Beijing’s preeminent concern is unrest in neighbouring Afghanistan could have a detrimental impact on its economic interests in the region.
In July, Taliban representatives met Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. This meeting, the most public and high-level between the two sides so far, seemed to show that Beijing was increasing its role in Afghanistan. Indeed, it has been suggested that China is planning to capitalise on the US withdrawal by flooding Afghanistan with investment and expanding its influence there.
But this is unlikely. For Beijing, Afghanistan is a problem to manage, not an opportunity to exploit. Far from relishing the NATO pullout, China is concerned by the prospect of heightened instability on its doorstep. While long uncomfortable with the presence of US troops nearby, Beijing is clearly unhappy with the pace of America’s departure, repeatedly criticising Washington’s “hasty withdrawal”.
And well it might be. China has little to gain, and potentially much to lose, from a chaotic Afghanistan. Substantial investment is all but impossible in a poor, wartorn country with minimal infrastructure, desperately low levels of human development, and an uncertain political future. China’s immediate concern will be working to improve the security situation and suppress any militant threats.
Violence is rising dramatically as the US completes its withdrawal. The Taliban has launched a lightning offensive, seizing multiple provincial centres in the last week alone, including the capital of Badakhshan on China’s border.
“After witnessing the quagmire [the] US got into in the past twenty years, China's near-term strategy will be about how to prevent the spillover effect of the potential security crisis in the country,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.
Minimal economic engagement
China’s economic engagement with Afghanistan is limited: it trades more with Pakistan and the Central Asian states. “Overall, China’s economic investments in Afghanistan remain small and well below their potential,” according to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institution.
The “immense insecurity” in Afghanistan is “not conducive to any investment”, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Initiative on Non-state Armed Actors at the Brookings Institution and author of the report.
The country is not part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which bypasses Afghanistan and moves through neighbouring countries. A 2016 memorandum of understanding (MoU) of BRI cooperation and a small pledge of funding from Beijing went nowhere.
Moreover, the BRI has been slowing worldwide as China confronts the coronavirus pandemic and other problems. Levels of investment are falling, making it even less likely that Beijing would pump money into a high-risk conflict environment.
While, in theory, Afghanistan could serve as a land bridge between regions, the security situation has prohibited the construction of transport routes across the country and violence is now escalating, reducing the feasibility of such projects further still.
China has a very short, almost impassable land border in Afghanistan’s eastern Wakhan Corridor, and the government is reportedly building a road that could eventually reach the frontier and, according to media reports, enable the country’s integration into the BRI.
But Beijing likely does not want a cross-border trade route that could ease militant infiltration, according to Afghanistan-based journalist Franz J Marty. A former Chinese ambassador said that a route to China through Wakhan was “not an attractive option”.
Moreover, Beijing has ordered Chinese citizens to evacuate from Afghanistan, hardly a sign of an impending investment bonanza. “It is hard to imagine how China will ‘fill the vacuum’ with its people gone,” Yun Sun told TRT World.
China has repeatedly vowed to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, but has done little to that effect. A cross-border highway is being financed by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Pakistani government, not Beijing.
It has also been suggested that China will try to snap up Afghanistan’s cornucopia of natural resources. Chinese companies already won concessions for the Amu Darya oil basin and Mes Aynak copper mine, although both projects have largely flopped.
According to Javed Noorani, a researcher and analyst on Afghanistan’s mining sector, there will be no progress at Mes Aynak until the security and political situation stabilises, which might take years.
Beijing could also face competition from other countries. India has shown interest in Afghan iron ore. An Australian company was recently granted broad access to Afghanistan’s minerals via a sweeping MoU.
However, a source with knowledge of Afghanistan’s mining sector told TRT World that the Taliban had informed him it intended to “cancel all mining contracts with foreigners, except with the Chinese” if it entered government.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid would not confirm that the group planned to give China priority treatment, telling TRT World that “these issues will be considered later, so it is too early to say.”
China still holds the rights for Mes Aynak and could resume work at a later stage if conditions improve. The Afghan government is unlikely to abrogate the contract and re-tender the project, according to Noorani. “It doesn’t have the political will,” he told TRT World.
While China’s economic role in Afghanistan has so far been minimal, there is clearly an appetite for progress in the future. Peace and a stable political order could pave the way for greater trade and investment.
Neither the Chinese nor Afghan governments responded to TRT World’s requests for comment.
Managing security threats
For now, Beijing’s principal concern will be working to contain any security threats emanating from Afghanistan. The main problem is ethnic Uighur militant groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP).
Although there have not been many Uighurs in Afghanistan in recent years, the UN recently reported that there were “several hundred” ETIM members in the country and that the group had set up corridors to move fighters from Syria, where there have apparently been thousands.
At the meeting in Tianjin, China asked the Taliban to rein in the threat posed by these militants. “We hope the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with all terrorist organisations including the ETIM,” said the Chinese foreign ministry’s statement.
In return for the Taliban’s security cooperation, Beijing can offer substantial economic rewards. The statement said the Taliban will “make its own efforts toward fostering an enabling investment environment.”
The Taliban, an Islamic movement with a rigid and strict interpretation of the religion, might be expected to object to China’s alleged mistreatment of its Muslim Uighur community. But when asked by TRT World to comment on China’s Uighur policies, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declined to respond.
The Taliban’s silence on this matter is shared by numerous Muslim-majority states, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who resist criticism of a country that has become an increasingly important economic and security partner.
This is not the first time China has urged the Taliban to rein in militant groups. In the late 1990s, the Taliban regime was asked to suppress Uighur militancy in Afghanistan in exchange for closer economic ties and diplomatic recognition.
While the Taliban did not expel the Uighur fighters, they apparently managed to stop them from targeting China. There were no major attacks in Xinjiang province launched from Afghanistan at this time.
However, the terror threat is arguably greater now. Beijing’s treatment of ethnic Uighurs has galvanised militant groups, including ETIM, but also Al Qaeda, which mentions China in its propaganda.
This is a far cry from the 1990s, when Osama Bin Laden refrained from criticising China and even hinted at an anti-American alliance with Beijing. The US was seen as the main enemy, the patron of dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. To weaken those regimes, it was necessary to cut off “the head of the snake” and target America directly.
Now, a similar logic applies to China. As Beijing’s influence has expanded globally, it has become “the big bogey-man in much the same way,” said Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
In Pakistan, groups such as Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch separatist organisations primarily oppose the Pakistani state, but they also target China because of its backing for Islamabad, Pantucci noted.
There has been a burst of anti-China terrorist violence in Pakistan recently. In July, nine Chinese engineers were killed in a bombing in Dasu. Beijing reportedly believes TTP and ETIM were responsible. Soon after, two Chinese workers were attacked in Karachi by the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).
Although TTP and the Afghan Taliban are distinct organisations, the former has pledged allegiance to the Taliban emir and they cooperate in some ways. China is no doubt hoping that the Afghan group will use its influence to prevent TTP attacks in Pakistan. But the Taliban has not restrained TTP much so far.
Groups in Afghanistan likely pose more of a threat to Chinese interests in neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan or Central Asian nations where China has significant investments, than to the Chinese mainland itself. The Afghan-Chinese border is too small, remote, and heavily-secured to serve as a militant gateway.
However, according to Pantucci, it would be “difficult, but not impossible” for terrorists to enter China by diverting through the long and porous border with Tajikistan or via Pakistan.
But Beijing has worked to strengthen the frontier, supporting Pakistani and Tajik guard forces and building a small base on China’s border with Tajikistan and Afghanistan, while conducting patrols in the Afghan province of Badakhshan.
It has also increased its diplomatic engagement with an array of political actors inside Afghanistan, including the government and the Taliban, and participated in various multilateral formats with regional countries and the US. Beijing has also tried to activate the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to address the Afghan situation, but with little success.
Given the Taliban’s ties to Al Qaeda, ETIM and other organizations, Beijing is likely wary of the group and suspicious it will make good on its counter-terrorist commitments. The Chinese are “clear-eyed” about the Taliban, Pantucci said, but they are also “realists” who understand that the militants will likely attain some degree of power in Afghanistan and must be engaged with.
Dealings between China and the Taliban are therefore pragmatic, not the sign of a budding “special relationship”. Beijing is hedging in Afghanistan, talking to different actors across the Afghan political divide without picking sides. The Taliban is “one of many cards” that China is playing, Pantucci said.
Afghanistan is not a golden land of opportunity for Beijing, but a complex and hazardous environment that threatens China’s interests.