases in Afghanistan155 that have targeted Chinese interests in Pakistan.156 While those responsible for the attacks are not often identified, or they are blamed on vague militants, there is a correlation between high profile attacks in Pakistan against Chinese targets, and subsequent targeting of senior Baluchi figures hiding in Afghanistan. There are also reports about India stirring Tibetan activists or fighters against China.157 Senior Indian politicians made appearances at public events alongside Tibetan activists and the Indian press championed the role of Tibetan forces serving in the Indian Army158 (there have also been reports of Chinese agents stirring things up with Assamese separatists159). Were this escalation to develop further, it could turn into Chinese and Indian proxies targeting each other in Afghanistan.

At the same time, it is worth noting that there is likely a limit to how far Beijing will let Pakistan dictate its policies towards India, and the degree to which China will seek a full on conflict with India. Notwithstanding border tensions and a growing Indian effort to de-couple technologically from China by banning Chinese mobile phone applications and threatening to ban Huawei and ZTE from building Indian telecoms infrastructure,160 Prime Minister Modi and other senior Indian officials have continued to engage in multilateral institutions where China is an influential leader.161 Senior Indian representatives have attended both the BRICS (Brazil – Russia – India – China – South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summits in 2021, and still talk about engaging productively within them.162 Furthermore, the thawing in relations between Islamabad and New Delhi could further complicate this dynamic. There remains a danger within this overall context that Afghanistan becomes a useful deniable battlefield where the two sides’ more hawkish elements and security agencies can face off against each other.

Counter-terrorism as a priority

Counter-terrorism has always been high on China’s list of concerns with Afghanistan, though the threat from militant Uyghur networks in the country seems much reduced in comparison to earlier years. China has not reported any attacks within its borders linked to militants in either Afghanistan or Pakistan for over a decade – the last time was a 2011 incident that took place in Kashgar.163 China’s border control efforts have focused on supporting the construction of an Afghan security forces base in Badakhshan,164 providing equipment for Afghan forces and undertaking joint patrolling with their Afghan counterparts,165 while also providing support to border control forces in Tajikistan166 and Pakistan.167 It has also fostered the creation of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) that brings together the Defence Chiefs of Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan.168

This regional mechanism which has admittedly not done much in the past couple of years, is nonetheless important for a number of reasons. First, it provides China with a direct structure through which it can address its security concerns with Afghanistan. It shows that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an interest in engaging on the security issues related to the country. Second, it provides a multilateral framework which answers a need which should (in theory) fit within the responsibility of the SCO. The existence of the QCCM in many ways reflects China’s disappointment with the SCO as a vehicle to advance its security concerns with Afghanistan.169 Third, the QCCM was established without notice to Moscow, something troubling to Russia as one of the members, Tajikistan, is also a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), whose members are supposed to cooperate closely on security matters. This fact highlights both China’s willingness to act without heeding Russia’s concerns and the fallacy of common assumptions that China only focuses on economic issues in Central Asia while leaving security issues to Moscow.

Besides securing its direct border with Afghanistan, it also developed relationships with parties in Kabul interested in countering Uyghur groups. Both the Taliban and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) have said they would either fight Uyghurs or prevent them from acting against China from the Afghan territory. The lack of any major attack or plot in Xinjiang or China for years reflects the relative effectiveness of this security blanket from China’s perspective, though it is equally clear that China wants to ensure that it can guarantee its security concerns directly as well as through partners.

Having said this, China’s increasing concern about the US potential use of Uyghur proxies to attack or undermine its interests, suggests that counter-terrorism (CT) will remain high on Beijing’s agenda, with indications that China might have already started to take a more proactive view on disrupting Uyghur networks in Afghanistan.170

Binding the world with Belts and Roads

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has, for the most part, not touched on Afghanistan. While there have been numerous conferences, and officials from both the Afghan and Chinese governments talk about the BRI relevance for Afghanistan, the truth is that there has been as little investment in infrastructure or other domains in Afghanistan as China has made in Central Asia or Pakistan. The one piece of direct infrastructure connecting the two countries which has been mooted is a fibre optic cable that is supposed to run through the Wakhan Corridor – a project supposedly developed under the auspices of a World Bank initiative.171 It is worth noting that Chinese firms have worked (and are working) on numerous infrastructure projects within Afghanistan, but these are all funded by international financial institutions rather than by Beijing. In other words, Chinese contractors are working on the ground, but it is not part of any formal Beijing driven BRI project.

The two much vaunted economic investment projects in Afghanistan – the Mes Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya oil field – have both stagnated and not delivered nearly the local benefits that the Afghans had hoped when they signed the deals.172

China has, however, encouraged BRI related projects in Central Asia and Pakistan that might connect with Afghanistan, particularly those focused on developing infrastructure linked to CPEC. Beijing has long wanted to get connected with Afghanistan and has invested in making border crossings of goods more efficient.173 As direct trade between China and Afghanistan also remains limited174, Afghanistan therefore does not play a particularly significant role in China’s broader economic vision for the region, except with regards the potential spill over of instability from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Pakistan, where China has substantial investments. Going forward, it is unlikely that this is going to change much. The Chinese economic vision for the region does not need to include an Afghanistan that will succeed. Additionally, there has been a broader push by Chinese institutions to recalibrate the projects that they are doing under BRI with a view to ensuring economic sustainability and returns on investment. Seen in this light, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will become a major target for BRI support in the future.

——–

144 E. Wong and M. Mashal, “Taliban and Afghan peace officials have secret talks in China”, The New York Times, 25 May 2015.

145 “常驻联合国副代表耿爽大使在阿富汗问题阿里亚模式会上的发言”, Permanent Mission to the UN, 20 November 2020 (Speech by Ambassador Geng Shuang, Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at the Aria Model Meeting on Afghanistan).

146 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s regular press conference on 3 December 2020”, People’s Republic of China, 3 December 2020.

147 “China welcomes US-Taliban peace deal: FM spokesperson”, Xinhuanet, 3 February 2020.

148 “China welcomes intra-Afghan talks, expects lasting peace via joint efforts”, China Global Television Network, 14 September 2020.

149 “The status of the Afghan Taliban”, Charhar, 13 October 2020.

150 Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on March 26, 2021 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1864659.shtml

151 J. Swan and B. Allen-Ebrahimian, “Scoop: Trump administration declassifies unconfirmed intel on Chinese bounties”, Axios, 20 December 2020.

152 D. Markey, “The best place to test cooperation with China is in Afghanistan”, The Hill, 22 February 2021.

153 “China condemns US for delisting of ETIM as terrorist organization”, China Global Television Network, 6 November 2020.

154 A. Krishnan, “Modi-Xi bonhomie 2.0: all that happened during the ‘informal’ Wuhan summit”, India Today, 28 April 2018; S. Haida and A. Aneja, “Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping ‘informal summit’ in Chennai from October 11”, The Hindu, 9 October 2019.

155 S. Shukla, “Who are Baloch Liberation Army? Insurgents who killed 30 in Pakistan in last one week”, The Print, 20 February 2020.

156 “Alleged leader of Chinese consulate attack in Pakistan killed”, Al Jazeera, 27 December 2018.

157 K. Purohit, “Tibetan SFF soldier killed on India-China border told family: ‘we are finally fighting our enemy’”, South China Morning Post, 24 September 2020.

158 A. Bhaumik, “Nyima Tenzin: an unsung Tibetan hero of India’s resistance against Chinese PLA’s aggression”, Deccan Herald, 2 September 2020.

159 “Beijing said to fund separatist India movement”, Asia Sentinel, 21 August 2020.

160 M. Singh, “India bans 43 more Chinese apps over cybersecurity concerns”, TechCrunch, 24 November 2020.

161 “PM Modi addresses SCO summit: Key points”, The Times of India, 10 November 2020.

162 “Brics summit 2020 live updates: PM Modi addresses Brics summit”, The Times of India, 17 November 2020.

163 M. Wines, “China blames foreign-trained separatists for attacks in Xinjiang”, The New York Times, 1 August 2020.

164 M. Martina, “Afghan troops to train in China, ambassador says”, Reuters, 6 September 2018.

165 S. Snow, “Chinese troops appear to be operating in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon is OK with it”, Military Times, 5 March 2017.

166 “Tajikistan: secret Chinese base becomes slightly less secret”, Eurasianet, 23 September 2020.

167 ANI, “China strengthening military base in Gilgit Baltistan by constructing mega infrastructures, say activists”, Yahoo News, 17 July 2020.

168 “QCCM military group launched to counter terror”, The Nation, 4 August 2016.

169 The existence of the QCCM in many ways reflects China’s disappointment with the SCO as a vehicle to advance its security concerns with Afghanistan. China has consistently sought to get the SCO to engage more in Afghanistan, with Xi Jinping once again raising the issue during the SCO Heads of State Summit (held online) in November 2020. See: X. Jinping, “Full text: Xi Jinping’s speech at 20th SCO summit”, China Global Television Network, 10 November 2020. However, notwithstanding China’s push, the organization has consistently played no role in Afghanistan. Since 2017 there has been a push to revive the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group but it is not clear that this grouping has achieved anything practical. See “SCO Resumes Afghanistan Contact Group Meeting”, Tolonews, 11 October 2017.

170 While the full details are not clear, public and private reporting has suggested that the network of Chinese agents that was disrupted by NDS in Kabul in late 2020 was seeking to establish a fake Uyhgur cell to draw in real Uyhgur networks to neutralise them. See S. Gupta, “10 Chinese spies caught in Kabul get a quiet pardon, fly home in chartered aircraft’, The Hindustan Times, 4 January 2021.

171 Z. Jahanmal, “Afghanistan, China to connect through fiber optic network”, Tolonews, 23 April 2017.

172 R. Pantucci, “China’s non-intervention in Afghanistan”, The Oxus Society, 18 November 2020.

The wonderful Katie Putz of the Diplomat was kind enough to invite me to do an interview with her excellent publication – covering a wide range of China in South and Central Asia questions, though mostly looking southward with a bit of a focus on Afghanistan. Have not posted it all here as behind a firewall at the moment, but will hope to later. Am posting after it a podcast recording that I did with Suzanne Raine of Cambridge University (and formerly of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) looking at how terrorist threats are evolving.

Raffaello Pantucci on China’s Presence in South Asia

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights the importance of South and Central Asia to China.

Pakistan and Chinese soldiers take part in a joint exercise in Jhelum, Pakistan Thursday, Nov 24, 2011.
Credit: AP Photo/B.K.Bangash

As the United States embarks on its withdrawal from Afghanistan, some wonder what China will do given the country’s critical interests in South and Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is merely the latest articulation of a strategic narrative that imbues the South and Central Asian region with critical importance to China. As Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), explains in the following interview, China has long-running interests in the wider region. While Beijing is not poised to follow the Soviet Union and now, the United States, into the “graveyard of empires,” those interests remain important to China.

What interests in the wider South and Central Asia region most draw Beijing’s attention?

China is most worried about security problems it perceives as being based in South and Central Asia which might threaten domestic stability. Principal amongst these is a fear that the region might become a staging ground for Uyghur dissidents or militants to create instability in Xinjiang. A secondary group of concerns emanates from a fear of threats to Chinese economic investments and interests in the region. In Beijing’s conception these investments are also linked to Xinjiang as well, as their success is in part linked to prosperity and growth in Xinjiang, which China sees as the key to longer-term stability within its borders.

At a wider strategic level, China is worried that the region could be used by adversary powers, like the United States, as a place from which to foment instability within China. This has most recently been tied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly to Afghanistan, but is a persistent fear that has always lurked in the back of Chinese minds. From their perspective, the region is their backyard and directly linked to some of the most sensitive parts of their country.

Finally, this region is the cradle of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy vision, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The concept was launched in the Kazakh capital, then-Astana (now Nur-Sultan), and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is called the keynote project of the vision. This gives it a particular importance conceptually to Beijing as failure here would be tantamount to failure of his vision. The economic interests that are linked to BRI in the region are important to China, but are often overstated as the priorities for Beijing’s concerns. The economic interests are important to the specific firms involved; the strategic aspect comes in terms of the impact they might have on domestic growth and stability, in particular in Xinjiang.

Read more here.

Also, am posting the podcast discussion with Suzanne Raine for the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University.

Some more late posting on a subject been doing a lot of work on this year China in Afghanistan, this time for the South China Morning Post. Have a longer paper on this landing soon, and there is a whole chapter in my upcoming book which draws on some time I spent there a while ago. This is going to be an important year for Afghanistan, let us hope things go well for everybody there.

How US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers promise and peril for China

  • The balance in Afghanistan seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge for China as the geopolitical equation changes
  • Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid pitfalls, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland
US Marines patrol as they clear improvised explosive devices in Trikh Nawar on the outskirts of Marjah, Afghanistan, on February 21, 2010. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden’s decision for the US to leave Afghanistan is both a challenge and an opportunity for China. On the opportunity side, China rids itself of worrying US military bases near its border. On the challenge side, it leaves open the question of who will deal with the instability that might grow in Afghanistan.

China still lacks the hard power to do this itself, and it is unclear whether Afghan forces can deliver such security assurances. None of this is new for Beijing, but the balance now seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge.

China has long worried about instability from Afghanistan, but more indirectly than directly. This is based on an understanding of the region – the Taliban has not been known to attack north into Central Asia and are wary about irritating supporters in Pakistan – as well as the fact that Afghanistan’s border with China is remote and fairly firmly secured.

There is always the fear that Afghanistan could be a base from which trouble can brew, though. Militants who want to launch attacks elsewhere might see Afghanistan as a convenient home from which to operate. We have seen this play out with al-Qaeda and are seeing hints of it with Islamic State forces. China is worried Afghanistan might become a staging point for Uygur militants.

Since President Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang in 2014, there has been an increase in Chinese security attention on the border with Afghanistan to mitigate this risk. This was in part driven by the declaration that the US was leaving Afghanistan.

Beijing has supported border forces in Tajikistan and Pakistan, and it has worked with Afghan security forces to strengthen their side of the Wakhan Corridor. It has developed deeper relations with Afghanistan’s security apparatus, strengthening political links and providing support to build bases.

From Beijing’s perspective, this is a relatively small and tight seal at the moment, though complacency in these cases is lethal.

Afghan security officials appear conscious of these concerns. They continue to refer to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a potential danger, to soothe Chinese worries and as a snub to the US, which has removed the ETIM from its list of terrorist organisations.

In other words, Afghan leaders are referring to a specific threat the US says does not exist. Additionally, the Taliban has shown itself willing to engage with Beijing and mentioned a willingness to provide protection for infrastructure being built in Afghanistan.

Having covered security up to a point, China has the opportunity side to consider. The often overplayed economic opportunities are not the biggest prize, as basic economic geography dictates that China will be a major beneficiary of Afghanistan’s resources. Their slow uptake so far is a reflection of Afghanistan’s complexities rather than Chinese appetite.

From Beijing’s perspective, the removal of a US military base from its backyard as relations with the US become testier is a relief. There was always secret gratitude that the US was in Afghanistan, dealing with the Taliban and other worrying groups, but this was balanced by Beijing’s principal adversary operating in its backyard.

Now that this is gone, China has a clear sweep across the Eurasian heartland. With Iran and Russia as anti-American brackets on the other side of Central Asia, Beijing has geopolitical sway over the entire region. With India and Pakistan growing closer and New Delhi willing to step back from the brink along the Sino-Indian border, China finds itself comfortably placed in Eurasia.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes these countries as members or observers, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The SCO has been derided as a do-nothing entity, but the American withdrawal leaves a hole the China-led grouping is well-placed to fill.

This is not to say the SCO will deploy in force. Instead, it provides China with an existing framework to play a role in determining the region’s future.

The problem for Beijing is this role comes with responsibilities and issues that China has repeatedly failed to figure out how to address. The Taliban is not a responsible player and, like everyone else, Beijing will be sceptical about any assurances it receives.

At the same time, none of the other SCO members are enamoured by Chinese power or aspire to it; rather, they fear it. Governance by fear might be effective, but it leaves you exposed if those powers are presented with other options. Russia and Iran, for example, would probably turn on China if the West abruptly shifted its posture towards them. 

None of this appears to unduly concern China. It is focused on highlighting American behaviour and spreading conspiratorial narratives about the US using Afghanistan as a base to mobilise Uygurs to attack China.

It is going to get dragged into regional geopolitics in the longer term, though, and while China has managed to avoid such clashes so far, it will eventually have to make some hard choices.

Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid such forks in the road, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland. China might enjoy the American withdrawal from Afghanistan but, in the longer term, the scales might tip more towards challenge than opportunity.

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

Another short comment piece, this time for the Telegraph, looking at the withdrawal announcement from Afghanistan. Suppose we still have to see what actually transpires, but this decision does feel different. There’s another piece in the pipeline on this topic from a different angle, which you will have to check back and see.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan is the right call, but at what price?

The invasion became a Sisyphean endeavour but many Afghans worry about what it means for the Taliban’s return of power and influence

The Taliban has learned that by simply holding on, victory against even the mightiest military machine is possible CREDIT: Jim Hollander /REUTERS

As emotionally challenging as it might seem, President Biden’s decision to end the United States commitment to Afghanistan is probably the right call.

Many American Presidents have come into power declaring they will end their country’s involvement in the conflict, only to find themselves continually stuck in the mire. Having repeatedly pushed for a shrunken US presence during the Obama administration, Mr Biden is now finally in a position to force the decision through. 

It is exaggerated to say this is the end of American power, but it does highlight the limitations of a form of conflict that dominated the 2000s.

While the initial impetus for going into Afghanistan was to destroy Al-Qaeda and punish those who supported it, as time went on it became clear that what the Western alliance was getting into was in fact merely the latest phase in a conflict that has been troubling Afghanistan for decades.

Trying to resolve the larger conflict was something that would likely take generations of state building and transformation – none of which was necessarily wanted or accepted by everybody in Afghanistan.

The invasion became a Sisyphean endeavour being carried out while people died, vast sums of money were spent and political capital slowly ebbed away.

The other key lesson is being learned by insurgent and terrorist organizations, who can see once again that by simply holding on, victory against even the mightiest military machine is possible.

While the direct threat to the west from terrorist groups in Afghanistan is vastly reduced (though not entirely gone away, there is a case currently on trial in Germany of a cell who were talking to the Islamic State in Afghanistan), Al-Qaeda will undoubtedly celebrate the victory loudly and the Taliban will no doubt present themselves as victors. Terrorists may gather again in the ungoverned spaces that emerge from the withdrawal. 

Nevertheless, it is far from clear that we will see another attack on the scale of September 11, 2001. Intelligence agencies are far savvier about the potential of such threats and while withdrawal means coverage of Afghanistan will go down, it will not entirely go away. 

Within Afghanistan, people are concerned about the Taliban’s return of power and influence.

An organization with a medievalist outlook that has not significantly changed in the past twenty years, it still clearly has substantial appeal among Afghans.

Many in the country are doubtless concerned about a return to the civil war and warlordism that scourged the country during the 1990s. Both of these are sadly possible outcomes.

But this is not the same country as it was before. And it is not clear that all the gains of the past two decades will immediately be lost.

Regional powers still have a vested interest in ensuring that some stability exists, and that violence in the country does not get too out of hand.

The key question in all of this, however, is what the Afghan people want and how their leaders will help them achieve it. The ultimate answer to Afghanistan’s long troubles will only ever come from within the country.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)