Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

A final column for last year, this time a forward look at Central Asia in 2023 for Nikkei Asia Review, repeats the same format last year. The last one became somewhat obsolete quickly in large part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It remains to be seen how this one will play out.

2023 outlook: Central Asia is not out of the woods yet

Spillover effects from Ukraine and Afghanistan, so far limited, still pose risk

Vladimir Putin met with other presidents at the Central Asia-Russia summit in Astana on Oct. 14: Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner.   © Reuters

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

It has been a tumultuous year for Central Asia. It started with large-scale internal violence and is ending with talk of a formal alliance between the region’s two most powerful players, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Yet uncertainty remains on the horizon for the coming year, with the potential for violence to boil over, geopolitics to come crashing down around regional states or internal pressures to escalate once again.

The biggest question that still hangs in the balance is what will happen next in fellow former Soviet republic Ukraine. With little sign of an end to its conflict with Russia in sight, Central Asia will continue to find Moscow a complicated partner with which to engage over the coming year.

So far, gloomy economic predictions offered in the immediate wake of Russia’s invasion have not played out.

Higher energy prices have meant increased revenues for energy-rich Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Rather than falling as expected, remittances from Central Asian migrant workers in Russia have risen, thanks to a surge in demand for labor, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Meanwhile, Russian and Belarusian companies seeking to get around Western sanctions have set up operations in the region, as have some Western companies exiting Russia.

These trends helped prompt the EBRD to raise its 2022 gross domestic product growth forecast for the region to 4.3% in September from just 1.1% in May. It also adjusted its 2023 outlook to 4.9% from 4.7%.

It remains to be seen whether these trends can hold.

Europe’s desire to get access to Central Asian energy was on clear display during European Council President Charles Michel’s visit to the region in October. But the same fundamental problems that have long held up trans-Caspian energy routes persist and are unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

Other world leaders are courting the region, too, with Chinese President Xi Jinping choosing Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage, a stream of U.S. officials coming through and Russian President Vladimir Putin taking advantage of some of the few doors around still open to him.

Xi Jinping and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Astana on Sept. 14: The Chinese president chose Central Asia for his post-COVID return to the international stage. (Handout photo from press service of the president of Kazakhstan)   © Reuters

But despite the surge of attention and economic resilience so far, the Ukraine conflict could still carry major downsides for Central Asia.

The Russian economy could still implode, or the geopolitical balance that Central Asia has managed to strike could suddenly shift.

There has also been little international condemnation or fallout from the instability seen earlier this year in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the continuing crackdown in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region or violent border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The general attitude taken by outside powers, including the usually accusatory Western ones, is to simply move past these issues, hoping the governments will be able to handle them.

But the raft of incidents this year exposed a dangerous risk. The large-scale violence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was a shock to most observers. While things appear to have settled down, the unrest underscored that there are potential issues bubbling under the surface, even in the region’s traditionally more stable countries, which could lead to widespread problems.

What other surprises lie beneath the surface is of course unknown. Few, for example, would confidently speculate about what exactly is going on in Turkmenistan.

A more clear and present danger can be found across the border in Afghanistan, where the Taliban continue to exert a weak grip on power. The Islamist regime may face no direct and obvious challenger, but it is clearly unable to enforce its mandate very far.

This has particular repercussions for Central Asia, due to the continuing threat of Islamic State Khorasan as it broadcasts threats in regional languages and seeks recruits from its outposts in Afghanistan.

Led mostly by Uzbekistan, Central Asia has sought to answer Afghanistan’s problems with a push for connectivity with South Asia, but the cost of realizing this dream is prohibitively high for the countries involved to absorb themselves. International finance could help, but Taliban rule continues to pose a threat to project completion.

So far, much external engagement with the region has focused on security support for mitigating potential problems from Afghanistan, rather than large-scale transformative investment.

China remains an important partner, and the end of zero COVID might bring new economic exchanges, but it is unlikely that Beijing will be willing to expend much to realize Central-South Asian connectivity dreams.

Meanwhile, although Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have started to make a show of strengthening their promising partnership, Putin’s proposal to join with the two Central Asian states in a “natural gas union” has not been flatly rejected.

There is a long history of grand Central Asian visions that have not managed to catch on, so it remains to be seen how these trends will play out.

The fallout from Ukraine has so far not been as bad as initially expected. And while Afghanistan remains a problem, the spillover has been limited so far.

Yet the downside risk in both cases for Central Asia remains high. The new year looks to be a challenging one.

Longer piece in The Diplomat last month taking a wide ranging look at China’s relationship with the Taliban. Since then there have been even more developments which hopefully should be covered in coming pieces. So keep coming back for more!

Inheriting the Storm: Beijing’s Difficult new Relationship with Kabul

Far from inheriting an opportunity, China finds itself encumbered with an ever-expanding roster of problems in Afghanistan, which it is showing little interest in trying to resolve or own. 

Taliban guards stand guard in Mes Aynak valley, some 40 kilometers (25 miles), southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday 30 October, 2021. AP Photo, Ahmad Halabisaz

The Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021 left China with a dilemma. Not only did Beijing now share a border with a country ruled by a group considered a terrorist pariah by much of the world, but China was also the closest strategic ally of the Taliban’s principal supporter in the international arena, Pakistan. As the rest of the world withdrew from Afghanistan, Beijing suddenly found itself in an influential position by default, juggling a number of key relationships without having the shield of U.S. hard power to ultimately hide behind.

In many ways, the image of a sea receding from shore is a useful analogy. While the United States and its allies were present in Afghanistan bolstering the Republic government, a sea washed over Afghanistan that hid a number of issues. As the U.S. and its allies left, this tide retreated, exposing brutal realities on the ground. Among those was the fact that China has no real choice but to engage with Afghanistan given its geographical position and its security concerns on the ground.

Yet this reality has had a remarkably limited effect on China’s actual activity in Afghanistan and the wider region. In many ways, Beijing has sought to continue the relatively limited engagement efforts that were being undertaken prior to the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. The oft quoted narrative of a Chinese surge was overplayed.

Prior to the collapse of the Republic, Beijing was a partner of the Afghan government, exploring economic opportunities as well as addressing key security concerns. They also explored working with other countries in Afghanistan (like the United States, India, or European powers), and followed through on some limited programming. China was a provider of vaccines and other COVID-19 management tools and had participated in the many different regional engagements that sought to help Afghanistan, including creating specific trilateral formats bringing together Afghan and Pakistani officials. Following the collapse of the Republic government, the level of activity at an official level has stayed similar, though changed to adapt to the new authorities in Kabul.

In security terms, China cooperated closely with the Republic on Uyghur militants Beijing saw gathering in Afghanistan. They are still trying to build this relationship with the Taliban.

The closing months of the Republic were confusing in this regard.The Republic’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) moved definitively against China by detaining a network of Chinese intelligence agents active in the capital in December 2020. Both Beijing and Kabul worked closely together to keep the story out of the public domain, with then-Vice President (and former NDS chief) Amrullah Saleh tasked to manage the relationship by President Ashraf Ghani.

By early 2021, the relationship had been built up again to the point that Saleh was attending events at the Chinese embassy and praising what China was doing in Xinjiang, while at the same time highlighting through social media the links between Uyghur militants and the Taliban (something the U.S. government had sought to break by delisting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, ETIM, as a terrorist organization in November 2020).

But as the year went on, the relationship between Beijing and Kabul broke down, with the Afghan side refusing to turn over militant Uyghurs it had caught (as Kabul had done previously).Confirmation of this came in the news that when the Taliban swept through, releasing prisoners in Republic custody, a number of Uyghurs prisoners were among those released. Exactly what led to the rupture is unclear, with stories circulating about the proximity of the Republic government to India, unfulfilled information exchange requests, or something financial.

What exactly happened is still unclear. But as the Taliban swept across the country in 2021, China seemed to increasingly pull back from the Republic government and showed itself even more willing to engage with the Taliban. Beijing even hosted top Taliban figure Mullah Baradar and a delegation in Tianjin, where they met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in July 2021. Still, Beijing was careful to continue to maintain the appearance of good relations with the Republic. Shortly before the Taliban’s visit, Chinese leaderXi Jinping spoke by telephone with Afghan President Ghani, likely in part to smooth relations. But it was clear that by this point, relations between the Republic and China were in a difficult place.

By late summer of 2021, Beijing had read the runes and concluded that no matter what happened, the Taliban were going to take some degree of power in Kabul, and this mandated establishing closer links. That approach set a path that Beijing was able to take advantage of when the Republic government finally fell and the Taliban took over.

In the wake of the precipitous U.S. and NATO withdrawal, the public discourse around China in Afghanistan went into overdrive. The chaotic nature of the withdrawal fit with a wider narrative –fanned by Beijing (and Moscow, too) – of Western decline. China’s geographical proximity, engagement with the Taliban, as well as longstanding history of announced (if unfulfilled) investments inAfghanistan all fed a narrative of Beijing stepping in to fill a vacuum left by the United States. People saw the reports of vast untapped mineral wealth and assumed the insatiable Chinese industrial machine would be eager to consume it.

Yet in reality these narratives were vastly overblown. China had long been a frustrating partner economically for the Afghan Republic. Deals had been signed, but no progress had been made. Chinese contractors came and worked on infrastructure projects, but little of the money was actually Chinese; rather it was World Bank or other international financial institution projects with the Chinese simply serving as contractors. Trade was underwhelming, and Beijing seemed unwilling to really find ways of tyingAfghanistan into Xi’s connectivity vision, the Belt and Road Initiative. Once the pandemic broke out, China did step in and provide some medical aid, which was welcomed in the beleaguered country, but this was offset by the sudden closure of the Chinese market to Afghanistan.

On the security side, Beijing and the Republic had a fairly easy relationship. The Republic authorities were quite happy to arrest and turn over any Uyghur militants China sought, as they were for the most part fighting for, or allied with, the Taliban. At the same time, they were willing to accept the fact that China maintained a connection to the Taliban, though frustrations did seep through. Reports that the Chinese, at various points, had supplied arms to the Taliban naturally caused tensions, but the Republic government always saw a greater upside in trying to engage withChina economically than become distracted by this frustration, which was not perceived as a strategic issue.

The Republic continually sought to keep China onside. For example, the Republic did not follow the United States in denying the existence of and delisting ETIM, a closing act by the Trump administration to destabilize things with China. Instead, senior Republic officials continued to refer to the group by the name ETIM and highlighted the links between the Taliban and Uyghur militants. They also seemed willing to defend publicly China’s mass detentions and surveillance in Xinjiang, in stark contrast to the narrative Washington was pushing.

The most complicated part of the relationship was Beijing’s ties with Pakistan. Here, Kabul repeatedly hoped that China would use its influence in Islamabad to try and advance concerns they had. Yet, there was little evidence of this happening. While China did establish a trilateral foreign ministerial format between Kabul, Islamabad, and Beijing, as well as use its influence in Islamabad to bring the Taliban and Pakistanis to the table with Kabul at various moments, none of this was able to change the conflict on the ground. And notwithstanding cooperation on counterterrorism questions related to Uyghurs, there was a shadow of paranoia across China’s engagement with the Republic’s security apparatus, thanks to the latter’s deep relationship with the United States.

Afghans were often frustrated by the China-Pakistan EconomicCorridor (CPEC). They pointed out that while China talked about the Belt and Road in Afghanistan, very little was actually forthcoming, in contrast to the billions pumped into Pakistan. Trying to allay this, in 2019, China pushed the idea of encouraging greater cross-border trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan through the establishment of better facilities and refrigeration points for fruits to go back and forth across the border. This fit into a wider pattern of trying to link the CPEC to Afghanistan, an approach that usually found hostility in Islamabad alongside innumerable practical problems on the ground.

The arrival of the Taliban in Kabul changed the dynamic between Kabul and Islamabad (and Beijing), though not necessarily as much as might have been expected. Relations between the Taliban and Islamabad have proven to be as fractious as they were between the Republic and Islamabad. For China, having long cultivated a relationship with the Taliban, it was easy for Beijing to continue operating in Kabul after they took over. The Chinese embassy did not evacuate in the face of the takeover, though they warnedChinese nationals to find ways out of the country or stay in secure locations. Chinese businesspeople in the city reportedly fended for themselves, while the embassy at one point was reduced to calling on Western support to evacuate citizens as their own plans failed.

But once the hump of the takeover was done, China quickly slipped into a strong public support mode, concluding that the Republic was done and Beijing needed to rapidly establish a relationship with the new authorities. Foreign Minister Wang Yi was an active figure on the regional conference circuit, using every opportunity to push for sanctions relief for the new government while his officials regularly taunted Americans over the failure in Afghanistan.

They were also quick to rekindle the formats that Beijing had established between the Republic and Islamabad, as well as try to find ways of engaging with the Taliban through the many regional formats that have developed over the years around the country. The trilateral ministerial engagement was restarted, and Beijing has reportedly also brought together senior intelligence figures from Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss problems.

On the economic front, they restarted the “pine nut air corridor” that had been established under the Republic. The corridor sought to quickly bring Afghan pine nuts to the Chinese market, and the government helped make sure they were immediately promoted and sold on high-profile online influencer channels. Aid came in to support the ongoing fight against COVID-19. During the winter of2021, the Xinjiang regional government gave just under $50 million in supplies and aid to the authorities in the neighboring Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, and Baghlan.

By November 2022, Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu highlighted how his country had given “300 million RMB in emergency aid to Afghanistan and continued to complete 1 billion RMB in bilateral aid.” He also confirmed that as of December 1, zero tariffs would be levied on 98 percent of products from Afghanistan being sold to China. Afghan carpets were on display at the China International Import Expo (CIIE) this year.

But big ticket deals have moved much slower, if at all. While China National Petroleum Corporation and Metallurgical Group Corp, the two firms responsible for the biggest projects in Afghanistan – an oil concession in the Amu Darya region in the north and the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar – have re-engaged with the Taliban authorities, there is little evidence they are moving quickly forward. In an apparent demonstration of a total lack of awareness of the nature of the project (or the earlier signed contract), the Taliban authorities in early November announced that the Mes Aynak project would need more electricity. This highlighted a larger problem that Chinese operators find on the ground, which isa counterpart in the Taliban that lacks much expertise to manage large projects.

The economic problems resonate across the border in Pakistan, too. In an attempt to save money, Pakistan took advantage of the low cost of Afghan coal and the fact that Afghan coal miners lack export options and increased its purchases. But once the story got out that Pakistan was taking advantage of Afghanistan’s problems, the authorities in Kabul hiked up the price of coal. This, however, blew back on the Chinese power companies working in Pakistan, which had arrived as part of CPEC and had long purchased cheapAfghan coal. They complained to the Taliban and continue to lobby to get them to lower the prices once again. Chinese coal miner Chinalco has even started to engage with the Taliban to explore opportunities in the country to get a direct Chinese hand into the industry.

Looking beyond the economy, however, China’s biggest concern about the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the growing militant nexus that sees China as an important adversary. This has been seen most sharply in Pakistan, where there has been a notable expansion of groups targeting Chinese interests. From being mostly targeted by Baloch or Sindhi separatists, Chinese in Pakistan now find themselves under fire from networks linked to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as well as rumors of Uyghur militants within the country working with local partners.

The murder of the Karachi University Confucius Institute director by a female suicide bomber dispatched by the Majeed Brigade in April 2022 crossed a new Rubicon as it showed the Baloch groups were broadening out their range of targets from CPEC-specific projects to any Chinese in the country. A number of Chinese nationals evacuated Pakistan afterward.

It seems to be no coincidence that the surge in violence against Chinese nationals happened alongside the Taliban takeover (though it had already been building for some time). At a practical level, the takeover released a vast amount of weaponry left behind by the Afghan National Army and its Western allies, but it also strengthened a number of militant groups, like the TTP or Baloch organizations, that are increasingly targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan and often have bases in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has put out far more anti-Chinese propaganda than any other organization. It dispatched a suicide bomber who claimed to be aUyghur against a Shia mosque in Kunduz in October last year. In claiming the attack, ISKP specifically referenced Beijing’s close relationship with the Taliban as a motivating factor.

All of this adds up to a deeply worrying threat picture for China. While previously Beijing could somewhat hide behind others (the United States), it is now seen as the big power in the region, and it is finding itself facing all of the problems that come with that label.

Additionally, China has not been able to establish the same sort of security relationship with the Taliban as it had with the Republic. While China has repeatedly demanded that the Taliban do something about Uyghur militants, thus far all the Taliban seem to have done is move them from one part of the country to another, from Badakhshan to provinces in Afghanistan’s interior. There have been reports that the Haqqani-linked parts of the Taliban government have worked to support Chinese aims, but there are no reports of people being captured and repatriated, as happened routinely under the Republic.

In a demonstration perhaps of how comfortable he was in Afghanistan, Abdul Haq, the leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP, the name the Uyghur militant group often referred to as ETIM gives itself) released a video of himself talking to a large crowd of followers and their children celebrating Eid 2022 in Afghanistan. As of now, it does not seem as though there is any appetite in the Taliban government to turn over their close allies.

And the reality is that Beijing is not entirely committed either. All of the big economic talk has not resulted in the investment theTaliban desperately want. Rather, there has been a surge of entrepreneurial Chinese businesspeople into Afghanistan, spotting opportunities posed by a nearby country where, broadly stated, violence suddenly diminished and where there were lots of potential mining and other opportunities. Such Chinese entrepreneurs as a group are a hardy bunch. Their risk threshold is much higher than others (witness the challenging parts of Africa where numerous Chinese firms have decided to go). None of what has been seen in Afghanistan seems to be state directed, but rather is pushed by individuals, small companies, and in some cases regional state-owned enterprises. Beijing itself is barely involved, except in allowing permission for individuals to travel and for the potential material to return home.

But even these entrepreneurs find themselves frustrated, with reports that some early investors have already decided it is impossible to do business in Afghanistan and packed up to go home, writing off their large early investments.

The Chinese embassy in Kabul has avoided these negative stories, and instead championed positive ones – like the multi-modal train and truck route that was opened up between Afghanistan and Zhejiang. Home to the massive international trading market at Yiwu, Zhejiang has long been a place where Afghan business people go. Opening up the route was entirely the product of smart Afghans and some folk in Zhejiang, rather than anything coordinated or concocted by Beijing.

This is the reality of the current relationship between China and Afghanistan. While Beijing continues to talk up its positive acts in the country, it has in fact done very little in practical terms. What Chinese activity is taking place on the ground is often driven by private enterprise, and there is a growing level of frustration in Kabul about the slow pace of bigger projects that could have a more substantial impact on the Afghan economy. On the Chinese side, there is frustration about the Taliban’s inability to deliver on outcomes and an awareness that Afghanistan’s problems are already starting to export themselves around the region.

Far from inheriting an opportunity, China finds itself encumbered with an ever expanding roster of problems in Afghanistan which it is showing little interest in trying to resolve. The Taliban remain a frustrating partner, while Pakistan continues to be a source of concern that struggles with security at home while cozying up toChina’s adversary the United States. Never comfortable in an outright leadership role, China finds itself walking a dangerous tightrope in a region where its actual leverage and capability to achieve goals is limited.

A new piece for the South China Morning Post this time exploring the fact that all of the prognostications of China, Russia and other adversary powers sweeping into Afghanistan have not come to pass. In fact, they all appear to have more complicated relations with the Taliban than the US does at this point. There is more to say on this topic, so look out for a refresh soon.

China won’t be filling the void left by the US in Afghanistan any time soon

  • Rather than being quick to gain an edge in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal, China, along with Russia and Iran, remains uneasy about security threats coming from the country
  • Meanwhile, the Taliban government is frustrated at the lack of economic support being provided by its neighbours

A Taliban fighter stands guard at Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop in Kabul on August 30, the one-year anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. A year and a half on from its withdrawal, the US has managed to establish a regional foothold which enables it to at least deal with some of its security concerns. Photo: AFP

There was a lazy narrative that emerged in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Kabul that this would be a major victory for China. The operating assumption was that Beijing would swoop in and fill the geopolitical void left by the Western withdrawal.

Underpinning this was a general sense of Western decay which “adversary” powers – China, Russia, Iran – would be able to take advantage of. Yet as we have seen ahead of this month’s meetings known as the Moscow format talks, these powers are having as many, if not more, problems with the Taliban government as the West.

The Moscow format is a Russia-initiated group that was established in 2017 to bring together Afghanistan’s neighbours. It includes Russia, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The last meeting of the group was held in October 2021 and included representatives from the Taliban, who walked away from the session feeling that there was a “positive atmosphere”. The format also agreed to treat the Taliban as the de facto authorities in Afghanistan (acknowledging without acknowledgement) and sought to put pressure on the United States to lift all sanctions against the regime.

It is consequently quite a turnaround for Russian coordinator Zamir Kabulov to announce that “the Taliban delegation will not take part [in the meeting], it is only for members of the Moscow format”. The format in his view was to focus on fostering closer cooperation among Afghanistan’s neighbours, while encouraging the Taliban to act on women’s rights and deal with terrorist threats.

Kabulov did not offer any explanation for not inviting the Taliban to the talks. It is not hard, however, to guess why.

The decision is likely linked to a growing frustration among Afghanistan’s neighbours at the Taliban’s seeming inability to deal with the security threats they are all worried about. The ISKP, an affiliate of the Islamic State militant group, has lashed out in its neighbourhood with little evidence of an effective Taliban response.

Iranian authorities have pinned the recent terrorist attack that killed 15 at a shrine in Shiraz on ISKP, while the group also claimed responsibility for the attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul in September that killed two Russian officials, among others. Rocket attacks on Central Asia that came from Afghanistan have also been claimed by the group.

China has so far been spared any direct assault, but the ISKP’s publications are full of anti-Chinese narratives. And Beijing continues to be frustrated by the Taliban’s failure to crack down on armed Uygur groups that are living in the country.

The irritation goes both ways. The Taliban have also found themselves frustrated by the level of commitment from some of Afghanistan’s neighbours. While Central Asian countries have sought a tight economic embrace to help stabilise the country, China has delivered very little.

Beijing has sent some aid, but much of the economic activity seen in Afghanistan has been driven by private enterprise. The large Chinese state-owned enterprises with interests in Afghanistan have held numerous meetings, but actual progress has been slow.

Russia has sent delegations of officials to Kabul and hosted Taliban interim Minister of Industry and Commerce Nooruddin Azizi. They have signed agreements about food, oil and aid, but investment has not been forthcoming.

This stands in contrast to the success of the United States in dealing with its direct security concerns – as exemplified by the drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The US has also provided at least US$327 million in aid, and has opened direct lines of communication with the Taliban through meetings in Kabul and Doha attended by the CIA chief and his deputy, respectively.

The US has also leaned heavily into its security cooperation with Afghanistan’s Central Asian and South Asian neighbours. At the same time, Washington has not compromised on handing over money it had frozen in the wake of the Taliban takeover, instead creating a special fund in Switzerland which will manage the money to pay for key national requirements like electricity.

This has not been seen as positive by the Taliban, who remain furious at Washington for “usurping” their money. And yet, the approach has borne some fruit for the US. The release in September of US prisoner Mark Frerichs in exchange for a Taliban warlord and drug dealer in American detention reflects an ability to strike an agreement with the Taliban that pleases both sides. And it is likely other agreements have been reached behind the scenes too.

It is not impossible that both China and Russia have sought similar arrangements, but the public optics are noticeably different. Russia failing to invite the Taliban to the Moscow format follows growing irritation in Kabul around the lack of Chinese investment, and growing concern in Iran about terrorist attacks on its territory.

A year and a half on from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, we have come full circle. The much vaunted vacuum has not been filled by regional “adversary” powers, while the United States has managed to establish a regional foothold which enables it to at least deal with some of its security concerns.

So much for the narratives of China filling the void.

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

Almost caught up on re-publishing my writing here after a long period of delay, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit pointing to the optics of the session as one of the key attractions to some of the members.

China and Russia to showcase alternative world order at SCO Summit

Samarkand gathering demonstrates sanctioned states still have allies of substance

Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.   © 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)

As the West advances a world order constructed around institutional structures developed after World War II, those leading the charge against the West are embracing their own institutions to demonstrate their options.

This week, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will hold its annual heads of state summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, bringing together Russia, China, Iran and a host of other nations. The narrative these countries want to advance is that there is another order out there beyond the Western-imposed one, as thin as it often seems on closer inspection.

This year’s summit is attracting more interest than previously as Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The fact that he has chosen Central Asia and an SCO heads of state summit to do this, even before confirmation of his third term as Communist Party leader at the party’s congress next month, is a reflection of the importance of the SCO to Beijing.

The exact agenda of the summit is still being set, but it is likely that Afghanistan, new members and connectivity will be key items.

Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver. With the full accession of Iran to the group next year, Afghanistan will be almost entirely engulfed geographically by full SCO members, save for uncompromisingly neutral Turkmenistan, but Iran has been joining SCO summits for a while and Turkmenistan will be there this year too.

Taliban fighters in Kabul celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops on Aug. 31: Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver.   © AP

Notwithstanding the bloc’s clear interest in resolving Afghanistan’s long-standing issues, the organization has done nothing to help it, nor has it come together effectively to deal with the problems emanating from the country.

It is unlikely we will see much material progress this time either amid continuing uncertainty about the longer-term viability of the Taliban authorities, as well as concerns about their mixed attempts to rein in militant groups.

The answer from Uzbekistan’s perspective has been to seek ways of trying to engage with the new Taliban authorities. It has been keen for some time to push a narrative of greater connectivity across Eurasia.

Rather than simply piggyback on China’s Belt and Road Initiative vision, Tashkent has sought to instead cultivate a vision of connectivity between Central and South Asia, to both tap markets and seek escape from the region’s landlocked nature.

But these practical issues are side stories to the main narrative that will emerge from the Samarkand summit.

Attendees are expected to include the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mongolia, Iran and Belarus, which are each seeking to highlight their inclusion and links to the SCO. Rumors suggest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may appear too.

In joining with the leaders of existing members Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and China, they will be part of a constellation of powers that for various reasons, and to different degrees, have tensions with the West.

For all of these powers, there is a pleasing visual utility to being present at a colloquium of such stature, representing at least a third of the world’s population and with no Westerners present. They can all show that notwithstanding the sanctions or sanctimony thrown at them by the West, they have allies of substance who welcome them with open arms.

There is no doubt that the SCO is nowhere near capable of competing with entities like the Group of Seven, NATO or the EU, but this is not the point. The organization is one that marches to its own beat, has only grown in its 20-plus years and continues to enlarge the volume of topics that it engages on.

It has helped normalize China’s role as a major player on the Eurasian continent while also providing an opportunity for Chinese diplomats, officials and business executives to engage regularly at multiple levels with their neighbors and a growing range of countries. Even supposed Western allies like India and Turkey see value in showing up for the meetings to soak in a non-Western-led order that they can appreciate being involved in.

There is no doubt that the members have little trust in one another, and the international order they are building is flawed. But at the same time, the interesting question is whether this matters to them.

The optics are good enough as the summitry gets positive play in other parts of the world. The event presents the impression, with some apparent foundation, that the democratic order advanced by the West is not the only achievable structure out there.

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.

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.

Another book edited extract published a little while ago, this time in Foreign Policy drawing on the chapter on Afghanistan.

China Is Doomed to Play a Significant Role in Afghanistan

Beijing is desperate to avoid being trapped in Kabul’s politics.

For decades, Beijing has worried about security in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, Beijing worried about the possibility of Uyghur militants using camps in Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against China. Then, in the early 2000s, Chinese workers were killed and kidnapped in the country. China also shares a remote but direct border with Afghanistan, and even before the Taliban takeover, increasing violence in the wider region gave China good reason to worry.

Despite this, China’s approach to its neighbor for a long time was, as prominent Central Asia analyst Zhao Huasheng1 aptly characterized it, essentially to act as an observer, leaving security questions to the United States and its allies. That changed in 2012, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he wanted to get Washington out of the conflict he had inherited. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal came into sharper relief, Beijing realized that it would have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. Even then—and even after security concerns rose once again after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021—China never fully came to assume that role.

The Taliban takeover in 2021 came after we had concluded writing our book Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. But many of the trends and patterns we observed continued to hold. Although China has undeniably stepped into a far more prominent role than ever before, it has continued to hedge its bets and refused to take on a leadership role in the country. China’s unwillingness to take on that role, even though it is increasingly being thrust into it, serves as a perfect example of the central concept our book: China is doomed to play a significant role in the country, but is studiously avoiding it.

China’s clear, yet gradual, shift from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement in Afghanistan took place over the past decade.

The most visible and significant element of China’s newfound attention on Afghanistan was Politburo member and security supremo Zhou Yongkang’s visit2 to Kabul in September 2012—the first visit by a Politburo-level Chinese official to Afghanistan since 1966.

But even earlier that year, when we visited Afghanistan, China was seeking to advance diplomacy with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In February 2012, Beijing hosted3 the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue. Then, in May 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department initiated a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. The group of a dozen young diplomats would get a 15-day experience in Beijing, followed by another 15 days in Washington.

That June, as China was hosting the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’ agreement with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai and welcomed the country as an official SCO observer state. Just over a month later, then-Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Guo Boxiong met with then-Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak to ‘enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in order to contribute to bilateral strategic cooperation.’

The signaling was clear. As Washington approached a drawdown, China was going to have to step in more, though the extent of it was unclear. Yet there were clearly dissenters in Beijing, and many of the security-focused Chinese officials and experts we met were quite clear that this was a problem of Washington’s making that China wanted little to do with.

All of this change in Chinese activity was, however, undermined by the fact that Washington did not leave. In the end, Obama did not withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Although its presence shrunk considerably, the United States retained a capability to launch attacks and kept bases in the country.

Meanwhile, within China, security concerns increased. In April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang. This came after a tumultuous period where incidents linked to Xinjiang spread across the country—including a car and incendiary device attack on Tiananmen Square, a mass stabbing incident in Kunming, and escalating violence in Xinjiang itself. Just as Xi was leaving Xinjiang, attackers launched a knife and bomb attack4 on the train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

In his speeches about the threat in 2014, Xi made a clear link between what was going on in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. Beijing’s answer to this concern appears to have been to push a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing escalated its engagement with the Afghan authorities, building on what was already being done to create a wave of bilateral and multilateral formats with other partners in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it strengthened its contacts with the Taliban, making sure it was covering its bases for all eventualities. It seemed as though China was going to take on a more active role in the country, aware of the fact that no matter whether the United States stayed or left, it was likely to be an erratic partner Beijing could not rely on.

In July 2014, China appointed Sun Yuxi,5 a popular former ambassador to Kabul, as its first special envoy for Afghanistan. His role was to serve as a point of contact and a coordinator for China’s engagement with the Taliban, and after his arrival, there was a noticeable uptick in public engagement among China, the Taliban, and the Afghan government.

When Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan’s president that September, he immediately signaled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his first formal trip abroad. During this visit, he laid the groundwork for formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early 2015, stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations; officials we spoke to in Beijing said they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting6 with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi. In July, another round of talks was held in Pakistan, at which Chinese participants also played a role.This was followed by more multilateral engagements.

The Chinese-supported peace track seemed to be bearing fruit, until abruptly, in late July 2015, news leaked that Taliban leader Mullah Omar7 had died back in 2013. This declaration scuttled the discussions and set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced over his successor. It also complicated China’s role, since it was not clear whom Beijing would engage with on the Taliban side.

Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan government to negotiate with full confidence or for Beijing to feel like it could do much. Chinese officials we spoke to at the time almost immediately fell back into stating that it was up to the United States to step up and support the Afghan government and its national security forces. They further noted that until there was greater clarity about who the main Taliban negotiator was, talks were unlikely to bear much fruit.

But it seemed that China maintained its contacts with the Taliban. In fact, Beijing has had a long history of contacts with the Taliban, dating to when the group was in power in Kabul before September 2001. At the time, China was one of the few countries that engaged with them, though this was largely through China’s contacts in Islamabad.

 Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque. Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, on July 31, 2014, as China increased security in many parts of the province.Getty Images 

In the early days, Beijing seemed to focus its discussions on ensuring that any trouble in Afghanistan did not spill into China and that the Taliban maintained control over Uyghur groups. Some Chinese experts who visited Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s told us they were surprised during their visit to learn of large numbers of Uyghur militants in the country. Taliban authorities reportedly sought to reassure Beijing that they would stop these individuals from launching attacks against China, though it was never clear whether the Uyghur groups adhered to this and did not launch attacks or use the territory to plot against China. We later met individuals who had been to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and al Qaeda-managed camps who told us stories—corroborated by others—of Uyghurs in the camps in large numbers.

In 2015, it seemed as though China decided to use its contacts with the Taliban to help protect its longer-term interests in the country. Aside from seeking to broker greater discussions among the Taliban, Pakistan, and the government in Kabul, China also sought to bring the United States into the discussions. Around this time, Beijing was engaged in numerous bilateral, multilateral, and minilateral engagements concerning Afghanistan.

One senior Afghan diplomat told us during a session in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that he was exhausted from running between these different events, though it was not clear to him how useful they were. Other Afghans we spoke to were far more scathing about Beijing’s engagement behind closed doors. One former senior defense official told us that they had been forced to dispose of most of the equipment that China had handed over, claiming ‘it was full of bugs.’ Others said they had evidence that Beijing was paying off and providing military equipment to the Taliban to develop contacts and maintain influence, something that was partially confirmed to us by a Chinese contact who mentioned in passing being involved in handing over bags of money to Taliban contacts. We were never able to independently confirm this, but it did speak to a greater sense of confidence in Beijing about what China was doing in Afghanistan.

In March 2016, then-Chinese People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui visited Kabul, seemingly to help start a new minilateral regional organization. That organization, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM), brought together the chiefs of army staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan ‘to coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training,’ according to a statement8 by the Chinese defense ministry.

By bringing together senior security officials with all the countries that had a presence around the Wakhan Corridor, China was helping secure its own border and creating a format through which it could monitor it. The structure also formalized the People’s Liberation Army’s responsibilities in Afghanistan.

Alongside the creation of the QCCM, China started to make its security contributions to the other members of the group more public. In Afghanistan, Beijing revealed it had helped build a base and was providing funding for a mountain security force in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. Locals reported seeing Chinese soldiers patrolling the region. Other reports highlighted how Afghan forces were being trained in China. In Tajikistan, China built around a dozen border posts for Tajik border guards as well as a base for its own forces in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. China was, in essence, creating a security buffer to seal itself off from direct threats from its border regions with Afghanistan.

Although the China-Afghanistan relationship continued to stay relatively strong over the next few years, in the dying days of Afghanistan’s government under Ghani, there was growing turmoil between the two countries. The first loud signal of trouble was the U.S. decision in November 2020 to de-list the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement9 from its list of terrorist organizations. It was a decision Kabul reportedly did not agree with and one that caused friction with China.

Then, in December 2020, a spy scandal erupted with the Afghan National Directorate of Security detaining a network of 10 Chinese nationals who, it claimed, were spies undertaking covert activities against the government in Kabul. The Afghan and Chinese governments worked to keep the story out of the media and rushed to get the spies out on a private jet back to China, denying everything, though the story was leaked in considerable detail to the Indian media.

But the Afghan government was very careful about how it handled the scandal. Unlike the United States that was now heading for the door, Kabul recognized that it needed to maintain a working relationship with Beijing.

It was later revealed that their counterterrorism relationship had also come under strain, with Kabul apparently stopping its regular repatriation of Uyghur militants it caught on the battlefield. This was made public when in the wake of Kabul’s fall, news emerged that some 30 or so Uyghurs who had been in custody were released when the Taliban emptied the country’s prisons.

But this revelation cut both ways: On the one hand, it showed how the relationship between Kabul and Beijing had broken down, but it was also an early indication of the Taliban’s lack of capability or interest in managing the problem of militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan to Beijing’s desires (highlighted by the fact that they freed them).

In current Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there is no denying that China is more prominent. The Chinese Embassy was one of the few that stayed during the Taliban takeover. A number of Chinese businessmen are reportedly showing up to try their fortune. China has engaged with, participated in, and hosted numerous regional formats on Afghanistan. It has also sponsored some limited bilateral trade efforts and provided aid of some substance across the country, and Chinese state-owned enterprises have started to talk about restarting their projects with Taliban authorities. China has done everything except formally acknowledge the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan—a step it is unlikely to take until it sees others in the international community do so first.

But talk to Chinese experts, and the picture is more circumspect. They hold little hope for the Taliban to create an inclusive government, see instability on the horizon, and worry about the worsening security situation in the broader region.

Although China has spoken of Afghanistan as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and some recent trade has started, in reality, the tangible economic links between China and Afghanistan amount to the export of Afghan pine nuts to China and the construction of a fiberoptic cable down the Wakhan Corridor to help Afghanistan get on the internet. Talk about the BRI in Kabul, and people will say good things and hope for greater engagement, but they are still waiting for it to materialize. Afghan businessmen still find it difficult to get visas into China, flights are irregular, and COVID-19 continues to make travel to China difficult.

China is still concerned about its security interests in Afghanistan, but, as in the past, its answer has been to largely seal itself off, hardening its own and nearby borders. Through a web of multilateral engagements, China has offered itself as a host and discussant but never a moderator—in other words, China is willing to be involved but does not want to take the key role of confronting actors and forcing them to resolve their issues. Beijing is certainly doing more than it did before, but it is clear that it is not going to step into a leadership role. China has all the trappings and potential to be a dominant player but has made a strategic decision to continue to watch from the sidelines.  

[1]: https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-and-afghanistan

[2]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china/top-china-official-visits-afghanistan-signs-security-deal-idUSBRE88M02C20120923

[3]: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceus/eng/zgyw/t910391.htm#:~:text=From%20February%2028%20to%2029,Foreign%20Affairs%20chaired%20the%20dialogue.

[4]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27225308

[5]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-afghanistan/china-appoints-special-envoy-for-afghanistan-idUSKBN0FN11Z20140718

[6]: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[7]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33703097

[8]: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/31/sinostan-china-afghanistan-relations-taliban-history/including%20study%20and%20judgment%20of%20the%20counter%20terrorism%20situation

[9]: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/11/05/2020-24620/in-the-matter-of-the-designation-of-the-eastern-turkistan-islamic-movement-also-known-as-etim-as-a

More delayed posting, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review which seeks to tie together some of the strands of trouble that have been brewing in Central Asia since the beginning of the year.

The Perils of Ignoring Eurasian Instability

Volatile region has historically caused problems for the rest of the world

A Kyrgyz policeman looks at a burnt armored personnel carrier outside the village of Kok-Tash near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in southwestern Kyrgyzstan in May 2021: Exchanges of fire continue to take place with casualties on both sides.   © AP

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.” (Oxford University Press, April 2022)

As the world focuses on a possible clash between China and the West over Taiwan and war in Europe on the other, the parts in between are going up in flames.

In the past, Russia or the United States could be relied upon to step in and settle the situation, but both are now otherwise engaged. With Beijing showing a reluctance about stepping into the role, this leaves a region that has historically caused problems for the rest of the world without a security blanket.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year marked a turning point.

While Afghanistan itself has seen violence go down, tensions have moved north into Central Asia, with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province launching several rocket attacks into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as increasing the propaganda it publishes in Central Asian languages.

In Pakistan, Balochi separatist groups have continued to grow the volume and ambition of their attacks, as has the Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan. Worryingly for Islamabad, there are signs that Balochi and Islamist groups are cooperating.

In Afghanistan, while the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it will not lets its territory be used to plot terrorism against others, it has done little to stop it. In one recent and particularly galling display, the previously reported dead leader of the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) released a video showing him celebrating Eid al-Fitr festival this year in Afghanistan.

This is despite repeated calls by China for the Taliban to not allow Uighur militants to use Afghanistan as a base. Left-behind American weapons have already appeared in attacks in Pakistan and even as far away as their border with India.

Looking beyond Afghanistan, the situation in Central Asia has become markedly more violent over the past year.

There has been trouble in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region as locals push back against Dushanbe in clashes that recall the country’s brutal Civil War from the 1990s. An attempt to re-write the constitution in Uzbekistan led to large-scale violence in Karakalpakstan whose costs are still being counted. On Tajikistan’s messy border with Kyrgyzstan, exchanges of fire continue to take place, with casualties on both sides.

Add to that the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, which led many to question their assumptions about the stability of Central Asia.

Long Seen As Central Asia’s Wealthy Bulwark, The Instability In Kazakhstan Has Been Driven By A Combination Of Unhappiness With The Government Of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev And An Internal Power Struggle That Has Shown How Fragile The Country Actually Is. And If Seemingly Stable Kazakhstan Can Unravel So Quickly, What Is Really Going On Elsewhere In The Region? Recent Events In Uzbekistan Serve To Only Strengthen This Narrative.

Long seen as Central Asia’s wealthy bulwark, the instability in Kazakhstan has been driven by a combination of unhappiness with the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and an internal power struggle that has shown how fragile the country actually is. And if seemingly stable Kazakhstan can unravel so quickly, what is really going on elsewhere in the region? Recent events in Uzbekistan only serve to strengthen this narrative.

President Tokayev’s decision in January to call for help from Russia and the other four members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization highlighted Moscow’s continuing role as a security guarantor in the region.

At the same time, Russia’s subsequent decision to invade Ukraine has resonated across Central Asia, in part over concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist fantasies might swing in Central Asia’s direction.

Kazakhstan, in particular, continues to find itself targeted by Russian Nationalists, and there is a wider concern about the knock-on damage that each country is likely to feel from the crashing Russian economy and the degree to which Moscow might be able to continue to play a stabilising role.

President Putin’s visit to Tajikistan this past week was a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder or Moscow’s importance. His visit focused attention on Russian forces in Tajikistan and their supposed focus in Afghanistan, but aside from likely celebrating the fact that they have not been sent to Ukraine, it is not clear what they are doing there.

Vladimir Putin listens to Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon during a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on June 28: a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder of Moscow’s importance.   © Reuters

While Washington stepped back from the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has recently taken quiet steps back into Central Asia with a focus on shoring up regional security.

The region doubtless welcomes this attention, but given prior American fickleness and the light touch being applied, it remains to be seen how far the US will, or can, go when it comes to security. Central Asia is ultimately bordered by powers with which the US is locked in geopolitical struggle, while Washington’s relations with Islamabad continue to be complicated.

Throughout all of this, Beijing has taken a watching brief. In Afghanistan, this has taken the odd form of China being the most prominent external interlocutor on the ground with the Taliban government while still hedging its bets.

Beijing’s anger at Pakistan has grown as the violence being directed at Chinese nationals there continues to get worse. There are persistent rumours of Chinese involvement in helping Tajik authorities stabilize the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, but the details are unclear.

There is a narrative in some western capitals suggesting that none of this really matters because the Eurasian heartland is far away and more likely to cause trouble for its neighbours than the west. But this neglects the fact trouble in this region has a tendency to spread.

South Asia has human connections around the world, as well as three nuclear powers will ill-defined borders and histories of enmity, while Central Asian militants have been showing up increasingly further afield.

Afghanistan has long been a major source of narcotics, and it is always useful to remember that this is the battlefield that forged Al Qaida and from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched.

It may seem unlikely that such a terrorist catastrophe could happen again, but this remains a region that has the ability to shock the world. Failing to take note of instability there could prove very costly for us all.

Back in May, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing looking at “China’s Activities and Influence in South and Central Asia”. I was invited to testify, and though I could not sadly go and join in Washington, I was able to do it remotely. The entire hearing can be found here (including a complete video, as well as all of the other excellent experts testimony). My own testimony is pasted below.

China’s Current Security Approaches and Interests in Afghanistan

Testimony Before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, May 12, 2022

Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore

China’s security interests and approaches to Afghanistan and its environs are shaped by a concern that threats from this region might ultimately come back to hurt China. This is either from Uyghur separatists which Beijing fears are hiding in the region, or increasingly the growing number of regional groups that have identified China as an adversary. This shapes China’s security responses in the region. But underpinning the direct security responses that China undertakes is a vision for economic prosperity and development across the region which Beijing believes will ultimately stabilize the region and deliver long-term security guarantees.

1. In what ways does China hedge its relationship with the Taliban through bilateral and multilateral security initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the quadrilateral counter-terrorism cooperation mechanism (QCCM) with China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan? Does China use these organizations primarily for security cooperation and training or to establish blocks of political influence? Has China’s investment in these organizations, either in manpower or money, changed since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

China has always sought to hedge its security concerns with Afghanistan through multiple avenues of engagement. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, China has largely sought to continue its regional activities as before. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has continued to hold a number of meetings and engagements, including a heads of state hybrid summit held in Dushanbe in September 2021. China participated in this and other SCO sessions in much the same way it has before, seeking to engage through the format, but not appearing to force through anything new. President Xi in his remarks during the summit focused heavily on Afghanistan and spoke of China’s goals as being: “One, the peaceful transfer of power to Afghanistan. Second, contact and communicate with Afghanistan. Third, provide humanitarian and anti-epidemic assistance to the Afghan people.”[1] He also called on the United States to play a greater role in providing funding to stabilize the country, releasing funds being held up by Washington, and help Afghanistan out of its economic funk. The major achievement of the Summit was the admission of Iran into the organization, and while Afghanistan hung heavy over the discussions – it was likely too close to the fall of Kabul to be able to properly adjust and respond. There was some discussion about how the Taliban should be engaged with now it was the de facto government of Afghanistan, but it was not something that Beijing expressed a view on.[2] This attitude is likely to persist with the SCO, with China continuing to highlight Afghanistan as an issue within the organization, and repeating these talking points, but unlikely to be actively pushing towards the SCO doing much more – in particular as there does not seem to be a consensus amongst members about exactly how to handle Taliban-led Afghanistan.

Looking to the Quadrilateral Cooperation Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) – this was an institution that was developed in large part as a result of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeking to play a greater role in Afghanistan. When it was established in 2016, it came as part of a larger effort where China was seeking to strengthen its direct border relations with Afghanistan – there was discussion about undertaking more training and even potentially building a base with the Afghans in Badakhshan. It was also the moment around which the discussion of the Chinese base in Tajikistan became more publicly acknowledged. After this initial appearance by the QCCM, it went quiet, though it continued to provide a convening function for China to engage with its regional partners on border security questions in particular. Afghan officials acknowledged its utility in particular in trying to manage complex security questions in remote Badakhshan. Given the official partner in the engagement would have to be government of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence, it would require formal recognition of the Islamic Emirate government for it to be formally included and revived, meaning its revivification is something which would only be possible in the wake of formal recognition of the authority in Kabul – a step Beijing is unlikely to take first.

At the same time, in many ways, China has already recognized the Islamic Emirate government. Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted his Pakistani counterpart Qureshi and Amir Muttaqi in April 2022 on the fringes of the larger regional meeting hosted by China at Tunxi.[3] This format replicates an earlier multilateral engagement that China used to host which brought together senior foreign ministry officials between the three countries. In June 2021, two months before the collapse of the Republic government, Wang Yi hosted a virtual engagement involving Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi and then-Foreign Minister Atmar.[4] This highlights China’s desire to attempt to re-engage with the Islamic Emirate government in the same way that it was engaging with the Republic beforehand, restoring the same structures. Given the fact this has now happened with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it would not be impossible for a similar event to be held between Defence Ministries of the three powers. It is worth noting though that the QCCM is a structure theoretically represented by the Chiefs of Defence Staff which would be a different form of engagement to political ministries.

There have also been reports that China has helped facilitate engagements between the Islamic Emirate security authorities and the Pakistani intelligence services, in an attempt to help get them to resolve some of their differences.[5] Issues that have become more acute in the recent past as Tehrek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have increased the tempo of their attacks in Pakistan, and in return Pakistani authorities have launched cross-border strikes alongside violent border clashes between Afghan and Pakistani fighters.[6] If confirmed, China’s attempt to step into the middle of this divide suggests a recognition by China of the role it can play in trying to stabilize the relationship between the two countries, leveraging the relationships that it has developed. Within these contexts, China appears to be trying to improve relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, while also building up its on bilateral links to both. The aim ultimately is to enable China to have good security relations, establish influence and place China in a significant role across the wider region.

It is difficult to discern at the moment the degree to which China has actually increased its engagement or activity within these structures since the takeover, though there are persistent rumours of increased Chinese security engagement with the Taliban. The exact nature of these contacts is unknown. Whatever the case, the key driver of Chinese engagement is recognition that the Islamic Emirate authority appears like the most stable governance structure in Afghanistan for the immediate future and therefore an entity that Beijing will have to engage with if it wants to ensure its security interests in Afghanistan. While in the early days, much of the noise around China’s security concerns was focused on the potential for Uyghur militants to establish themselves, it appears as though the Islamic Emirate’s decision to move what Uyghur networks were present to locations far from Afghanistan’s regions closest to China has to some degree soothed Chinese concerns.[7] The more likely concern at the moment is the growing violence in Pakistan which as has been seen in a number of recent attacks has led to the deaths of Chinese nationals.[8]

While China is still reticent to transfer all its former engagements with Kabul to the new government, it is clear that Beijing is increasingly moving in this direction. The ultimate goal will be not only to help strengthen China’s relations and influence, but more specifically to ensure security guarantees from potential threats that may develop. It is worth remembering that from China’s perspective, in many ways, the earlier relationship with the Republic government was one that Beijing appreciated as the Republic authorities for the most part shared their assessment about Uyghur militants being a group that needed clamping down on. While there was some evidence that this relationship had started to sour in the final months of the Republic government, there was also evidence that this had also created some tension with the incoming government which failed to monitor the escape of a number of Uyghur’s in detention when they took over the country.[9]

This aspect is significant as it shows the levels of mistrust that China still needs to overcome in terms of its security relationships with Kabul, meaning Beijing will continue to seek to hedge rather than put all its eggs in one basket. This is likely to be a key aspect of the engagements China undertakes, with no single avenue being used, but instead a web of connections both with the Islamic Emirate authorities, regional powers, as well as long-established and more recently developed regional formats. Alongside this, China will continue its policy of strengthening its security relations with Tajikistan and Pakistan – with a particular emphasis on border security – to ultimately provide a hard security guarantee to accompany the multiplicity of political engagements. This hedging approach is a continuation of the approach that China has been taking with Afghanistan since at least 2014.

2. Please describe China’s security presence in neighboring countries aimed at reducing extremist threats. What Chinese organizations are present (e.g., Peoples Armed Police, Ministry of State Security, private security companies), and how do they cooperate with host governments? Is their focus stopping flows into Xinjiang, or has it moved toward creating stability in the the region? What changes, if any, has China made to their security presence in Tajikistan and neighboring countries in the last year, including any use of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units, increased militia presence, or additional training exercises outside of China’s borders?

The primary goal of China’s security actors in neighbouring countries is to provide guarantees for China, as well as eyes and ears onto possible security threats from the region which might come back to China. Within the context of Pakistan and Afghanistan, this extends to worrying about the threats exacerbating tensions around the region, as well as threatening Chinese nationals or interests in the region. However, this latter concern is a secondary one, with the primary concern being domestic security. Thus far, there is confirmed presence of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) in Tajikistan,[10] as well as reports they have in the past undertaken joint patrols with Republic forces in Afghanistan.[11] The principal aim of these security forces has been to help China have an ability to have a direct reach into local security forces, to enable them to have a greater sense of control over the potential threats that might emerge. There is also a history of China providing security support through equipment to Pakistani forces in Gilgit Baltistan, strengthening the other indirect border China shares with Afghanistan.

It is difficult to trace the movements of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The most visible appearance of MSS operatives in Afghanistan took place in late 2020, when the Republic authorities disrupted a spy network in Kabul which they accused of collusion with anti-government factions on the ground. Their ejection was rapid and kept relatively discrete by the Afghan and Chinese authorities, as the Republic government had little incentive at that stage to entirely sabotage its relationship with Beijing. However, it was notable that reporting indicated that at least one of the men who had been ejected had been masquerading as a pine nut trader – a trade that Beijing has been encouraging between China and Afghanistan, but which also provides China with a good reason to engage with farmers in parts of Afghanistan where Uyghur militant groups have been active.[12]

This economic engagement has also been seen in other contexts, where China has used direct aid to the regions in Afghanistan near to its borders to try to develop links and contacts on the ground.[13] While there is a logic to cultivating these relationships due to their border proximity and the humanitarian needs on the ground, it also provides a good opportunity for intelligence gathering and an excuse for China to maintain eyes on the ground.

The final element which is difficult to further quantify is the presence of Chinese private security companies. While they have been seen in Kyrgyzstan, and are believed to be present in Tajikistan, it is difficult to pin down their activities in other places.[14] Reports from the ground suggest that some have started to emerge in Afghanistan, and since the recent attacks on Chinese nationals in nearby Pakistan, it is likely the presence of private Chinese security firms will increase there as well.

Whatever its scale and vector, the decision to assert some security presence is reflection of a sense of trepidation, and a continued fear that the situation in Kabul might abruptly destabilize. What remains constant, is China’s single-minded focus on its own interests, rather than trying to bring regional stability. Quite aside from not having any experience in bringing peace brokering initiatives to life, China is also disinterested in engaging in regional issues between powers as this will force China to take sides, something which will only weaken Beijing’s hand before some of the parties. By maintaining its objective view, this enables China to continue to cultivate all sides.

3. What lessons or assessments can be drawn from China’s undeclared persistent security force presence in Tajikistan?  How might the presence of armed forces from China in Tajikistan be indicative of future armed force projection (whether People’s Armed Police, PLA, contract, or based on other military or paramilitary forces)? To what extent is that presence indicative of China’s leadership expanding their definition of China’s “border region” in their security interests? What opportunities or burdens does China perceive in its growing security presence in and around Afghanistan?

The deployment of a Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) base in Tajikistan has been overread as evidence of Chinese security stretch into Central Asia. China has long been providing military support for Tajikistan to strengthen its borders with Afghanistan, recognizing that the long and porous border between the two countries represented a weak point in the region.[15] This mirror’s Russia’s own continued to provide military support in Tajikistan and continued to maintain its largest military base outside its own borders in Tajikistan, the 201st Military Base which is divided between Dushanbe and Bokhtar, done under agreement with the Tajiks until 2042.[16] The aim of this Russian presence is to help monitor and address potential threats that might emanate from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and ultimately threaten Russia. The Russian base has continued to be active, undertaking regular training exercises,[17] including a surge of effort around the time of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.[18]

While the Chinese presence is more limited than the Russian one, and with a very different history, the ultimate goals are similar. Beijing, like Moscow, is concerned about potential threats from Afghanistan spilling into Tajikistan, and recognizes that the border regions which China has with Tajikistan are adjacent to the border regions Tajikistan shares with Afghanistan. Remote and rugged, these are regions which are hard to entirely monitor and there is little faith in Tajik capabilities to ensure security coverage. As a result, Beijing has on the one hand provided regular military support to the Tajiks, but it has also chosen to ensure it has some of its own eyes on the potential threats and problems that might emerge. This is the fundamental reason for the Chinese presence. It is additionally significant to note that the security force that is being used is the People’s Armed Police (PAP), an extension of a domestic security agency. This is the same force that has played an important role in building bilateral engagements with Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz security forces, reflecting the fact that China sees security threats in Central Asia as ones that have the potential to be linked directly to domestic security threats.

While China continues to refuse to entirely admit to the basing, when pressed, Chinese experts compare the engagements in Tajikistan to what Chinese security forces have done in the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia with which China shares borders. In the wake of the brutal kidnap and massacre of Chinese sailors in October 2011,[19] China started to undertake joint patrols with Laotian, Thai, Myanmar and Cambodian forces to try to ensure better security in the region.[20] In some cases, the Chinese provided equipment, and have now started to explore basing in the region.[21] This is similar to the context in Tajikistan, where there is a live security concern that Beijing is worried about in a neighbour where Beijing obviously has little faith in their capabilities to provide security assurances. The result has been to increase its direct security equity to be able to provide and ensure for its concerns – something articulated through equipment and funding support, the establishment of forward bases, and the creation of overlapping multilateral and minilateral institutions that provide opportunities for engagement.

The aim here is not to provide regional stability, but rather to ensure Chinese security concerns. There has been little evidence of China wanting to take a wider security leadership role, instead, China has retained a narrow focus on its own interests. The useful contrast is to examine Russian security engagement which while also fundamentally about Russian concerns about instability in the region impacting Russia directly, is interpreted in a far more expansive fashion whereby Russia sees itself as an ultimate security guarantor across the region. Witness the surge of Russian security engagement and activity at around the time of the fall of Kabul, and the Russian willingness to deploy to support the Kazakh government in the wake of violent protests in January 2022. Neither of these are roles that China sees for itself, where instead there was a limited increase in Chinese engagement with Tajikistan during the summer of 2022, but this was simply building on what China was already doing, rather than expanding it.

In terms of lessons that can be drawn from this, it is that China remains a fundamentally solipsistic regional security actor, focused single-mindedly on its concerns which it interprets through a fairly narrow lens. What is interesting is the fact that it appeared in the early days of China’s deployment of forces and base establishment in Tajikistan, it appeared to be something that was not done in consultation with Moscow, with reports from the ground suggesting Russia was surprised by the reports of the base’s establishment. This illustrates a tension between Beijing and Moscow which is worth considering, though not overstating, as it is clear that both countries have been able to move beyond these initial tensions. It is also notable, however, that they have not actually done anything to undertake cooperation in Tajikistan on security questions notwithstanding a presence that is near to each other on the ground. The key point is that while they are willing to work side by side, when it comes to hard security concerns on the ground, both clearly want to have their own eyes on problems, rather than relying on each other. And even more crucially, this does not seem a competitive relationship, but rather one that functions in parallel.

The overarching take-away from this deployment is that China is still not interested in taking a utopian approach to regional security, but is focused on its own security concerns. It will focus on these interests through multiple and overlapping approaches which will collectively provide China with enough assurance to be content. In the case of Afghanistan, this includes regional engagement as well as engagement with the Taliban with the two parts of the piece providing assurance to each other. It is questionable whether this model is one that China would offer in other contexts as well, outside direct border regions, as the fundamental driver to China’s concerns in Tajikistan and Afghanistan are ultimately the potential impact this could have back to China directly.

4. Is there risk of actors being drawn into or choosing to engage in proxy wars through unattributable support to militant groups in and around Afghanistan? How does any potentially increased risk emanating from Afghanistan impact existing internal security concerns in Tajikistan, Pakistan, or for others in the region?  What might this look like, and how might it affect U.S. interests in the region?

There has been a clear and growing problem of terrorist groups using Afghanistan once again as a base to launch attacks on neighbours. At the moment, the problem is most acute with Pakistan where the TTP in particular has increased its presence and violence within Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan, but it is notable that Balochi militancy has also been increasing as a problem for the past few years with a sharpening focus on China. The recent attack at Karachi University which led to the death of the Confucius Institute Director, two of his Chinese staff and their driver, was conducted by the Majeed Brigade of the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), a unit that has undertaken repeated lethal attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan. In Central Asia, Chinese interests have not recently been targeted in the same way – but the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was an illustration of the dangers that exist for China in the region.[22] The recent cross border shootings and growing rhetorical effort being undertaken by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) to garner support and threaten Central Asia are illustrations of how problems in Afghanistan are reaching across borders north into Central Asia as well as south into Pakistan.[23] The fact ISKP has also made specific threats towards China further sharpens this concern towards Beijing.[24]

This violence has already created some problems for regional relations. Pakistani forces have launched cross-border incursions into Afghanistan to address with threats they observe from there. There has also been a notable number of violent deaths of TTP leaders in Afghanistan since attempted peace talks between the TTP and government in Pakistan dissolved late in 2021. To the north, the Uzbek airforce has launched strikes into Afghanistan in response to concerns about ISKP threats from there. And there have been border clashes between IEA forces and their counterparts on Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan and Iran.

Underpinning all of this violence is a fear of groups being manipulated by outside forces. Pakistan, for example, has long accused Balochi groups of being in the pay of India – a paranoia which is sometimes echoed in Chinese statements around attacks.[25] The evidence base for this is difficult to ascertain in the public domain. In some cases, Chinese paranoia takes this one step further and point to the United States as a possible outside actor manipulating forces. An early narrative that was advanced in the immediate wake of the collapse of the Republic government (which is heard less now) was that the United States was seeking to manipulate Uyghur groups in the region to threaten China.[26] The decision in late 2020 by the Trump administration to remove the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of proscribed terror organizations was seen by China as a prelude to a move by Washington to engage with the group as a proxy against China.[27]

More recently, Chinese officials have stopped making such references publicly, though it remains to be seen if this is because of a lack of concern or simply a decision to not antagonise the relationship with Washington. The recent decision by the US government to include the Central Asian group Katibat Tawheed wal Jihad (KTJ) on its list of proscribed organizations specifically referring to the group as being responsible for the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek might have been an attempt to mend this fence by Washington.[28] But until a decision is made to return Uyghur militants to the list of proscribed organziations, there will continue to be paranoia in China. Beijing continues to worry about the manipulation of groups in the region in advance of larger geopolitical interests, be this directed by Delhi, Washington, or others.

It is possible that China might seek to undertake similar manipulations itself. There have been reports of efforts by Chinese security and intelligence to develop contacts with potential proxies in border regions with India in Myanmar or Bangladesh to undermine Indian security.[29] But in the Afghan and Pakistani context, most of these stories have instead pointed to China seeking to develop connections with groups with the idea in mind of trying to get them to stop attacking Chinese interests.[30] It would presumably not be impossible for China to seek to manipulate groups to attack western or other adversary interests, but at the same time, Beijing does not have much form in successfully doing this. And for most of the violent groups in the region, there is a growing interest in targeting China recognizing as they do Beijing’s growing influence and power across the region. Manipulations could easily backfire.

The primary danger to US interests lies in the broader violent trends in the region which could develop into threats which start to reach out beyond the region. There is also the potential danger to the US presence in the region – for example, diplomatic staff, businessmen, or travellers. If violence in Pakistan continues to escalate, it would be likely that US or allied interests might come into the cross-hairs of violent groups. The danger of proxy warfare through such groups in the region is another possible threat vector, but the risk comes more from the US being seen as being linked to such manipulations or India being discovered as being linked to violence. Both of these would escalate violence in the region, and increase the threat from groups which might even start to stretch beyond the region.

Finally, by increasing its security connections across the region, China is embedding itself further into the region. This could in the longer-term translate into influence which further locks the United States out of the region – part of a much bigger trend which has been visible across the wider region. While the US remains a significant player, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, worsening relations with Pakistan and worsening relations with Iran, Russia and China all mean this is a part of the world where the US is increasingly seen in an adversarial light. As Chinese influence increases, and as long as US-China relations remain tense, this is likely to harden further.

5. The Commission is mandated to make policy recommendations to Congress based on its hearings and other research. What are your recommendations for Congressional action related to your testimony?

It is difficult to make recommendations without knowing more about what current action is already being taken, so these suggestions are simply ideas or areas in which the United States could explore taking steps forwards in the near term future in the region.

First – the US should try to avoid seeing the region through the lens of big power politics. Afghanistan has in the recent past been a place where the US and China have been able to cooperate to address mutual threats and concerns. Such cooperation might be impossible at the moment, but avoiding going too far in the other direction will enable the US to continue to try to address the humanitarian questions that exist across the region while also making overwatch of potential security threats that might emerge from militant groups more possible.

Second – the US should explore reversing the decision to remove ETIM from the proscribed terror list. While re-listing may be complicated, recognizing that there are some Uyghur groups that have made connections to violent jihadist groups is an important element to restore faith in US focus on genuine terror threats as opposed to political games being played through such proxies.

Third – unblock funding which could be used to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans. This will be difficult as the IEA government has shown repeatedly it is disinterested in meeting western demands around women’s rights, but those who suffer are the Afghan people and finding ways of reaching out positively to them is important. It will remove a plank of China’s narratives in Afghanistan.

Fourth – increase direct support for border security forces in Central Asia. The United States already has strong links and has provided support across the region. Continuing and exploring expanding this support is an important signal to the region as well as a way of building US ability to mitigate risks and maintain security overwatch in the region.

Fifth – work to encourage Pakistan to try improve the security situation in Balochistan through negotiations. The situation in Balochistan is worsening at the moment and it is possible Pakistan will react to it with a harder crackdown. Engaging with the new government in Islamabad to take a new approach might enable a new dynamic in the region which would strengthen the US hand in the region.


[1] http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/ctenglish/2018/commentaries/202109/t20210926_800259123.html

[2] https://eurasianet.org/csto-sco-summits-presage-policy-of-wary-tolerance-of-taliban-regime-in-afghanistan

[3] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202203/t20220331_10658064.html

[4] https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceuk/eng/zgyw/t1881345.htm

[5] https://www.intelligenceonline.com/government-intelligence/2022/04/14/guoanbu-calls-on-isi-to-cooperate-with-taliban-secret-services,109767975-art

[6] https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/05/pakistans-twin-taliban-problem

[7] https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-uyghurs-china/31494226.html

[8] https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Karachi-terror-attack-strains-Pakistan-s-ties-with-China

[9] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2021/10/16/exclusive-uyghur-jailbreak-complicates-talibans-ties-china/

[10] https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/central-asia/tajikistan/b87-rivals-authority-tajikistans-gorno-badakhshan

[11] https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2017/03/05/chinese-troops-appear-to-be-operating-in-afghanistan-and-the-pentagon-is-ok-with-it/

[12] https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/did-china-build-a-spy-network-in-kabul/

[13] https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202112/1243022.shtml

[14] https://oxussociety.org/the-growth-adaptation-and-limitations-of-chinese-private-security-companies-in-central-asia/

[15] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tajikistan-china-border-idUSKCN11W0T1

[16] https://tass.com/defense/1394749

[17] https://interfax.com/newsroom/top-stories/76143/

[18] https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-military-drills-near-afghan-border-deliver-warning-to-extremists-11635188626

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/10/chinese-sailors-killed-mekong-river

[20] https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-southeastasia-drugs-mekong-idUKKCN0WH2ZW

[21] https://www.voanews.com/a/us-says-cambodia-not-transparent-about-chinese-role-in-naval-base-construction-/6272820.html

[22] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-blast-china-idUSKCN11C1DK

[23] https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/05/05/islamic-state-uzbekistan/

[24] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3151791/why-did-isis-k-say-its-suicide-bomber-was-uygur

[25] https://www.firstpost.com/world/china-warns-india-says-it-will-intervene-if-new-delhi-foments-trouble-in-balochistan-2980404.html

[26] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202103/t20210327_9170714.html

[27] https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-irate-after-u-s-removes-terrorist-label-from-separatist-group-11604661868

[28] https://www.state.gov/terrorist-designation-of-katibat-al-tawhid-wal-jihad/

[29] https://www.asiasentinel.com/p/beijing-said-to-fund-separatist-india?s=r

[30] https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/pakistan-balochistan-china-seperatists-talks/29055188.html

Still catching up, here a longer piece for Foreign Policy with my excellent new partner in writing Ajmal. We are brewing up a few more projects, lots of interesting stuff happening in the China-Afghanistan space.

China Wants Its Investments in Afghanistan to Be Safer Than in Pakistan

Beijing could profit handsomely from Afghan resources and exports, but new ventures risk exposing Chinese nationals to violence

Afghan worker works on the site of an ancient monastery discovered in Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar on November 23, 2010. The archaeological dig is located at the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine. The Chinese government-backed mining company, China Metallurgical Group Corp., which won the contract to exploit the site, has given archaeologists three years to finish the excavations. Archaeologists fear that the 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery will probably be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP via Getty Images)

On April 26, a suicide bomber killed Huang Guiping, the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi, as well as two Chinese teachers and a Pakistani driver. The attack, claimed by Baloch separatists, highlighted the tensions that China has stirred up with its massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor investments in Pakistan—a lesson Beijing has learned and is keen not to repeat in Afghanistan. But China will struggle to entirely sidestep these problems, especially because the answer it often reaches for in these situations is economic investment—something that inevitably expands exposure on the ground.

The most prominent example of this tension can be found at the Mes Aynak copper mining project in Afghanistan. For years, the project was a byword for broken Chinese dreams. The Taliban, now returned to power in Afghanistan, have revived the project and are more generally trying to take advantage of the nation’s proximity to China. And Beijing seems willing to reciprocate.

The recent Tunxi Initiative endorsed by President Xi Jinping referenced the project, and Chinese executives have visited Kabul to discuss the project. Yet the problems they appear to be discussing are the same ones that were being raised under the old government. And the mining executives seem far less sure-footed than their colleagues at China National Petroleum Corp., which is seeking to restart oil production at its concession in northern Afghanistan under a new deal.

It is doubtful either of these projects will move quickly. And ordinary Afghans won’t see the benefits for years in any case, no doubt stirring resentment toward China. It is lower-level activities such as artisanal mining and exports of gemstones, pine nuts, and saffron that could take off much more quickly. They could also have a real impact on the lives of ordinary Afghans, but they will also make China far more exposed to security risks.

Kabul is awash with Chinese businessmen. Walk out of Kabul International Airport, and you are greeted by a big billboard advertising Chinatown, a housing and business compound in the city that offers a range of services for Chinese (and other) entrepreneurs interested in taking advantage of Afghanistan’s opportunities. So many businessmen and random curiosity-seekers have been showing up that the Chinese Embassy has had to issue repeated warnings telling their citizens to report to the mission and not take unnecessary risks. The fear is that these Chinese nationals could become targets like the Confucius Institute director and his team in Pakistan.

Whereas in Pakistan China feels as if it has a reasonably stable counterpart to deal with, one of Beijing’s major concerns about Afghanistan is that the Taliban government might collapse. Beijing had hoped that the Taliban would bring in an inclusive government, which would help bring some stability to Kabul and unity to the country. In the absence of an inclusive government or much evidence the Taliban is planning to create one, Beijing has concluded that the only answer is to support the government and ensure it does not collapse chaotically. However, the challenge China faces is how to do this without assuming responsibility for everything that happens in Afghanistan.

While Afghanistan’s mineral potential is of significant interest to China in terms of its proximity, scale, and strategic importance to regional infrastructure development, Chinese firms are also aware of the complications that come with trying to exploit it. The Tunxi meeting and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s subsequent speech and visit to Kabul are clear signals to any Chinese majors that are interested in exploiting Afghanistan that the political support is now there but it’s not yet clear how much these state owned enterprises will engage.

Economics plays an important part in Chinese considerations. When it comes to rare-earth minerals, China is already a market leader. It provides more than 85 percent of the world’s rare earths, and it is home to about 30 percent of the world’s total rare-earth reserves. China is not in a hurry to secure additional supplies, particularly when the value of worldwide rare-earth imports stood just at $8 billion in 2018—a fraction of the more than $1 trillion in global oil imports.

While dependence on rare earths enables China to leverage influence on the world stage, it is something that Beijing has in the past discovered limited utility in trying to exert. Following an attempt by China to choke Japan’s supply after a political dispute, Tokyo found alternative supplies and reduced its dependency on Beijing.

Similarly, according to reports from last November, Chinese miners were in talks to access Afghanistan’s vast lithium reserves. But big firms see little reason to endure the complexities of Afghanistan. Some opportunist mineral ore brokers may step in, including small-scale operations run by individuals or small companies that will use pumps and excavators to get at the brine lithium that can be found under dried salt lakes.

This requires none of the heavy industrial machinery or effort of a large firm, just access to the site, something that is now possible given the relative stability the Taliban government has brought to Afghanistan. There is evidence from contacts on the ground (and videos on Chinese social media) that Chinese prospectors are already exploring these opportunities.

But while lithium and rare earths may make catchy news headlines, politically overlooked but economically significant commodities are more likely to be of interest to China. Afghanistan has world-class deposits of iron ore. The Hajigak iron ore deposit, situated in the central province of Bamyan, is one of the several prospecting sites a Chinese delegation visited in November. It was previously won by an Indian consortium that decided not to proceed with the project for political and commercial reasons.

According to old Soviet and U.S. surveys, the deposit contains approximately 1.8 billion metric tons of ore at a concentration of 62 percent iron, which makes it the region’s largest known direct shipping ore deposit—the stuff that you can just dig up and ship. High-grade iron ore supply is already struggling to meet demand as China’s decarbonization efforts have boosted demand.

The S&P Global Platts index for 62 percent iron ore fines reached a record $233.1 per metric ton on May 12, 2021, driven by a resurgence in global demand and tightening supply. Although this has slightly eased, China’s increasingly ambitious emission reduction schemes; its efforts to diversify away from Australian supply in the wake of recent political disputes between Beijing and Canberra, which accounted for 61 percent of Chinese iron ore imports in 2020; and a COVID-induced shuttered capacity in Brazil will mean demand for alternative high-grade iron ore will remain robust. This is not to say Afghanistan is not a risky prospect, but it gives China an alternative option much closer to home.

By focusing on Afghanistan’s iron ore deposits, China can achieve several key objectives. First, it can secure access to an alternative high-grade iron ore deposit critical for the production of low-carbon steel. Second, with the current favorable market prices, it is economically viable to mine and ship the ore via Karachi without the need for investing in transport infrastructure. Third, it will demonstrate a quick win by generating the much-needed cash flow for the Taliban regime. Fourth, in the past 10 years, many small-scale steel mills, including ones run by Chinese companies, have popped up around Afghanistan, relying for the most part on a dwindling supply of scrap metals for the production of their steel products.

Unlike many other minerals for which no domestic consumption capacity exists in Afghanistan, iron ore can immediately utilize domestic steel industry capacity, perhaps with some help from China to improve quality and efficiency.

The other advantage provided by Afghanistan is an abundant supply of coal. This is crucial in the smelting process, which requires power that can be generated by coal to process the steel from the iron. Chinese producers have a long history of undertaking such projects regionally. In fact, those who designed the initial Mes Aynak copper project had intended to build a coal-fired power plant to help supply both the mining site and smelting plant, as well as the local region.

This model was one that had been proposed to the republic government before the fall of Kabul, when a Chinese delegation met former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with a proposal to commission a 300-megawatt coal-fired power station at an approximate cost of $400 million just northeast of Kabul, where the Pul-e-Charkhi Industrial Park and most of the steel plants are located. Ghani had approved the proposal in principle and had given instructions to the relevant authorities to facilitate and expedite the project. This project is one that the Taliban is simply waiting to approve and could provide an easy win for the new authorities in Kabul.

The crucial question is the degree to which Beijing is going to orchestrate such projects in Afghanistan or allow enterprising entrepreneurs to go ahead and launch the projects with its tacit support. Industrial-scale lithium, rare earths, and copper mining require large outlays and substantial infrastructure as well as end users who tend to be important state-linked actors. Iron ore is easier to manage discretely and already has a substantial Chinese infrastructure under the surface in Afghanistan.

There is also substantial demand for iron ore around China and the wider region, which makes it an easy commodity to exploit without drawing too much attention. (Conveniently, this also means the polluting part of the process is shifted offshore, helping China with its climate-related goals as well.) In reaching out to China’s limitless consumer market, it could be similar to the pine nut exports that China has encouraged and that has seen around 40 planeloads of Afghan pine nuts go to China to be rapidly sold for a tidy sum online as a luxury product.

Iron ore and pine nuts (and similar products) offer China a way of engaging in Afghanistan with little direct state commitment. Getting big state-owned enterprises engaged is full of political and security risks and could lead to targeting of Chinese nationals working for these firms, as happened in Pakistan. This has knock-on effects in terms of getting the local authorities to provide protection and generates tensions at a state level. Focusing on smaller-scale projects and miners while allowing small traders and hardy entrepreneurs to try their hand costs Beijing little and has far less risk attached to it. And what risks are attached tend to be linked to the individuals rather than the Chinese state.

The lesson learned from Pakistan seems to be: engage—but at a lower level that commits you to less and therefore exposes you to less risk. Yet the web of economic activity that is spun is potentially just as substantial and might actually benefit a wider range of Afghans. By linking the Afghan economy to China’s at a lower level, Beijing would help support stability in Afghanistan at little cost to itself.

But as much as China might hope to avoid the same problems it is encountering in Pakistan, as the world’s second-largest economy that shares a direct border with both countries, it seems unlikely that China can do so without playing a role in resolving regional problems. Beijing’s longer-term goal is to ensure Afghanistan does not destabilize the wider region or cause problems for itself. Taking a lower-profile approach to economic engagement will help China achieve this goal without attracting the same high-profile problems it is finding in Pakistan. But economic opportunity does not always translate into stability. Beijing need only look at what it has been trying to do in parts of the Pakistani region of Balochistan to see the anger it can provoke, with tragic consequences.