Posts Tagged ‘China’

A brief policy focused piece for a new outlet and institution called the UK National Committee on China (UKNCC) which they requested in the wake of the US led withdrawal from Afghanistan to try to focus on how the UK’s relationship with China needs to navigate this. It is part of a triumvirate of pieces they published including one by Alessandro and another by the Chinese Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs Yue Xiaoyong. Builds on something I wrote earlier for RUSI, and is likely to be an interesting and complicated policy question going forwards.

What are the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The world is increasingly defined by great power conflict. Escalating tensions between the US and China have grown to touch on almost every aspect of international relations. This reality has most recently been on display in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal from a two-decade long military commitment on China’s borders has thrown into question American security commitments and raised questions about what kind of a power China will be in its own backyard. For a power such as the United Kingdom that straddles the relationships between Beijing, Kabul and Washington, the question is how, in this complicated strategic equation, to ensure British interests. The balance is a complex one which highlights the nature of the challenges that the UK is going to face in trying to carve out its own path in the world.

The most prominent and immediate question to emerge from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is what it means for London’s much vaunted ‘special relationship’ with Washington. Senior officials, including the Defence Secretary, have openly questioned President Biden’s decision-making on the withdrawal, while the public discourse in London has focused on how events have shown the limits of British influence in Washington. Yet the reality remains that the US is the UK’s key strategic security ally on the world stage. The narrative of divergence in UK and US interests is exaggerated, even if it is clear that Washington is focusing on its confrontation with Beijing as the driving policy focus to the detriment of everything else.

At the same time, it is clear that the UK is unable to entirely disengage from Afghanistan. Quite aside from the deep commitments generated from twenty years of conflict, there are the human and historical connections that the UK has with South Asia. Large diaspora communities from Pakistan, and to a lesser extent from Afghanistan, give the UK a particular stake in the country and region. This also means that the UK needs to explore ways in which to engage and secure its interests in Afghanistan in the longer-term, including generating creative options that reflect the changing regional geopolitics.

The harsh geopolitical reality is that the United States-led withdrawal from Afghanistan will bolster Chinese influence in the region. This is not a reflection of a push by Beijing to fill an abstract security vacuum, but rather a demonstration of geographical reality. With the departure of American forces, Beijing is set to become the most consequential power in the Eurasian heartland. For the UK, threading the needle of a uninterested Washington and influential Beijing will require strategic thinking.

Chinese influence across Eurasia has been ascendant for some time. Yet until now, China has chosen to prioritize economic engagement, with security engagement placed a discrete but focused second. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan has complicated this approach. While parts of Beijing may have chafed at the idea of military bases on their borders, others sensibly reckoned that an American security presence was likely dealing with problems that otherwise Beijing might have to address.

The US withdrawal has therefore left Beijing seeking new partners in the region. The most pragmatic and logical choice from China’s perspective is the new Taliban-led government. However, there is still no clarity about the level of power and control the Taliban may command, their long-term stability in power, or whether they are interested in dealing with the issues that most concern Beijing. Recognizing this, China has also sought greater coordination with Russia, increased its bilateral discussion on Afghanistan with Iran, and continued its engagement with Pakistan.

Yet, while these relationships are more established than those with the Taliban, each has its own complications and mistrusts. This is most clear in the lack of any action or discussion recently by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) about doing anything concerning Afghanistan. Including as it does all of Afghanistan’s neighbours except Turkmenistan, and with a particular interest in terrorism, the SCO should theoretically be the obvious platform for greater engagement in Afghanistan.

Established with Chinese impetus, Beijing has long sought to get the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, but has struggled to get members to share its focus. For the most part, these other countries have rather sought to engage Afghanistan bilaterally or through other regional formats that they host and control.

In many ways, this is exactly the approach Beijing has itself taken. While China has done a great deal of multilateral engagement in the wider region and on Afghanistan, it has usually taken a bilateral approach to focus on its real interests, through selective security engagement, economic investment or developing political and social partnerships. In Afghanistan, the prime concern is that the country might become a base from which Uyghur militants (or other anti-Chinese elements) gather to try to attack China directly or its interests in the wider region. This has led to quite focused security and intelligence attention.

This focus on counter-terrorism is something that provides the UK with a first potential point of engagement. London is as concerned about terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan as Beijing is, though the degree of threat and the nature of them is slightly different. The degree of actual threat that China might face from militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan remains an open question. It is after all many years since a specific threat has been seen. There does though appear to be evidence of some presence and there is no doubt that its wider regional concerns are of relevance. In recent years, terrorists have targeted both China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and its consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, part of a wider trend of targeting of Chinese interests.

But engagement on counterterrorism with China is a double-edged sword for the UK. There may be some concurrence in the assessment of threats abroad: for example, the UK continues to list the Turkestan Islamic Party (also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) as a proscribed terrorist entity in contrast to the US.

However, there is little agreement on domestic counter-terrorism policy. The UK has correctly been at the forefront of the global push to condemn Chinese action in Xinjiang which is done under the rubric of countering extremism. Threading the needle of engaging abroad while condemning at home will be difficult. But focusing on shared concerns about groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS, and other regional salafi-jihadi groups that are likely to play a major role in destabilizing the wider region would be something China and the UK might work on.

Focusing on cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative is equally fraught, though for more prosaic reasons. Whilst Beijing talks a great deal about BRI cooperation, it is hard to find evidence of genuine action following this rhetoric.

The UK has tried, for example, a great deal in Pakistan with limited success. Meaningful BRI cooperation has been largely limited to the level of individual contracts where UK firms take on defined sub-contract roles within larger projects.

Humanitarian aid might offer itself as the most obvious first point of pressure and engagement. The Taliban take over has precipitated a frantic run for the door in all directions. Most visibly via Kabul International Airport, but in far larger numbers across the country’s land borders into Pakistan and Iran – places already swelled by years of Afghan emigration. These problems sit in addition to the larger humanitarian crisis that is likely coming in Afghanistan, if the country remains cut off from the international community and from the aid flows that dominated the economy. Beijing should be engaged and encouraged to expend more money and effort in alleviating these humanitarian crises that sit in its backyard.

What happens in Afghanistan matters to both the UK and China. It matters also to the United States, but Washington has clearly articulated that it is prioritizing efforts elsewhere. London should not step back in a similar way, but should instead explore whether targeted cooperation is possible to advance shared concerns and interests. While at the moment it increasingly looks like there is little appetite in Beijing for genuine cooperation, the problems that Afghanistan faces are likely to be with us for some time yet. Working towards encouraging Beijing to take a greater humanitarian role while recognizing the common terrorist threats offers a way of trying to strike the difficult strategic balance that the UK will need to find in a world of great power confrontation.

Finally on this past few week’s blast, a piece for Foreign Policy which was actually set up before events in Afghanistan came to a head, but had to get pushed back a bit. It is also my first piece with my excellent RSIS colleague Basit, with whom I have a few projects in the pipeline. Undoubtedly more on this topic and with Basit to come. Suspect the China and regional terrorism axis of topicality is only going to grow as we go further forwards.

Why Terrorists Will Target China in Pakistan

As awareness of Uyghur persecution increases and anger about Beijing’s investment projects simmers, Chinese citizens and businesses are likely to suffer.

Pakistani rangers stand in front of the Chinese consulate after an attack in Karachi on November 23, 2018. – At least two policemen were killed when unidentified gunmen stormed the Chinese consulate in the Pakistani port city of Karachi on November 23, officials said. (Photo by ASIF HASSAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images)

With great power comes great responsibility, as the old Marvel comics maxim goes. But great power also attracts envy, anger, and enemies.

This is something that China is learning belatedly—and much to its chagrin—in Pakistan, where its investment projects are facing complications and its citizens and facilities are increasingly being targeted by local terrorist organizations, from jihadi groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to ethnoseparatists in Balochistan and Sindh.

China has long been in the crosshairs of Pakistani militants. But lately the pace of attacks appears to be picking up. Last Friday saw the latest attempt, this time by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) against Chinese transports in Gwadar. The group has repeatedly targeted high-profile Chinese targets in Pakistan, including the Chinese Consulate in Karachi in November 2018.

Reports diverge regarding the casualties of this latest attack, with the BLA claiming it killed six Chinese nationals and three security guards, while Chinese and Pakistani authorities claim one Chinese national was injured and two children were killed (the BLA claims the two children were killed by scattershot firing from Pakistani forces). Whatever the grim count, the attack is the fourth high-profile incident this year, and it also confirms the worrying trend of using suicide bombers, an innovation for the Balochi group.

Pakistan has become a microcosm of a larger reality that Beijing is going to have to contend with globally. As it becomes a global power on the world stage, it is going to attract the anger of terrorist organizations. Beijing’s willingness to engage with the Taliban may be an attempt to try to preempt such problems in the new Afghanistan, but history has shown this to be a risky gamble for Beijing.

China tried to strike an earlier pre-9/11 deal with the Taliban to get them to do something about Uyghur groups the Chinese had noticed gathering in Afghanistan, but it is unclear that the Taliban did anything about those groups.

The new deal Beijing and the Taliban are reported to have struck is likely not dissimilar to the previous one in its concerns, but now there is the additional question of the large number of Chinese nationals who can be found around the region, including various intrepid entrepreneurs in Kabul who may not adhere to the various sharia laws the Taliban will impose. Who will guarantee their safety? And none of this will help Beijing overcome the larger problem of the inevitable enemies you attract once you have superpower status.

The Gwadar attack last Friday followed the killing of nine Chinese engineers working on the Dasu hydroelectric power project in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province—an attack that remains formally unclaimed. Soon after that attack, two Chinese nationals were shot at and one wounded in Karachi by a different Baloch separatist group (the Baloch Liberation Front). In March, a Sindhi separatist group wounded a Chinese national in a gun assault, also in Karachi. This followed two similar incidents in December.

Most dramatically, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong, narrowly escaped an attack by the TTP in April at the Serena Hotel in Quetta. Responsibility for this grim roster of incidents comes from a growing range of actors, highlighting the escalating nature of the problem that China is facing in Pakistan.

The most effective of these attacks was the assault in Dasu. Chinese sources have attributed it to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)—a group whose existence is disputed and whose name is mostly used to refer to a group that calls itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)—acting in unison with the TTP. Both Pakistan and China also used the opportunity to cast blame on India—a perennial accusation thrown around terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

More formally, Beijing seemed to widen the circle of blame during the Afghan Taliban’s two-day visit to China, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanding that the Taliban make a clean break from ETIM/TIP and take action against it in Afghanistan as ‘it was a direct threat to China’s national security.’

While not stated explicitly, the statement appeared to be a shot across the bow, suggesting a condition for Beijing’s recognition of the Taliban government as the group takes power in Afghanistan. Beijing has continued to focus on ETIM as a preeminent concern that could attempt to take root, potentially emanating from the instability that is likely to follow the Taliban’s takeover, and it is not clear how confident Beijing is in Taliban assurances about managing ETIM threats.

But the abrupt increase in terrorist attacks on Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan underscores how anti-Chinese militancy is evolving against the backdrop of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

China may be developing its relationship with the Taliban in part to mitigate these concerns, but the problem is much bigger than something Taliban leaders can control. Previously, the jihadi community was fairly ambivalent about China. Osama bin Laden was even quoted pre-9/11 saying that Beijing could be a strategic ally for the jihadi community given their collective antagonism toward the United States. But at the time, China was still seen as a developing country. Now it is the world’s second-largest economy and is increasingly becoming the most consequential actor in Afghanistan’s neighborhood. This changes the common perception of China and brings tension with it.

This tension is most clearly visible in Pakistan. Even though Beijing and Islamabad are close friends and strategic partners, Pakistan has consistently been the location of the highest number of terrorist attacks against Chinese nationals in any country.

This situation has the potential to get worse for Beijing. For the last two decades, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan kept the terrorist threat from that country in check, meaning China did not need to preoccupy itself too much with security challenges. With the U.S. exit, that security buffer is gone, as is the distraction of the great American Satan being present on Afghan soil.

China has sought to strengthen its direct defenses with Afghanistan through building bases and providing support to Tajik and Pakistani forces on either side of the Wakhan Corridor, alongside building its own direct bases in Tajikistan and bases for the former national Afghan government forces in Badakhshan (bases whose current status is unknown but presumably now under Taliban control).

This somewhat limited effort was being carried out when the United States was still there and providing definitive assurances to keep militant groups in check and even helping target anti-Chinese groups. In February 2018, the U.S. military targeted a series of camps in Badakhshan that were reportedly being used by the Taliban and ETIM.

The problem for China could get even worse. While the United States was at the receiving end of jihadi attacks for intervening in Afghanistan and for what was perceived as a broader anti-Muslim crusade as a result of the global war on terror, China is confronted with the ire of both the jihadi and the ethno-separatist groups in the region.

Sindhi and Baloch ethno-separatist groups perceive China as a neocolonial power usurping their resources and partnering with their primary adversary, the Pakistani state, to worsen their already abysmal socioeconomic condition. This was clearly articulated in the Baloch Liberation Front’s claim of responsibility for shooting at the Chinese nationals in Karachi: ‘In the garb of development projects, China is not only colluding with the Pakistani state in plundering the Baloch resources but assisting in the Baloch community’s persecution as well.’

Jihadi groups have been less focused in their anger toward China, continuing to see the United States and the West as their primary external adversaries. But at the same time, there is a palpable uptick in propaganda narratives directed toward China. This is often linked to Beijing’s persecution of the beleaguered Uyghur Muslim community in China’s Xinjiang region.

Rising ideologues like the mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi—originally from Myanmar—tie these narratives together. Since 2015, the firebrand orator Burmi has been framing China as the next neocolonial power after the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. Burmi, for instance, told his followers in a statement, ‘Mujahideen should know that the coming enemy of the ummah is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.’ In another video, titled ‘Let’s Disturb China,’ he argues that after the ‘Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan our next target will be China.’

His anti-Chinese rhetoric, combining narratives of Chinese colonialism (in his native Myanmar as well as Xinjiang) with accounts of Muslim persecution, has drawn jihadi attention to Beijing. Echoes of these sentiments are also found among some Indonesian jihadi groups and among ultranationalists in Central Asia.

Xinjiang has long been a discussion point for the global jihadi community, but the community has never dedicated resources toward doing anything about it. While it is still unclear that this has changed, what is noticeable is that the narrative is sharpening and the Uyghur cause is no longer the marginal issue that it used to be. Uyghur fighters are regularly praised by other jihadi factions for their bravery in battle.

For a country like Pakistan, which shares a direct border with Xinjiang, it has been a political hot potato, with Prime Minister Imran Khan regularly championing and defending China’s treatment of its Muslim minority. This has extended to not offering protections to the Uyghur community that is resident in Pakistan and has fallen into China’s suspicious crosshairs. This merely adds to the anger against the Pakistani state that is felt from within the jihadi community. Nevertheless, attacking China in Xinjiang or elsewhere in the mainland is a tall order for these groups.

By contrast, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—a network of highways, railways, power projects, and other projects that will enter Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region from Xinjiang and culminate at Gwadar port—presents these groups with numerous opportunities to hurt Beijing as well as the Pakistani government. Chinese investment in Pakistan has become a sort of soft underbelly for Beijing.

In its next planned phase, CPEC will spread further across Pakistan. And beyond formal CPEC projects, there is a growing number of potential Chinese targets in the country through the thousands of individual travelers and entrepreneurs who take advantage of the smooth visa access into Pakistan to seek opportunities. This will vastly expand Pakistani terrorist groups’ potential Chinese targets and complicate Pakistani government efforts to provide protection. More Chinese and Pakistanis are likely to suffer.

The problem for Beijing is that Chinese targets in Pakistan (and Afghanistan and further afield) will become increasingly attractive. This is in part a product of China’s growing presence and alliance with an Islamabad government that has a plethora of enemies on the ground, but it’s also because of the growing prominence of China at the global level.

Terrorist groups ultimately seek to deliver a political message to draw attention their cause; spectacular acts of violence are the tool they use to accomplish this. Each attack helps with promoting their message, recruiting, fundraising, and more. By targeting China—now the world’s second-largest economy—jihadi, ethno-separatist, and other terrorist groups are all increasingly guaranteed this attention. China is discovering that becoming a great power also comes with great risks.

Still catching up on myself after a very busy period, this a quick policy note for RUSI picking up on some comments by the UK Foreign Secretary about the need to have to cooperate with China and Russia in Afghanistan. The idea of cooperating with China in particular in Afghanistan is something that lots of people have done over the years, and for those who may have been reading my stuff for a while will know I have done projects on since 2014 (looking at China-India cooperation), again in greater depth in 2016 and most recently last year between the UK and China. As Afghanistan’s wealthiest, and going forwards likely most influential, neighbour, it strikes that China is going to be playing a role or should be taking a more positive role. It makes sense to try to ensure some sort of cooperation can be maintained, while the larger relationships will continue to be incredibly challenging and confrontational. Of course all of this push towards engagement is something that only works if Beijing and Moscow also contribute, something that they have hesitated to do so far (in particular in China’s case).

Enlisting China and Russia in Managing Afghanistan

The UK foreign secretary is the first to raise what will soon become an imperative: engaging with China and Russia in containing the fallout from Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen leaves after a news conference in Moscow, 9 July 2021. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s recent comments about enlisting the support of China and Russia to act as moderating influences in Afghanistan amounts to a sober admission of reality: the long-term answer to stability in Afghanistan is going to come from its immediate region. The snag with this assessment is that Afghanistan is a state entirely surrounded by countries that are in one way or another sanctioned by the West. It is this adversarial relationship with much of Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that makes it difficult for a power like the UK to influence events, especially when it comes to engaging Moscow and Beijing on something as sensitive as Afghanistan. So, what exactly can the West in general, and the UK in particular, expect in requesting support from China and Russia in the context of Afghanistan?

Not Exactly Enthused

The first fact to note is that, notwithstanding rhetoric, neither Beijing nor Moscow are pleased with the ultimate outcome of an unstable Afghanistan. They may enjoy the West’s perceived failure and ignominious departure, but an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban is not an outcome they welcome with excitement. Violent Islamists imbued with a sense of victory present a potential inspiration to extreme groups within China and Russia. It is worth remembering that the Taliban has previously provided space from which militants targeting these countries could operate. Furthermore, any short- or medium-term terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan is most likely to appear in its immediate region rather than further afield.

Neither are Beijing or Moscow attracted to an unstable Afghanistan with a weak or internally divided government without the stabilising force of US power. Such a situation would be an irritant which sits near their borders and could have other consequences for their broader spheres of influence and interests across the Eurasian heartland. Beijing and Moscow would rather have a Taliban government that found a way of creating a stable environment, most preferably through some political agreement. There is likely a divergence in views between London, Beijing and Moscow on what the specific composition of this government might look like, but there is probably an underlying agreement about the broad structure.

Keep it Simple, Keep it Focused

While this suggests a restriction to the degree to which China and Russia will cooperate on Afghan politics, it also indicates a certain alignment with Beijing and Moscow, as their goal is similar to that pursued by the UK. All three want stability. But, rather than expend political capital on precise deliverables that may be unattainable, the focus should be kept on larger goals.

A priority must be to apply whatever pressure is possible to get Beijing and Moscow to encourage the Taliban to facilitate a positive outcome to the current humanitarian crisis at Kabul airport. In the medium term, the UK should impress upon Beijing and Moscow the need to increase their humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and its neighbours. China has considerable wealth and influence in Pakistan, where numerous Afghan refugees are already flowing. Providing greater aid and support for this community, while also continuing the provision of coronavirus pandemic-related aid to Afghanistan, should be a priority. Similarly, Iran is experiencing a refugee influx it can ill afford to manage as it continues to suffer from the effects of the pandemic. Beijing and Tehran have recently started to strengthen their engagement, opening discussions on Afghanistan in particular.

Moscow has already demonstrated a desire to restrict US options in Central Asia, but Russia can still be pushed to step up its humanitarian support to help the countries of the region manage the humanitarian fallout. Before the fall of Kabul, Moscow was offering itself as a valued security bolster to the Central Asian powers, and it should be encouraged to build on this with greater humanitarian aid.

In order to help foster greater cooperation, a key plank of engagement is the joint concerns all three powers have about terrorist threats. Pressure needs to be maintained on the Taliban to ensure their territory is not used by militant groups to launch external attacks. The reality is that both China and Russia (through Central Asia) are under a greater threat than the West from such a development. The UK faces a clear risk through Pakistan, and the deep human links the two countries share, which unfortunately extends to South Asian militancy and extremism. Here, discussion between the UK, China and Russia should be easier. All three already agree in broad terms on the shape of the violent Islamist threat (though domestic assessments and counterterrorism approaches vary wildly). A dialogue with Beijing on the topic would be easier for the UK in particular, given it has not, unlike the US, removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its roster of proscribed terrorist organisations, considering it another name for the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Looking to the future, both China and Russia should be encouraged to live up to their various promises of support for Afghanistan, from trying to work in a more collective and coordinated fashion to help impede the flow of narcotics to boosting cross-border trade and low-level economic activity.

At the moment, much of the discussion around the Afghan economy tends to focus on overly ambitious, long-term and frankly unviable economic visions for the country, be these China’s Belt and Road concept or the opportunity to mine Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth. The reality is that none of this wealth was extracted during the relative stability of the past 20 years of US-led intervention, when there was a government that had the ability and knowledge necessary to help deliver complicated extractive projects. It is difficult to comprehend why this situation would now be improved or the country seem more appealing, even to more risk-tolerant Chinese firms. Furthermore, such projects take years to see benefits, and the people of Afghanistan need assistance now.

And Less of the ‘Great Game’

It would be useful for the UK to do everything it can to ensure that Afghanistan does not get caught in the grinding tectonic plates of international geopolitics once again. Beijing has already started to identify the country as a potential point of conflict with the US and India, and efforts should focus on disentangling these threads to try to encourage cooperation again. Afghanistan used to shine as a place where adversaries like the US, China and India could cooperate, even if only to a limited extent.

At this stage, any engagement on Afghanistan with other powers must be done with great care. The situation on the ground remains highly unstable and the tussles for power are febrile. Regardless of who ultimately takes and maintains control in Kabul, however, Beijing and Moscow will be highly influential players. Engaging with them in some form will be hard to avoid; the key objective is to do so meaningfully.

Still catching up on posting from the past few weeks, this one for my local paper here in Singapore the Straits Times, looking at what has been happening in Afghanistan through its regional lens. Given my interests in Central Asia and China’s impact across its western borders, this question is likely to be one that will bounce back again and again.

Taleban’s triumph rattles the neighbourhood

Afghanistan’s neighbours in Central Asia and Pakistan will be the first to be hit by the fallout but geography may also temper the Taleban’s radical ambitions

Taleban fighters patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Aug 17, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

We tend to view the arc of history through the lens of great power politics. This and the chaos of the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in Kabul have dominated the international conversation around Afghanistan. Almost entirely missed is the impact on the country’s immediate neighbours in Central Asia as well as Pakistan.

Refugee flows into Iran and Pakistan have started to grow once again, while in Uzbekistan a new tent city has appeared near the border. In recent weeks, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have had Afghan soldiers (and in Uzbekistan’s case pilots of military airplanes) cross into their territory seeking sanctuary from the Taleban. In Turkmenistan, the shelling across its border got to the point that the country had to send in negotiators to talk to the Taleban to ask it to restrain itself.

What happens in Afghanistan is first and foremost going to affect its immediate neighbours. While China’s presence within this group tends to draw the focus of the Taleban triumph into the wider debate about the implications of the Sino-US clash, this slightly irrelevant focus misses the more significant immediate fallout on the country’s front-line neighbours.

The global lens is understandable. The initial American decision to go into Afghanistan was a response to the terrorist atrocities of Sept 11, 2001, directed by Al-Qaeda from camps in Taleban-controlled territory. As a result, one of the primary concerns people are now worried about is the possibility that this could happen again despite the Taleban’s assurances about not exporting terrorism.

BROKEN PROMISES

There are good reasons for this trepidation. The Taleban made similar promises pre-Sept 11, 2001. China, in particular, through its Pakistani allies, reached out to the Taleban government asking it to do something about groups of Uighur militants that were using bases in Afghanistan to plan attacks against China. While it is not clear how many attacks actually resulted from these camps, there is little evidence that the Taleban actually did much about trying to move the Uighur militants gathered there. Similarly, the Taleban was said to have told Al-Qaeda to refrain from causing trouble – a message that was clearly not heeded.

Second, the logic behind this concern about the gap between the Taleban’s words and actions is fairly clear – from the Taleban’s perspective, groups like Al-Qaeda are fellow ideological travellers. While their specific goals may sometimes vary, they are all fighting for what they believe to be God’s greater glory and a similarly warped interpretation of their religion. Not only is it difficult to imagine the Taleban turning on fellow believers, but it is also even harder to imagine it will do so after it has fought alongside them for 20 years in a war that culminated in a glorious victory against the world’s main superpower.

However, the US pullout does not mean that Muslim radical groups would immediately launch attacks in the West. While there is no doubt that a warm wind of victory is blowing through the global militant movement – as seen, for example, in videos of Hayat Tahrir al Sham fighters in Syria giving out sweets to celebrate the Taleban victory – the most immediate impact is likely to happen in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood. These two regions north and south of Afghanistan are the ones that have most substantially suffered from terrorist activities emanating from the country in the past.

MILITANT MOVEMENTS

In the decade prior to Sept 11, 2001, Tajikistan had faced a brutal civil war which involved cross-border insurgent groups using Afghanistan as a base. In the summers of 1999 and 2000, southern Kyrgyzstan was invaded by groups of militants with links and bases in Afghanistan. And in February 1999, a series of bombs went off in downtown Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, that were linked to terrorist networks operating from Afghanistan.

While accurate information is hard to come by, there are reports that Tajik militants have been seen taking over border posts or establishing encampments across the Tajikistan border in Badakhshan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has long fought alongside the Taleban and is believed to be re-grouping in the north.

The Taleban and Al-Qaeda United Nations Monitoring Group reports suggest that there has been a flow of Central Asian militants from Syria back to Afghanistan. And Kyrgyz security officials have voiced concern about the return home of nationals who once fought in Afghanistan.

It is also notable that some elements of the former Afghan government have moved to Central Asia. The Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan appears to have decided to resist the Taleban takeover by declaring a former first vice-president the country’s new president. It is also trying to issue an Interpol Red Notice for former president Ashraf Ghani, now in the United Arab Emirates, for stealing from the Treasury.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that northern Afghan warlords Rashid Dostum and Muhammad Atta Noor have both fled into Uzbekistan. Central Asia is increasingly looking like a haven for deposed Afghan officials and leaders, a development that could lead to future friction with the new leadership in Kabul.

Even more grim is the roster of incidents that have taken place in Pakistan. As violence and militancy in Afghanistan have escalated, we have seen similar growth in Pakistan. Militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) with links across the border have emerged in Pakistan, fighting against the state. In December 2014, heavily armed TTP fighters stormed a Pakistan army-run school in Peshawar, killing 150 people, most of them schoolchildren.

Groups that have traditionally had links to the Pakistani state, like Lashkar-e-Toiba (infamous for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai) or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a brutal sectarian organisation, have long had bases in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the Taleban. While elements in the Pakistan security establishment have developed links with these groups to provide them with “strategic depth” against India, they have also been linked to attacks within Pakistan. It is never entirely clear how much Islamabad or Rawalpindi, where Pakistan’s army is centred, actually control these groups.

Shia Iran too has cause for concern. In the late 1990s, the Taleban was responsible for the massacre of a group of Iranian diplomats that it captured.

REASON FOR MODERATION

But in much the same way that it is in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that we are most likely to see trouble, it is from these countries that the longer-term answer to Afghanistan’s instability is going to come. An entirely landlocked state, Afghanistan is reliant on roads, rail and routes through its neighbours to get to international markets. And broadly speaking, the neighbourhood recognises that it offers the best chance for Afghanistan’s future development.

Uzbekistan has taken the lead in trying to bring Afghanistan into the Central Asian space, hosting most recently a large conference in Tashkent, shortly before the collapse of the Ghani government, which brought together officials from around the world to discuss South and Central Asian connectivity.

Afghanistan is clearly the lynchpin that ties this all together. This is an idea that the United States and international financial institutions like the World Bank have long championed. In 2011, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even spoke of establishing a New Silk Road linking Afghanistan to its neighbours. Beijing blanched at the American use of the name but little resource was put behind the idea which largely withered on the vine.

The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have invested vast amounts in regional connectivity, with large parts of it focused on tying historically underdeveloped Afghanistan back into its neighbourhood.

Projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and the CASA1000 scheme to bring Tajik hydropower to electricity-poor Afghanistan and Pakistan have started though progress has been slow.

And the most practical move to advance China’s Belt and Road Initiative push with Afghanistan is not going to come through mining concessions, but from linking Chinese investments in Pakistan, being done under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, to Afghanistan. As the communities and local economies across that border are already deeply interlinked, it would make sense for the infrastructure to catch up.

None of the Central Asians (or Chinese) are entirely happy with the Taleban takeover. They have seen trouble emanate from this kind of regime before, and are always fearful of the inspiration (and physical succour in the form of training camps) it might provide extremists within their own communities.

Pakistan may appear happier about the Taleban’s return to power, believing it controls the situation through its longstanding links to the Taleban, but the Pakistanis have a habit of miscalculating their level of control. The TTP is a perfect example of this, and even the militants in Pakistan that the government does have some sway over have little long-term affection for the corrupt and ideologically corrupt institutions they engage with in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Iran has made no pretence of being happy that a violent Sunni organisation has taken power in Kabul. But crucially, all of these neighbours have accepted the reality of the situation and all will have to live with the consequences. We should not mistake engagement for happiness. It is purely pragmatic.

With the Americans out of the picture, the geopolitical conversation around Afghanistan takes on a different perspective. It is its immediate neighbourhood that is going to feel the most dramatic fallout, and it is similarly from there that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s stability will come, with or without the Taleban in power.

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

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.

A new outlet for a well-trodden topic. Exploring the China-Pakistan relationship for Nikkei Asian Review, using the recent terrorist atrocity in Pakistan against a busload of Chinese engineers as the way into the topic and the tensions around it between Beijing and Islamabad. It has generated some chatter online which is always good to see, at least someone is reading! Undoubtedly more on this topic to come.

China is a habit that Pakistan cannot break

Ties with Washington further strained by the need to declare fealty to Beijing

Imran Khan, pictured in Beijing in November 2018: the Pakistani Prime Minister is increasingly China’s staunchest defender on the international stage.   © Reuters

An attack on a busload of Chinese workers en route to the Dasu Hydropower plant in Pakistan has once again highlighted the complex precariousness of the relationship between Beijing and Islamabad.

The rapid comment by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs citing terrorism as the reason, while their Pakistani counterparts suggested an accident of some sort, did little for the dead Chinese engineers and their Pakistani guards. But it did reveal the evident tension between the two powers, in stark contrast to the public rhetoric surrounding their relationship. Rust, it seems, is weakening the bond between these iron brothers.

The most curious aspect of the tension is paradoxically visible in the public displays of fealty from Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is increasingly China’s staunchest defender on the international stage. While it is not surprising that he would agree with his most important ally’s perspective, it seems odd that he feels the need to do so repeatedly in such an ostentatious way.

Many other countries that enjoy strong ties with China have successfully avoided situations requiring them to make such displays.

While the declarations may win favor in Beijing, they are undoubtedly going down badly in Washington. Since U.S. President Joe Biden was sworn in, he has not engaged with his Pakistani counterpart in any public way. The only high-level in-person engagement has been between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf.

At the same time, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has visited Delhi, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has hosted India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in Washington. When Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited New York in May, he was able to meet with members of the Senate and Congress, but, publicly at least, there were no meetings with administration officials.

Biden himself has long-held concerns about Pakistan. As vice president in Feb. 2010, Biden told CNN that Pakistan was a large country with a “significant minority” that was radicalized and was not “a completely functional democracy in the sense we think about it,” adding that its status as a nuclear power was his biggest “foreign policy concern.”

As Washington pivots from the war on terrorism to confrontation with Beijing, Islamabad risks being left stranded in the middle. Always an awkward U.S. partner in Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrawal means this is no longer a primary consideration for Washington.

In the years ahead, Washington is likely to look at Islamabad through the lens of its growing tensions with Beijing, with Pakistan seen to be sitting firmly on China’s side.

All of this comes as Islamabad has been trying to signal, often through U.K. contacts, that it is eager to find ways of building a more constructive relationship with Washington. The problem is that Pakistan is no longer as important to Washington as it once was, especially as it is seen as being unlikely to do much to support attempts to contain China.

Islamabad has, however, been playing fast and loose when it comes to its relationship with Beijing. Articles in the Pakistan media discussing the China-Pakistan relationship are often peppered with off-the-record dissenting government voices hinting that significant parts of the Pakistani establishment feel they are locked in a bad relationship. Perhaps this explains why Beijing saw the need to send a new ambassador with strong party links, rather than the traditional South Asia expert.

People wheel a gurney towards an ambulance outside a hospital in Dasu after a bus with Chinese nationals on board plunged into a ravine following a blast on July 14.   © Reuters

Irritations are also building on the security front with the attack on the busload of engineers in Dasu coming after a separate incident in Quetta which came close to hitting the Chinese Ambassador, as well as earlier targeted attacks by Baluchi and Sindhi separatists on Chinese nationals and projects. Beijing is doubtless not shocked by these, but the loss of life in the Dasu incident was a step too far.

Signs that Beijing is losing patience include thunderous Global Times editorials warning Pakistan to get its house in order or China will explore deploying forces. Officially deploying a team of investigators immediately to look into the attack and being quicker than Pakistan to blame terrorists for the Dasu attack all illustrate a willingness by Beijing to start assuming the worst. The decision to cancel the next meeting of the Ministerial Joint Coordination Committee of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is the clearest signal Beijing can send about its displeasure.

This hardly speaks to a relationship that is “higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans” as diplomats on both sides like to sing. It speaks instead of a relationship where Beijing is increasingly frustrated with a partner that has failed to deliver and appears preoccupied with mending fences with China’s principal adversary.

The bigger problem for Islamabad, however, is that their attempts to get Washington’s attention are not getting through, putting them in the position of having to continually emphasize their fealty to Beijing. Unfortunately for Pakistan, such behavior will only further deepen the rupture with Washington.

Islamabad has backed itself into a complicated position that it will struggle to extricate itself from anytime soon.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE LINKS WITH THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE AFGHAN PROBLEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Afghanistan Challenge and the Central Asian Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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