Posts Tagged ‘China-Afghanistan’

More catching up from what has been a busy period for short pieces. There are some longer ones in the pipeline which will eventually land as well as the book early next week. This was for the South China Morning Post exploring the missed opportunities of China’s engagement with Afghanistan.

Time for China to stop hedging its bets in Afghanistan

  • The flak Beijing has drawn for its Taliban engagement is not just unfair but also misses the point. If China’s Afghan strategy is to be faulted, it’s for doing too little
  • China has the influence and tools – not to mention incentive, as Afghanistan’s neighbour – to take a leading role in fostering peace
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

Now that Kabul has fallen, there is a growing narrative about Afghanistan that China is siding with the Taliban in some sort of nightmarish new alignment. The truth is that Beijing has been engaging with the Taliban in the same way that everyone has.

It is difficult to understand why we should condemn China for meeting publicly a group that the United States had earlier bolstered with meetings and a formal agreement in Doha. And it is not the only one.

Where China could be accused of failing Afghanistan is in not stepping forward to take a more proactive role in fostering an agreement, rather than simply waiting for some resolution to work itself out through bloodshed. As it turns out, this is also an echo of the approach Washington has decided to take.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood is not new. It has existed since before the September 11 attacks, growing in fits and starts.

The exaggerated narratives around Chinese potential economic plundering of Afghanistan have not played out as predicted. This, it should be noted, is much to the chagrin of the former government in Kabul, which would have loved to get the tax and investment benefits from the exploitation of the country’s natural wealth.

The Belt and Road Initiative is still a concept in Afghanistan, rather than something tangible. China has strategic and economic investments in almost all surrounding countries, but surprisingly limited investment in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, China has largely hedged. It developed relations with the Afghan government and various factions and groups on the ground. It has strengthened its direct contacts with the Taliban rather than relying solely on Pakistan to provide the connections. And it has strengthened its direct and indirect borders with Afghanistan to create a security buffer around the Wakhan Corridor.

All of this is a reflection that Beijing does not trust the Taliban any more than the US or anyone else does.

In direct security terms, Beijing has provided some military aid and support, but not much and largely non-lethal. Chinese views on the US presence have oscillated between a sense of concern that the US had active military bases on its borders to a secret sense of gratitude that the US was fighting a conflict it did not have to worry about.

The one constant in Chinese engagement has been a focus on Uygur militancy, and fears that Afghanistan could be used as a base to strike within Xinjiang. While Beijing’s views about who is supporting these Uygur fighters seem to have shifted over time, and there are questions about the scale and scope of the actual threat, it is an undeniably constant concern that China articulates at every juncture.

This is often its main point of discussion when it focuses on Afghanistan. And it is likely to be the primary concern that Beijing worries about now it has new interlocutors in Kabul.

Beijing has also engaged in multilateral diplomacy of all kinds. It has played a limited role in some of the larger international engagements around Afghanistan, offering some support and money during international donor aid rounds.

It has fostered regional multilateral engagements, and has used Afghanistan as a point of engagement with its adversaries – both Washington and New Delhi, for example, have run training programmes for Afghan officials jointly with Beijing.

And, outside direct engagement, China has tried to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to play a more substantial role in Afghanistan. It helped bring the country in as an observer member and fostered the creation of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. What this SCO action might look like in practice is unclear, but it is something that China has continually pushed.

But this also highlights the real failure of Chinese engagement in Afghanistan. Beijing has, sadly, not stepped in to take a more prominent and leadership role when it could have tried and clearly has all the links and tools in place to do so.

Beijing is ultimately going to be Afghanistan’s most powerful and influential neighbour. Pakistan may have deeper ties on the ground, but Islamabad is highly dependent on Beijing and likely to be even more so going forward.

Iran and Central Asia have also made large bets on Chinese economic partnership. China is now going to be seen as the major power across a wide swathe of the Eurasian heartland.

With all these connections, power and influence, China should logically have been a greater leader in Kabul. Admittedly, Afghanistan is a difficult country and China has little experience in conflict resolution of this sort, but it could have been hoped that it would have taken a more proactive role in a country with which it shares a border.

There will doubtless be a certain amount of joy in Beijing as the narrative is advanced that Washington is leaving from China’s neighbourhood with its tail between its legs.

And Chinese officials will seek to play up the idea that this is the end of Pax Americana and a further demonstration of American fecklessness, something they will use in their larger narratives of confrontation with the US. But the US and the West were at least trying to bolster Afghanistan and help it transform.

Pre-eminent in Beijing’s concerns should have been the realisation that, while America may have played a role in making this mess, it is China that will have to live next to it at the end of the day.

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

More catch up posting now from the previous few weeks. This one was written a little earlier, but ran in Nikkei Asian Review just as Kabul fell after excellent editor Jason pushed it through to be timely. Written in irritation at the overinflated narratives that kept emerging in the wake of Taliban visit to Tianjin, it attracted a surprising amount of attention and generated a lot of subsequent media hits which I post in due course. It is a topic which I have covered a great deal in the past, and is likely to become more relevant as time goes on. There is a whole chapter on China in Afghanistan in my upcoming book, which I have finally seen some draft covers for which is exciting. More on that in due course!

The myth of Chinese investment in Afghanistan

Little evidence that war-torn country is a strategic priority for Beijing

Taliban fighters take control of Afghanistan’s presidential palace in Kabul on Aug. 15: they are certainly not Beijing’s preferred choice.   © AP

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

Among the many overblown narratives bouncing around amid the chaos of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is the notion that China is champing at the bit to sweep in and pluck the country’s economic riches once the country has been cleared of its Western impedimenta.

There is no doubt that Beijing’s companies will look at some of the resources in Afghanistan as potential opportunities, but there is little evidence that this is a strategic priority for Beijing. China has played a surprisingly limited economic role in Afghanistan until now, and it is hard to imagine this is going to abruptly change in the face of instability implicit in the wake of the Taliban takeover.

Up until now, Beijing has been able to maintain good relations with both the Afghan government and the Taliban at the same time, and both sides recognize that whoever ends up in charge, China will still be their neighbor. And as the world’s second-largest economy, it is clearly a relationship they hope to benefit from.

This narrative is not new. The Taliban doubtless recall that their own earlier minister of mining was in a meeting with a Chinese delegation in Kabul when the Sept. 11 attacks took place in 2001. Afghans in general been encouraged by the fact that the biggest putative bilateral investment projects in the country since the U.S. invaded have been Chinese.

In 2007, the Metallurgical Corporation of China and Jiangxi Copper won a contract to develop and exploit a copper mine in Mes Aynak, while in 2011, Chinese energy giant China National Petroleum Corp. won a tender for an oil field in Amu Darya in the north of the country, sparking hopes that this might finally bring a measure of economic independence.

Yet the two projects have since stalled, with the Afghan government taking back the Amu Darya concession, while Mes Aynak has become a byword for broken Chinese dreams in Kabul. In both cases, the much-vaunted agreements for all ancillary infrastructure — a railway line, power station and refinery — never materialized.

There is no doubt that Afghanistan’s mineral riches would be attractive to Chinese companies on the lookout for untapped resources to feed insatiable domestic demand. Yes, Chinese companies may have a higher risk tolerance than some of their Western counterparts, but in the wake of two big project failures, why would a potentially more unstable Afghanistan suddenly be more attractive? Beijing might be in discussions with the Taliban, but China has little reason to force its companies into the country.

When it comes to infrastructure, Chinese investment in Afghanistan is also limited. There has been some hospital construction, housing in Kabul, several small-scale factories and some new buildings for Kabul University — and possibly a military base in Badakhshan — but connectivity infrastructure such as roads, bridges, rail and ports has been in short supply.

Chinese construction companies have built roads and more in Afghanistan, but most of this has been done through international institutional financing, rather than being driven by Beijing. Chinese contractors have won competitive bids and delivered them under dangerous circumstances.

As for extending President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, the little that has been advanced has been mostly rhetorical or just concepts floated by Beijing to connect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with Afghanistan. But as far as it is possible to tell, little economic energy or effort has been put into turning this into reality. Beijing has refurbished some border posts to facilitate the transit of goods between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this is certainly not the weighty economic infrastructure projects being advanced in Pakistan or North and Central Asia.

The one thing that the Chinese Embassy in Kabul has focused its attention on recently is pine nuts, celebrating the creation of an air corridor to facilitate their export to China. While such opportunities are to be encouraged — they create lots of jobs in what is still a heavily agrarian society — this is hardly a game-changer.

Pine nuts bound for Shanghai are loaded into a Turkish Airlines aircraft at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in November 2018: such activities create jobs but are hardly a game-changer.   © Afghan Presidency Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

None of this is to dismiss China’s aid efforts in Afghanistan. The key point is that aid has been limited, with the few substantial achievements tending to be driven by Chinese companies and entrepreneurs operating on their own. Notwithstanding serious and high-level Chinese engagement, the Mes Aynak project remains in limbo, suggesting a limit to how far China wants to force its companies to operate within the country.

Moreover, all of this took place while the country was at least substantially under the command of a government that possessed a degree of international accountability and expertise. While past experience has shown a willingness by Chinese companies to engage with the Taliban, they are certainly not Beijing’s preferred choice. The assurances that Chinese investors would need to proceed further will likely take some time to materialize.

The sad truth is that China is a missed economic opportunity for Afghanistan. And there is little chance that the instability that will follow a Taliban takeover is going to change that.

Have now come to the end (I think) of the current China-Eurasia writing spell. Next few will likely go back looking at terrorism. The past burst was in part inspired by events (the US withdrawal announcement of Afghanistan as well as the SCO’s 20th birthday) and by the fact that I was doing some revisions on my upcoming book on the topic. This particular piece is for the South China Morning Post, and explores the fact that China has really not stepped into its possible role in Afghanistan. To those who have read other work I have done (everyone of course!), they will know I think this is a role China should be taking and have pushed a number of projects, papers and ideas that try to help this thinking along. Notwithstanding broader concerns around China, it seems to me they should be playing a more positive role in Afghanistan and it is huge loss to the region and Afghans in particular that they do not.

Have not done a media catch up for a while, so here’s a quick sweep. On the China side, spoke to the Guardian about NATO’s China push, to the Straits Times about China-Russia, RFE/RL’s China in Eurasia Briefing picked up my Oxus piece about the SCO’s 20th birthday, The National picked up my comments during the launch of the NATO Defence College paper on Afghanistan and regional powers, and on the terrorism side, spoke to the excellent Lizzie Dearden at the Independent at the end of the Fishmonger’s Hall inquest about ISIS claims, my comments on Maajid’s LBC show were picked up by the Daily Express, and spoke to The National about the big Global Counter-ISIS Coalition meeting taking place in Rome this past week.

Why China cannot afford to take a passive role in post-US Afghanistan

  • There appears to be little evidence supporting Taliban assurances that trouble will not spill over onto Chinese soil
  • China has spent many years hedging on Afghanistan but it needs to take steps to support the government in Kabul and visibly deploy more resources
Afghan militia members join Afghan defence and security forces during a gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 23. Photo: AP

China appears remarkably sanguine about the growing trouble in Afghanistan. The assumption that a government led or dominated by the Taliban will be a reliable partner is something Beijing has regretted in the past, and could end up ruing again. 

There is some consistency in China’s relations with Afghanistan. Beijing has been unwilling to commit to much, yet has sought to do a lot. Its economic projects have never quite got off the ground, while political mediation efforts have at best added to the noise.

There is no denying the effort, but it would be better if China actually followed through on all its promises with action. Instead, Beijing seems willing to let fate take its course and watch the Taliban come to power.

Media reports have indicated China has received assurances that a Taliban government would be sure to insulate Beijing from problems that might emanate from Afghan territory. China has also made a display of showing support for the administration of President Ashraf Ghani and significant factions within it.

These assurances have been backstopped by an increased security buffer around the Wakhan Corridor, as well as Pakistani assurances of being able to rein in any potential trouble.

Yet, what evidence is there that such assurances have worked in the past? Previously, in 2000, a Chinese delegation visiting Afghanistan, then under Taliban rule, and discovered a large contingent of Uygurs in Jalalabad. They were said to be linked to separatists seeking to strike inside China.

While the delegation appealed to the Taliban authorities to expel them, there is no clear evidence that this happened. Those particular groups may have been moved, but repeated independent reports from other foreign fighters who attended al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan later on highlighted the presence of Uygurs. 

When presenting its case for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation linked to al-Qaeda in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Chinese government pointed to the fact the group had launched attacks against China from Afghan bases. 

Since then, al-Qaeda has begun to champion a narrative of targeting China. It has praised Uygur militants for their battlefield actions and sought to harness some of the global anger against China for its treatment of Uygur minorities at home.

This might seem unsurprising, but it is an about-turn for al-Qaeda. In the late 1990s, it refused to even accept there were Uygur militants at its training camps and openly speculated that China might be an ally in its global struggle against the United States. 

There appears to be little evidence of a focus of violence towards China, but this is mainly because there are more attractive targets in the West. Above all, Beijing should be aware that there is little to show the Taliban has recanted or rejected al-Qaeda, or that al-Qaeda has been expelled from its territory.

While the US might be willing to accept Taliban assurances about ensuring violence does not reach American soil or that of its allies, the US intelligence community has also concluded al-Qaeda is no longer a direct threat. Afghanistan is far away, in any case, but China is next door and has a very different stake in this game. 

The current narrative from Beijing seems to be one of accepting the inevitable and blaming everything on America. The US might not have handled the situation entirely successfully but, for two decades, it has invested billions of dollars and used its hard and soft power to improve Afghanistan, something Beijing has profited from.

To simply point to American failings and apportion blame fits a tidy narrative. However, by not offering an alternative, China is failing in its duty as a rising power and also doing little to address its security issues. 

In contrast to 2012, when the US announced a major withdrawal from Afghanistan, it hasn’t engaged with China as much this time. This path was somewhat determined by former president Donald Trump’s administration when he pushed through a decision to remove ETIM from the list of proscribed terrorist organisations.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has followed through on this and, to China’s chagrin, has moved ahead without engaging Beijing on its decisions about Afghanistan. 

So, tensions are understandable, but this should not be the context in which Beijing makes its plans. Rather, China should consider that it now faces an unstable country on its border, which will pose a risk to many of its neighbours.

China has shown an interest in playing a role but never really stepped into it. Milquetoast promises are not going to suffice at this point. China should take on a more proactive role in supporting the government in Kabul and visibly deploy more resources to help out.

China has spent many years hedging on Afghanistan. The time has come to make a play and ensure the long-term stability of one of its most troubled neighbours.

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

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

What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE LINKS WITH THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE AFGHAN PROBLEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Afghanistan Challenge and the Central Asian Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China

What China wants

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing the Eurasian chessboard

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

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

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

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

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

Counter-terrorism as a priority

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

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

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

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

Binding the world with Belts and Roads

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

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

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

——–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers promise and peril for China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new post for Carnegie, this time the kind invitation to contribute came from the brilliant Sasha in their Moscow office to write about a subject that I continue to write a lot about and have a book landing soon about, China in Central Asia. This time it looks again at the question of Chinese security presence in the region, a topic that I have touched on before and have at least one chapter on in the book. It all is part of a much bigger project Carnegie Moscow are running called Pax Sinica, which is well worth checking out.

Not-So-Hidden Dragon: China Reveals Its Claws in Central Asian Security

China sees security issues in Central Asia as inextricably tied to its own domestic security concerns, and is rapidly establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it sees fit in the region.

There has long been a fallacy at the heart of much analysis of Chinese security policy in Central Asia that China is focused on economics in the region, and Russia on security. This is built on the odd assumption that Beijing is willing to simply delegate its security concerns to others: something that clashes with the increasingly strong China that President Xi Jinping has been projecting. In fact, China has long had a security footprint in Central Asia. What is new, however, is Beijing’s increased willingness to demonstratively flex its muscle in the region.

The most obvious recent example of this and the problems it can generate occurred in December last year in Kabul, when it was reported by Indian media that Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, had arrested a cell of about ten Chinese nationals at various locations in the Afghan capital. While the exact details of what took place have not been confirmed, the principal Afghan accusation appears to have been that the cell was establishing contacts with extremist networks and trying to build an artificial Uighur cell to draw in militant Uighurs of concern to China in Afghanistan.

The incident was cause for great awkwardness on both sides, and concluded with the reported repatriation of the Chinese agents on a private jet back to Beijing. The story was only covered by Indian media, through leaks clearly calculated to embarrass Beijing and highlight nefarious Chinese activity in Afghanistan. The Chinese government did not comment, while the Afghan authorities publicly claimed nothing had happened. Yet if the contours of the reported story are accurate, then the plans by the network had a level of ambition that is novel for Chinese security services. It was also an odd plot to hatch in a country which has been broadly supportive of Chinese goals and which sees itself as fighting the same Uighur networks, given their proximity to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Until now, Chinese security activity in Afghanistan was largely thought to be limited to sealing off China from security threats that might emanate from the country. Investment focused on helping to build and strengthen Tajikistan’s border posts with Afghanistan, increasing the capability of Gilgit-Baltistani security forces in Pakistan, and building a base for Afghan mountain forces in Badakhshan, near the mouth of the Wakhan Corridor that connects China to Afghanistan. China’s People’s Armed Police even went so far as to establish their own dedicated counterterrorism base in Tajikistan, and there are rumors of an additional Chinese base in Afghanistan. Yet none of this activity was aggressive, and rather seemed focused on cauterizing the dangers that might flow from the physical links between Afghanistan and China.

The incident in Kabul, however, shows a new level of Chinese activity that suggests a desire to tackle security issues head on. It comes amid the growing presence of Chinese private security firms in Central Asia, as well as growing pressure on local authorities to accept their presence, in contravention of local legislation. This pushiness has encroached further into the public domain in other ways, too. Du Dewen, the Chinese ambassador to Bishkek, made boosting the security of Chinese nationals and companies a priority issue during her inaugural meeting with new Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev late last year. The usually staid transcript from the meeting released by the embassy highlighted both ambassador Du’s complaint and the emphatic and acquiescent response from the minister.

The other notable point about China’s security engagement with the region is that it is done for the most part by People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces, rather than the People’s Liberation Army. PAP is reportedly responsible for shoring up the border posts in Tajikistan and performing joint patrols with Afghan and Tajik forces. It has also signed agreements and carried out patrols with its counterparts in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In December 2018, a female cadre of elite PAP Falcon Commandos provided training for their Uzbek counterparts, while in August 2019, they hosted their Kyrgyz counterparts for counterterrorism exercises in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

The appearance of PAP at the forefront of engagement with Central Asia highlights the degree to which China sees the security issues in those countries as inextricably tied to domestic security concerns. As a gendarmerie force whose primary responsibility is domestic, the PAP’s growing presence on China’s periphery raises questions about Chinese thinking on how to manage security problems in its neighborhood.

Central Asia has also become a conduit through which China has increasingly sought to target its perceived dissident Uighur community. Reports emerged in 2019 of Uighurs being arrested in Turkey, given Tajik travel documents, and placed on planes to Dushanbe, from where they were immediately flown back to China. Central Asian complicity is further suggested by the Kazakh authorities’ decision to clamp down on anti-China protesters within their own country.

In some ways, none of this is particularly new. Uighurs in Central Asia have long been a major Chinese concern. When it was officially inaugurated in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization used fighting the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism, and separatism as its foundational credo. During his famous tour of the region in 1994, which laid the groundwork for the current Silk Road visions across the region, then premier Li Peng highlighted concerns about Uighurs at every stop. Over subsequent years, rumors circulated about the Chinese pursuing Uighurs across Central Asian borders, while any dissident networks that existed in Central Asia were clamped down upon. Occasional attacks against Chinese businessmen or officials in Bishkek served as a reminder of the dangers that existed in the region, but the Chinese response largely involved pressuring local officials to do more to protect their people and go after people they did not like.

Now, however, China appears to be starting to change tack. Rather than relying on local law enforcement agencies or passing on responsibility for security to Russia, China is stepping forward with its own forces to deal with its own concerns. Locals are still expected to do their bit, but China is now establishing a footprint that will allow it to deal with matters as it would like fit in Central Asia. The fact that a growing number of regional security forces are buying high-end technical equipment from China—while their cyber infrastructure is increasingly built using Chinese hardware—gives Beijing growing leverage.

Beijing’s rise as a security actor in Central Asia is not aimed at displacing Russia from its perceived sphere of influence in some contemporary replay of the Great Game, but rather at guaranteeing Chinese interests. In many ways, it’s not a surprising move: what country is not interested in securing its own interests? It is, however, a change in China’s external behavior, which has traditionally been to pay lip service to local autonomy and Chinese non-interference. China is getting involved, and stepping ever further into the breach.

A longer piece for my current local newspaper the Straits Times on a topic that have been doing a lot of work on of late, China in Afghanistan. It has been something of a running theme for some time and this tries to focus the analysis specifically through the lens of the pending US withdrawal. When I started to first really dig into this topic in the early 2010s, the discussion was Obama’s potential withdrawal which seemed to accelerate Chinese thinking. This time, it does not seem to be having the same effect.

In addition, a quick media catch up. Spoke to the Financial Times in the wake of the Austria and France terror incidents (which was picked up in Croatian), to RFE/RL about Central Asian decisions to repatriate more of their people from the Syrian camps, and on the other side of the coin spoke to David Wertime for his excellent Politico China Watcher column.

Will China be better off as the US withdraws from Afghanistan?

A US Chinook helicopter flying over Kabul in 2017. Beijing may now be enjoying America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions, says the writer.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China is enjoying the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. From Beijing’s perspective, America’s abrupt dash for the exit as the conflict continues to rage reinforces the argument that the US is an erratic and unreliable player on the world stage.

This glee, however, should be tempered by the fact that the trouble that is likely to follow America’s withdrawal is going to cause Beijing more trouble than the seemingly never-ending conflict which it has been able to observe from the sidelines.

In the short term, China has comfortably hedged itself against all direct threats from Afghanistan.

In the wake of declarations under the Obama administration that the US was going to withdraw from Afghanistan, China started a programme of investment into the military and border capabilities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, countries with which it shares the Wahkan Corridor, China’s direct border with Afghanistan.

It established a forward base for the People’s Armed Police in Tajikistan, as well as built a base for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, where in the first few years Chinese forces would also patrol. The Chinese also inaugurated a new regional multilateral structure, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, that brought together the chiefs of army staff of the countries with which it shared the Wakhan Corridor.

China also started to more openly cultivate its relations with all of the factions on the Afghan battlefield. Previously Beijing would rely on its “iron brother” Pakistan to facilitate contacts with the Taleban. This included visits to Kabul pre-2001 to meet Taleban leader Mullah Omar and offers by companies like Huawei to help build infrastructure in the country. But while this outreach was initially done behind the scenes, from 2014 onwards China started to openly host Taleban delegations in Urumqi and Beijing, while its special envoy for Afghanistan Sun Yuxi would help organise meetings involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China.

In addition, every senior visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan was accompanied by photo calls with all of the major political leaders in the city. The result of all this engagement was statements by the Taleban that they would help protect Chinese infrastructure investments in the country, as well as regular support for Chinese perspectives by all factions in the Afghan government.

Neither side – Taleban or the Afghan government – said they would provide support for Uighur militant groups using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in China. In fact, both said they would actively eject such groups from their territory.

All of this has given Beijing the sense of having effectively shielded itself from the Afghan conflict. It has hardened its direct and indirect borders and has won friends across the board. Theoretically, China is well-placed no matter what happens in a post-America Afghanistan.

INDIA, U.S. AND THE UIGHURS

Yet this happy situation for China is now vulnerable to the broader tensions it has engendered through its recent aggressive foreign policy. Afghanistan used to shine for China as a place where it could cooperate with even its most difficult partners. During the Obama years, China and the US had developed a series of cooperative projects in Afghanistan, including a diplomat training programme which involved courses in Beijing and Washington. When President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met first in Wuhan in April 2018 and then later near Chennai in October last year, they discussed Afghanistan as a place for cooperation, with infrastructure as a possible area of particular focus.

But the souring of ties with the US and India has largely put paid to these efforts. The Sino-US joint programme was suspended earlier in the year purportedly because of Covid-19 restrictions, but seems unlikely to start again. And anyway, any cooperative activity between the US and China in Afghanistan is going to be complicated by the fact that the US government made a decision in October this year to remove the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of terrorist organisations.

An organisation whose specific existence has long been disputed, ETIM is the catch-all term used by the Chinese authorities to describe Uighur militants. For years the US had acceded to the group’s inclusion on its list of banned terrorist groups, in part to ensure China’s support for Washington’s broader war against terrorism. But what Uighur militants do exist tend to use a different name, fighting in Afghanistan and Syria under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party. They talk about attacking China in their videos, and have historically claimed links to incidents in China (though the evidence of actual responsibility is limited).

Washington’s decision to remove ETIM from its list of proscribed groups hardens the rupture between China and Washington in Afghanistan. One of Beijing’s biggest stated concerns about Afghanistan is the possibility of Uighur militants operating as ETIM using the country as a staging point from which to attack China.

Yet now Washington does not even acknowledge that the organisation exists, meaning it formally disputes one of the fundamental reasons for Chinese engagement in Afghanistan. For the US to reverse this decision would require the State Department to push through legislation targeting Uighur militants at the same time as the entire US government is attacking China’s broader policy towards Uighurs through an escalating sanctions regime.

India’s position is less complicated, though it is unlikely that the government in Delhi will be very interested in engaging China over Afghanistan given current broader tensions as a result of the border clashes earlier this year.

The Taleban’s continued hostility towards India as well as Pakistan’s long shadow and close ties to China suggest it is unlikely that we will see cooperation between Delhi and Beijing soon. In fact, there are indications that we might even see the opposite.

BALUCHISTAN SEPARATISTS

One of the irritants that China has noticed over the past few years is the growing instances of violence by Baluchi separatist groups in Pakistan targeting Chinese projects in the country. These groups loudly tout their anger against Islamabad and Beijing, accusing them both of raping their land in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province while launching attacks on prominent targets linked to China such as a busload of Chinese engineers, or a hotel in Gwadar (the Pakistani port that is spoken of as the “jewel” of the wider China Pakistan Economic Corridor). They do this from bases in Afghanistan, particularly in Kandahar.

Pakistani, and increasingly Chinese, experts blame much of this Baluchi violence on Indians and their Afghan proxies. From their perspective, Delhi is playing an old game of manipulating militants based in Afghanistan against them. Place this activity alongside the American decision about ETIM, and it can look to Beijing like Afghanistan is becoming a place where two of its biggest adversaries are lining up to support anti-Chinese militant groups.

Whatever the merits of the accusations, the fact remains that Afghanistan’s geography and porous borders make it an inviting base from which militant fighters can strike at Pakistan and Xinjiang province.

TALEBAN PROMISES

China may draw comfort from Taleban statements about not supporting foreign militants in using their territory, but the Taleban’s history of reliability about such statements is quite thin.

Chinese officials and experts alike love to chuckle about how Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. They point to the futility of previous British, Russian and now American efforts to assert their might over the country. They would never be so silly as to get caught in that trap, they say.

Yet simply standing back is not going to make Afghanistan’s problems go away. China’s large mineral extraction projects in Afghanistan (a copper mine in Mes Aynak and an oilfield in the north) have not brought the Afghans the benefits hoped for. Beijing cannot but be on the watchout for its adversaries latching on to local disgruntlement against failed projects to stoke a bigger backlash.

China may not want to get dragged into Afghanistan’s troubles, but it may find itself unable to avoid them. Whether America completely withdraws or not, China will still be Afghanistan’s wealthiest neighbour with growing economic interests in every country that Afghanistan borders. Its concerns about domestic and regional threats from terrorism and instability have links into the country.

Beijing may now be enjoying America’s embarrassing withdrawal, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia that draws on almost a decade’s worth of travel and research across the region.

Returning to a topic that has been on the agenda for years, this time for a brand new outlet, the Oxus Society, a wonderful new Central Asia focused organization based in Washington founded by old friend and excellent Central Asianist Edward Lemon. Looking forward to cooperating with them a lot going forwards.

Before posting, time for a quick media catch up. In the wake of the spate of terrorist attacks in Europe spoke to Dutch NRC, Voice of America (which was also translated into Spanish), the Financial Times, and on the other side of the coin spoke to the South China Morning Post about the recent SCO Heads of State Summit, the US de-listing of ETIM, and the impact to China of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

China’s Non-Intervention in Afghanistan

As the current stage of conflict in Afghanistan works its way towards a conclusion, China needs to decide its role in the country’s future. Within Afghanistan there is growing frustration about China’s hedging, while across the neighborhood there is a growing sense of concern about China’s more aggressive posture. This will likely have a knock-on effect within Afghanistan and ultimately create blockages to stability within the country. This is a loss for everyone. 

Kabul is losing out on support from its biggest and most powerful neighbor, while Beijing is missing an opportunity to showcase its potentially positive influence to the world with a country desperately in need of it. 

Beijing has for the most part been a quiet actor in Afghanistan. It has played a role in most aspects of the country’s development in the past decades – from helping host negotiations, offering economic investment (including what on paper is the country’s biggest ever single investment in Mes Aynak), aid, military capacity building in the form of light weapons, base construction and training, and even working with strategic rivals like the United States to achieve stability in the country. In addition, China has engaged with a number of multilateral configurations around Afghanistan, and spoken repeatedly of bringing the country into Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Kabul and others have welcomed this activity, with the Afghan government ensuring that it does all that it can to keep Beijing happy, eager to get it to follow through on its promises.  

Yet, notwithstanding consistent activity, Beijing has never lived up to its promise. As Afghanistan’s richest and most influential neighbor, there was an underlying expectation that China would be able to play a more significant role in the country. But this has never quite materialized as was hoped. Instead, China has studiously hedged, continuing to offer the potential for engagement but never quite following through.

In economic terms, Chinese companies’ investments into the country are the biggest that Afghanistan has ever seen. The much discussed Mes Aynak copper mine was awarded to a Chinese consortium of MCC and Jiangxi Copper in 2007 with an initial price tag of $3 billion attached to it, while CNPC won a tender to develop oil fields in Amu Darya in 2011 with the promise of $400 million in investment. The companies drove the investments, but were strongly supported by Beijing as they were seen in part to reflect a sense of China doing its bit for Afghanistan. At the time, voices in the U.S. expressed anger that China was once again taking advantage of the mineral opportunities created in the wake of American-led invasions (a similar story played out in Iraq with CNPC winning oil tenders in that country), but this was balanced by a sense in Washington that it was not a bad thing for China to step into a more stabilizing role in a country from which the U.S. wanted an exit strategy.

The projects, however, have made little further forward progress. Repeated issues have been thrown up around Mes Aynak, including security concerns, an archaeological dig atop the site, problems with locals complaining about land compensation, access to appropriate chemicals, and a persistent effort by the company to redefine the terms of the project that they had initially signed up to. In March 2016,  the lead Chinese state owned enterprise working on the project, MCC, announced the decision to reallocate funds that had been raised to support the project elsewhere in the company.

In the north of Afghanistan, a similar story has played out. In 2011, Chinese energy giant CNPC signed a contract in conjunction with the Watan Group, a local Afghan firm, to exploit an oil field in Amu Darya in the north of the country. The project was one that was spotted by the company’s engineers in Turkmenistan working on the same oil field on that side of the border. Yet, since the agreement, the project has also been beset with problems. Disputes between the Watan Group and CNPC, between both companies and the Afghan government, and most dramatically between the company’s engineers and local potentates who reportedly deployed armed men to threaten the engineers when they had not received what they felt was their adequate compensation. Additionally, there has been little evidence of progress in the construction of a refinery which was initially discussed when the company won the concession. The entire project has also now reportedly been put into deeper suspension as the Afghan government has sought to strip the Chinese firm of its contract and run the project itself. 

Beyond this, China has talked repeatedly about including Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative, though this has also failed to move forwards. There has been discussion of linking Afghanistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), though this seems to have met with resistance in Islamabad. A fiber optic cable link has been mooted from China to Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor. A survey was launched in 2018 by the Afghan government, but the project appears to be slow in moving forwards. The project is part of a broader World Bank regional CASA digital initiative, reducing Beijing’s commitment to the project. Reflecting the low connectivity, according to a 2019 UNCTED report, China was the only border country with which Afghanistan did not have a terrestrial fibre optic cable link.

None of this ultimately reflects the real opportunity that China could offer Afghanistan. Look at neighboring Pakistan, Central Asia or Iran where Chinese firms are active across the economy and the government regularly touts massive deals. Not all come through, but enough that the economic geography of all of Afghanistan’s neighbors is increasingly turning towards Beijing. 

In political and military terms – China has played a role in negotiations, but never chosen to step into a forward role to force parties to the table. Discussion of China acting as a ‘security guarantor’ to any agreement has not generated concrete outcomes, and most Chinese security activity in Afghanistan has been focused on securing the small part of the country that touches China. Beijing has strong links to Islamabad, the Taliban and the Afghan government – yet, has not ultimately done much with these connections to generate actual outcomes in Afghanistan. 

Instead, all evidence points to China strengthening and sealing off its direct and near borders with Afghanistan. It has provided military support to strengthen Tajik border posts and built its own base for its own forces there, equipment to Pakistani forces in Gilgit-Baltistan, and even reportedly helped develop a mountain base for Afghan forces in Badakhshan. The establishment of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) which brings together the chiefs of military staff of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to focus on their shared border area, is the institutionalization of this approach. 

The net result is that the actor with the widest range of potential positive links in the country, a relatively neutral history, and the greatest potential economic opportunity has not come forward to help Afghanistan in the way that it could. Rather, Beijing has sat back and watched. The narrative from many prominent Chinese experts remains one of Afghanistan being a” graveyard of empires.” 

Yet now the conflict appears to be winding towards some sort of conclusion, the time would be ripe for China to finally step forwards and take a stronger and more positive role in the country. At a moment when Chinese international diplomacy is under assault, a good news story in Afghanistan might help with Beijing’s global image. 

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this will happen. While Beijing may simply be waiting out the result of the current negotiations, and hope that the subsequent likely coalition government may provide an effective partner to work with, the most likely outcome from the current negotiations will be messy and inconclusive. Violent actors are not going to go away, nor is a single faction going to be able to take control. NATO will continue its gradual withdrawal, while regional powers will focus on their individual border regions and interests. A vacuum will be left with various factions in Kabul struggling over their stakes. 

The result is a loss for all concerned, with Afghanistan losing the most. And in a worst case scenario, the country could become a further location for conflict between China and its many adversaries in a new proxy war.

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