Posts Tagged ‘China-Afghanistan’

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

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.

A brief piece drawing on some really interesting discussions have been having with Ajmal, an old contact from Kabul who has now spread his wings further. This first piece together is an excellent snapshot of events in Afghanistan through the lens of the pine nut for the Diplomat, with more to come. The larger topic of China-Afghanistan is a focus am going to continue on and of course is a big part of the upcoming book.

Why Is Beijing Going Nuts for Afghan Pine Nuts?

The trade offers concrete and immediate benefits to both the Chinese government and the Taliban

Credit: Depositphotos

China’s exercise of economic statecraft to exert influence in pursuit of foreign policy objectives is nothing new. Nor are its security interests in Afghanistan. This combination is usually assumed to come together in the form of mineral exploitation in exchange for security guarantees. 

But it is possible that China is planning a more complicated game which reduces its exposure but benefits a larger number of Afghans. Deliveries of pine nuts to China were first formalized in 2018 under the Western-backed government in Kabul with annual exports worth up to $800 million. By end of 2019, Afghan traders had inked over $2 billion worth of contracts with China for exporting pine nuts over a period of five years. Unlike the large and complicated mineral deals whose stories fill the press, the export of agricultural products like pine nuts is a way to immediately reach a large community of Afghan farmers, something the Taliban are very happy about and Beijing can commit to at little cost.

The China-Afghan pine nut story is a complicated one. While it can be simply explained as the law of supply and demand (with an almost bottomless consumer market in China that can absorb almost anything), a question not being asked is why China picked pine nuts among many other high-quality Afghan cash crops on which it could focus its attention. 

A key reason is location. Pine nuts are naturally grown in the wild in Laghman, Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. These areas have long been hotbeds of insurgent activity from the Haqqani network, in Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, to the Islamic State (ISK), in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman. These are also the areas where China feels it faces greater security threats from groups like the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). This could explain why China suddenly developed a taste for Afghan pine nuts.

While China’s facilitation of output-type contacts (whereby the buyer guarantees purchase levels as long as quality is maintained) and removal of logistical barriers have lifted thousands of pine nut growers out of poverty, it has also made these pine nut growing areas export-dependent on China. This gives China an interesting form of leverage and economic influence over the inhabitants of this region regardless of which government rules in Kabul. 

Chinese purchasers of pine nuts for export were always keener to be in direct touch with the farmers than to use middle men. The result of this link might be seen in an espionage case that blew up in Kabul in December 2020, when the old local intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), rolled up a cell of 10 Chinese citizens on accusations of espionage. According to stories that later emerged, one of the purported spies was allegedly involved in pine nut export, and the network was reported to have been building links to the Haqqani Network. 

Whatever the details of this case, pine nuts remain at the top of China’s Afghan agenda. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Doha to meet Taliban officials at the end of October coincided with the harvest season for pine nuts. With air corridors closed and all financial transactions with Afghanistan disrupted, the pressure was building on the Taliban to re-establish international trade. The Afghanistan Pine Nuts Union issued a statement calling on the Taliban administration to ban the smuggling of pine nuts and resume air corridors to facilitate exports to China. 

In the staged portion of Wang’s visit to Doha a short video was released of Taliban Foreign Minister designate Amir Khan Muttaqi handing over an elaborate box of pine nuts. The topic was not reported as coming up during Wang’s meeting with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister designate Abdul Ghani Baradar, where instead he was reported as focusing on China’s security concerns, stating “China hopes and believes that the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with the ETIM and other terrorist organizations, and take effective measures to resolutely crack down on them.”

While it is believed that China discussed a whole host of economic and state building opportunities, re-establishing the pine nuts air bridge was the most practical and easy solution with immediate wins for both sides. And China was able to show results very quickly. On November 1, the first flight of the restarted air corridor went to Shanghai, bringing with it 45 tonnes of pine nuts. A week later, online superstar salesman Li “lipstick king” Jiaqi and CCTV news anchor Wang Bingbing showcased cans of Afghan pine nuts on their online shopping show, shifting 120,000 cans with the support of Chen Zhong, a Chinese Pashto speaker and expert on Afghanistan. 

This rapid market to cash transaction highlights part of the way out of Afghanistan’s current liquidity crisis to the Taliban, while also giving China an easy way of supporting the Afghan economy at little cost to itself. It also gave the Taliban a way of showing their positive capability as export promoters to a part of the country where dangerous groups thrive.

Of course, both China and the Taliban recognize that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s economic stagnation does not lie in pine nuts. According to reliable sources at the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, samples of rare earths from Helmand’s Khanneshin district were handed to a Chinese delegation that met the Taliban acting minister of mines shortly after Wang’s visit to Doha. A delegation of Chinese company representatives were issued special visas and were reported to have visited Kabul in early November to conduct site inspections of sites of potential lithium mines, though their official read-out was very wary of committing to anything specific.

China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has restarted exploring opportunities in the Amu Darya field it had been thrown out from under the former government. Production from 11 wells at Angot and Kashkari blocks can start fairly quickly and without any large upfront investment because much of the existing infrastructure and wells were rehabilitated when CNPC took over the operations 10 years ago. 

With global oil prices above $80 a barrel for the first time in three years, and a severe winter ahead of a cash-strapped Afghan population, resuming production from Amu Darya could provide another “win-win” opportunity for China and the Taliban government. There are also reports that MCC, the firm that won the tender to mine the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar, have sent teams to discuss restarting with the Taliban – though they state they remain highly concerned about the security situation. 

But all of these projects are longer-term and far more expensive. It will require considerable outlay on the Chinese side for a project which may or may not work, and will take a long time to deliver cash to the government and people. Pine nuts in contrast offer a quick turnaround which both helps get currency into the hands of farmers and the laborers they need to harvest the nuts, and requires little major commitment by China except easing access to the Chinese consumer market. They also provide an interesting possible avenue for Chinese intelligence to gain direct contact in areas of concern. 

All in all, it is a win-win that both the Taliban and Beijing can sign off on with little cost, but lots of positive imagery on all sides. Crucially, it allows China to play an economic role and deal with security issues, all without feeling like it is being dragged too far into the Afghan quagmire.

Guest Authors

Ajmal Waziri is an international development advisor with a research interest in the political economy of natural resources.

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

Another piece in Italian, this time for La Repubblica (again), though this time something authored by me rather than an edited interview that have done with them in the past. The plan is for this to be the first of a few for the newspaper, mostly likely looking at China’s relations in Eurasia. It seems there is a pretty inexhaustible interest in the topic at the moment, and there are a few more pieces in the pipeline, including my upcoming book.

Afghanistan, quel “corridoio” di affari che lega Cina e Pakistan al destino dei talebani

L’instabilità legata ai continui attacchi terroristici dell’Isis-K rischia di frenare gli investimenti del Dragone. Pechino teme anche che il Paese possa diventare una base per i militanti uiguri

Con la partenza degli Stati Uniti dall’Afghanistan, Pechino si trova in una posizione di grande influenza in un paese dove non ci sono garanzie. Nel passato, la Cina poteva affrontare i rischi tramite un governo a Kabul con il quale aveva relazioni accettabili, con amici ben disposti in Islamabad, e tutto questo sotto un ombrello di sicurezza americano. Tutto ciò non c’è più, e quel che rimane sono i talebani e i pachistani, entrambi “amici” di lungo termine, ma entrambi poco affidabili. I rischi per la Cina sono cresciuti.

Pechino ha preoccupazioni molto precise in Afghanistan. Innanzitutto ha paura che diventi una base dalla quale gruppi di militanti uiguri possono addestrarsi e complottare contro la Cina nello Xinjiang, che ospita circa 10 milioni di uiguri. Lo Xinjiang è una zona sensibile per Pechino, mentre è in atto un braccio di ferro fra Stati Uniti e Cina. Nel passato, alcuni uiguri hanno usato basi in Afghanistan per progettare attentati in Cina. Al tempo del primo governo talebano, gruppi di uiguri si erano radunati a Jalalabad sotto la protezione del Mullah Omar.

Ai tempi, le relazioni fra cinesi e talebani erano abbastanza immature. La Cina si stava ancora aprendo al mondo, ed era totalmente dipendente dal Pakistan per i contatti con i talebani. La relazione fra Islamabad e Pechino era (ed è ancora) molto stretta. Da tempo condividono le stesse preoccupazioni riguardo l’India, e mantengono une delle poche vere alleanze che la Cina abbia nel mondo (l’altra è con la Corea del Nord: con amici come questi…). Prima dell’11 Settembre 2001, il Pakistan voleva usare questa relazione con Pechino per rafforzare i suoi alleati talebani a Kabul. Spingevano i cinesi a riconoscerli come governo legittimo. In compenso, Pechino voleva aiuto sulle sue preoccupazioni uigure, e offriva di incoraggiare le sue aziende a esplorare opportunità in Afghanistan. 

Vent’anni dopo, poco è cambiato in termini di cosa preoccupi Pechino, e cosa possa offrire. Quello che è cambiato sono le relazioni dirette che la Cina ha adesso con i talebani, e l’essere diventata la seconda potenza economica nel mondo. Entrambi sono aspetti interessanti per il nuovo governo talebano che vuole dimostrare la sua indipendenza da Islamabad.

Il guaio è che ciò crea più problemi di quanto semplifichi le cose. Da un lato, i talebani non si sono ancora dimostrati affidabili. La richiesta chiave per Pechino riguardo agli uiguri non è facile da esaudire per i mullah a Kabul. Primo, non c’è consenso nei ranghi talebani su come trattare gli uiguri. Una parte li vede come alleati che hanno combattuto per anni con loro, e si chiedono perché dovrebbero consegnarli ai cinesi. Per seconda cosa, non è chiaro se i talebani controllino tutto il paese. La rappresentanza locale dello Stato Islamico (Isis-K) ha effettuato numerosi attentati nelle ultime settimane, uno dei quali a Kunduz ha colpito una moschea sciita: il gruppo ha dichiarato d’aver usato un soldato uiguro. Nella rivendicazione l’Isis-K ha detto che l’attacco era mirato ai talebani per la loro alleanza con i cinesi contro gli uiguri. E’ la prima volta che lo Stato islamico lancia un messaggio così diretto alla Cina.

Ciò non rappresenta solo una minaccia alla Cina, ma anche alla sua volontà di incoraggiare le sue aziende a fare investimenti in Afghanistan. Le aziende cinesi sono disposte a provare: sotto il vecchio governo erano fra le poche a essersi offerte di fare grandi investimenti nel paese, in continuazione di quello che stavano esplorando già sotto il primo governo talebano. Finora, però, questo interesse non si è tradotto in risultati, in parte proprio per la sicurezza instabile. E questo non sembra essere cambiato.

Una soluzione sarebbe coinvolgere l’alleato storico, il Pakistan. E sembra che fino a un certo punto questo sia già successo. Negli ultimi giorni del vecchio governo, da Kabul era partita una serie di visite in Cina da parte di importanti esponenti pachistani: in parte serviva ad alleviare l’irritazione cinese per diversi attentati contro suoi interessi in Pakistan, ma doveva anche preparare le cose per la missione del mullah Baradar prevista poco prima che cadesse Kabul.

Questo è un ruolo che il Pakistan ha offerto alla Cina da tempo. E fa parte di una relazione fra Pechino e Islamabad che ha aspetti economici, politici, e di sicurezza. La Cina ha investito miliardi di dollari in investimenti e progetti in Pakistan sotto la visione del Cpec (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), citato come progetto chiave della visione più estesa della Belt and Road Initiative (Bri) cinese. Inoltre stanno lavorando insieme alla costruzione di sottomarini e di un nuovo aereo militare, e a tanti altri progetti di sicurezza.

Ma mentre ai governi di Pakistan e Cina piace raccontare in pubblico favole di grande amicizia e cooperazione, sotto il tavolo ci sono problemi. Incertezze che di recente sono diventate più acute con la morte di ingegneri cinesi in attentati terroristici, e con il rallentamento dei progetti d’investimento cinesi per i fallimenti da parte pachistana. In aggiunta, ufficiali pachistani continuano a dire sotto voce quanto siano obbligati a lavorare con la Cina e come preferirebbero invece essere più vicini agli americani, i nemici principali di Pechino. Questo ha creato irritazioni fra le due capitali, alzando il livello di paranoia reciproca. Un disequilibrio mentale che peggiora quando i cinesi cominciano a trattare direttamente con i talebani senza raccontare tutto al Pakistan.

Per il Pakistan, l’Afghanistan è un progetto di lungo termine su cui sta facendo un gioco complicato. Da un lato vuole mantenere il controllo, e si concentra a tenere fuori il suo nemico mortale: l’India. In questo contesto considera l’Afghanistan una strategic depth, una zona di sicurezza prima del fronte con Delhi. D’altra parte, si rende conto che se perde il controllo in Afghanistan porta un pericolo a casa. I problemi di estremismo in Afghanistan rimbombano in Pakistan. Questo vuol dire che in Afghanistan, il Pakistan terrà in mente solo i propri interessi. Pechino si troverà presto nella stessa situazione in cui si è trovata l’America. Per le sue garanzie in Afghanistan dipenderà da un governo in Pakistan che è contemporaneamente sia la soluzione che una parte del problema. La Cina sta imparando la complessità di essere la più grande potenza nella stanza.

Con questo articolo Raffaello Pantucci, analista del Royal United Services Institute di Londra, inizia la sua collaborazione con “Repubblica”

A new piece in a different language appealing to the other half of my national identity, so maybe restricting in who can read it. But at the same time, machine translation these days is very effective I find, so I am sure to those committed (and who cannot read Italian!) will find a way. In any case, many thanks to ISPI for commissioning this, more on this topic to come for certain.

I dilemmi della Cina sull’Afghanistan

Come molti dei vicini dell’Afghanistan, la Cina ha adottato un approccio pragmatico nelle relazioni con i Talebani. Riconoscendo che sono la nuova forza a Kabul e che per il momento sembrano capaci di rimanere al potere, Pechino ha stabilito contatti diretti per agire in un Paese con il quale condivide una frontiera diretta. La Cina ha una lunga storia di contatti con i Talebani sulla quale può contare. Ma la Cina oggi è una potenza globale e questa realtà cambia la lente con cui gli altri poteri regionali guardano la Cina, e cambia le dinamiche regionali. Da un potere che poteva nascondersi fra altri, la Cina adesso è un Paese chiave per il futuro del Afghanistan.

contatti fra la Cina e i Talebani risalgono a prima dell’11 settembre 2001, tramite il Pakistan. Lo scopo era gestire i rischi che potevano emergere dai gruppi di militanti uiguri che operavano in Afghanistan. Pechino voleva influenzare i Talebani anche in altri modi, incoraggiando le sue aziende telefoniche (Huawei e ZTE in particolare) a contribuire alle infrastrutture. In aggiunta, le aziende estrattive cinesi avevano avviato discussioni con il governo talebano. Pechino aveva provato a persuadere il governo a non distruggere le famose statue di Buddha di Bamiyan, una spinta diplomatica che non ha avuto successo e che però dimostra la capacità di avanzare richieste difficili.

L’invasione statunitense dopo l’11 settembre ha trasformato la relazione. Pechino si è rapidamente volta in direzione di Washington, dopo aver ricevuto l’assicurazione dagli Stati Uniti che avrebbero appoggiato la lotta cinese contro i militanti uiguri del Movimento Islamico dell’Est Turkestan (ETIM), mettendoli sulla lista dei gruppi terroristici. Negli anni successivi la relazione fra i Talebani e i cinesi si è congelata. Solo dopo il 2007, quando sono aumentati i problemi in Pakistan e la situazione in Afghanistan è cominciata a peggiorare, hanno provato a riaprire il canale.

Il ristabilimento di contatti è avvenuto tramite il Pakistan, ma con il passare del tempo la Cina ha preferito contatti diretti, divenuti poi di dominio pubblico. La Cina ha offerto ospitalità, incontri regolari e la creazione di un nuovo consesso che facesse incontrare gli Stati Uniti, la Cina, il Pakistan, il governo afghano e i Talebani. Questo consesso non è servito a molto, ma ha dimostrato i contatti della Cina, sempre più pubblici fino a quando gli americani hanno segnalato il ritiro finale firmando l’accordo con i Talebani nel febbraio 2020 a Doha.

Per la Cina, il più alto incontro diplomatico è stato quello tra il ministro degli Esteri Wang Yi e Mullah Baradar a Tianjin nel tardo luglio 2021. Poche settimane dopo, i Talebani hanno preso il potere a Kabul. Poco prima dell’incontro a Tianjin, il Presidente Xi aveva parlato con il presidente Ashraf Ghani, al quale aveva dichiarato che Pechino non era sicura di chi avrebbe vinto a Kabul. Se con il nuovo governo talebano i cinesi all’inizio hanno continuato a usare il canale pachistano, adesso possono contare su forti contatti diretti. Il dilemma per la Cina è però quanto sia affidabile questo governo.

La Cina ha tre grandi preoccupazioni. La prima è che l’Afghanistan diventi un rifugio dal quale gruppi di uiguri possano complottare e creare problemi nel Xinjiang. La seconda è che l’instabilità afghana possa essere esportata nella regione. L’Asia Centrale e il Pakistan sono legati alla Cina e se la regione brucia ne soffre anche Pechino. La terza è che il Paese possa diventare un luogo in cui potenze come gli Stati Uniti o l’India creano problemi per la Cina (non a caso crescono le voci cinesi secondi cui gli statunitensi starebbero aiutando i gruppi uiguri).

Per risolvere tutti questi problemi, è necessario avere un governo stabile a Kabul, capace di mantenere la sicurezza. Pechino, come la maggior parte dei governi regionali, vorrebbe che i Talebani creassero un governo d’unità, che comprendesse tutte le varie fazioni afghane. Ma nell’assenza d’unità, vorrebberro che i Talebani dimostrassero almeno potenza, dipendenza e controllo del territorio. Ed è questa la preoccupazione principale che al momento ha la Cina – il fatto che non sia chiaro quanto unito sia il governo dei Talebani o se siano capaci di controllare il territorio. Il modo in cui le fazioni Haqqani hanno preso il controllo marginalizzando Mullah Baradar è una lente sui problemi interni.

I Talebani hanno parlato regolarmente del fatto che non daranno appoggio a gruppi anti-cinesi e non commenteranno le vicende del Xinjiang. Inoltre ci sono rapporti dal nord del Paese secondo cui starebbero trasferendo gruppi uiguri che erano lì. Tutto ciò è però complicato dalla rivendicazione dello Stato Islamico in Afghanistan (ISKP): il massacro a Kunduz di pochi giorni fa sarebbe stato commesso da uno uiguro, anche contro i Talebani, per il loro appoggio ai cinesi. Un rischio contro il quale Pechino deve trovare protezione.

La risposta cinese sarà, come sempre, di provare a trovare qualcuno nel Paese che possa risolvere il problema. In questo caso, i Talebani. Ma al momento la Cina ha raggiunto il limite del suo sostegno ai Talebani. Probabilmente sarebbe disposta a riconoscerne ufficialmente il governo, ma senza essere la prima o l’unica a farlo. I funzionari cinesi dietro le quinte stanno provando a capire chi altro nella regione sarebbe disposto e sperano che i russi decidano di farlo per primi.

Non sarà facile. La decisione di creare un governo unitario talebano ha irritato i russi che speravano in qualcosa di diverso. Per Mosca, l’Afghanistan è una fonte di vari potenziali problemi, a casa propria e nelle sue zone limitrofe, in Asia Centrale o nel Caucaso. La Russia continua a considerare il gruppo talebano ufficialmente terroristico, anche se mantiene contatti (e pianifica di ospitarli a Mosca fra poco). Questo doppio atteggiamento riflette le preoccupazioni del presidente Putin e non cambierà velocemente.

Tutto questo lascia Pechino in una situazione complicata. Da un lato, vorrebbe riconoscere il governo talebano, dargli appoggio ufficiale, chiedere risposte sulle proprie preoccupazioni. Ma al momento non è sicura che i Talebani siano nella posizione di offrire rassicurazioni. A causa della geografia, Pechino è comunque costretta a continuare a lavorare con loro.

Ma la Cina non è la potenza che era l’ultima volta che i Talebani erano a Kabul. Adesso è la seconda economia del mondo ed è la potenza più grande, ricca e influente vicina all’Afghanistan. Qualunque sua decisione cambierà la dinamica regionale. Una situazione difficile per i leader a Zhongnanhai che faticano a capire come usare queste leve per ottenere i propri obiettivi. Una realtà ancor più complicata dal fatto che da sempre le grandi menti strategiche cinesi ritengono che l’Afghanistan sia un cimitero imperiale. Ma Pechino si è messa in una situazione tale per cui, per evitare che il prossimo Impero a cadere nella trappola sia quello cinese, deve fare affidamento proprio sui Talebani.

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.