On China’s Role in Afghanistan

 Vladimir Danilov

Fearing increasing instability and the risk of widespread civil war in Afghanistan, many countries have recently been working to fill the vacuum created by the US withdrawal from that South Asian country.

Thus, regional powers Turkey and Iran actively seek to strengthen their influence. In particular, Turkey, in line with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s expansionist policy, is negotiating to take over security at the Kabul airport. Iran, who speaks almost the same language as the second major Afghan ethnic group, the Tajiks, does not doze off either, maintaining a strong influence in this community that dominates the northwestern region of the country.

During July, about a thousand Afghan soldiers entered Tajikistan several times and then left to fight the Taliban. In this regard, Moscow clarified its position. “If Tajikistan is attacked, we will fulfill our obligations,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov stated. We are confirming that in this case, the obligation refers to the territorial protection of the Kremlin-led Eurasian entity, an ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Russia’s main ally in Central Asia. Such an ally is an essential defense for Moscow against radical Islamist elements. In addition, it lies between Russia and China, providing Russia with the “strategic depth” useful in relations with such a large neighbor.

In addition to Russia, other powers with interests in the region are being mobilized. On July 15, China said that the Afghan crisis was an issue that deserved its attention along with Pakistan. This neighbor helped organize the Taliban in the 1990s because it saw an opportunity to gain an ally on India’s western borders through this movement. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “China and Pakistan should defend regional peace together. The problems in Afghanistan are practical problems we face. China, like Pakistan, is keen to support the Afghan parties in finding a solution through dialogue.”

The Afghan crisis worries China as a factor of instability in a region where Beijing is expanding its economic influence through the One Belt, One Road Initiative. Beijing has even drawn up a plan to bring Afghanistan into its sphere of influence, promising to build a modern highway connecting Kabul to Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas where Islamic fundamentalist views are widespread.

Afghanistan is part of a broader Asian chessboard on which the US strategically competes with China. It should not be forgotten that the US airbase at Bagram, abandoned the other day, is closer to China than any other base under Indo-Pacific command. Afghanistan is the only country where US troops have been stationed having a border with China. After the withdrawal, the next closest military base on the flank of US Central Command will be 1,300 miles from China in Qatar, so Beijing will not miss the opportunity to fill the vacuum created by the United States withdrawal. It is no accident that when Donald Trump was still talking about withdrawing forces, China announced that the One Belt, One Road Initiative would include Afghanistan.

According to the British Daily Mail, Beijing senses an unrivalled opportunity to extend its influence in the region and gain strategic territorial and economic advantage that could rewrite the geopolitical map in its favour. Afghanistan offers Beijing a gateway through which the Chinese army can access the Arabian Sea via Iran or Pakistan.

Indeed, the war-torn Islamic Republic of Afghanistan could offer China overland access to Iran and the Middle East and a path to the Indian Ocean and beyond to Africa. Today, Chinese goods have to make a long detour to get to these markets: they are shipped by container through the disputed South China Sea. However, Afghanistan’s short common border with northwest China offers a lucrative option for mega-rail, high-speed rail, and pipelines.

Beijing is confident that it can win where Whitehall, the Kremlin, and the White House have been losing for centuries, simply because it has no interest in changing Afghan society. It has learned from the mistakes of previous attempts by other countries to “tame Afghanistan” and does not want to remake Afghanistan in its own image. Beijing prefers to use its financial muscle along with the threat of military might. If reports that Beijing is willing to invest $62 billion in Afghanistan is accurate, it is following a plan honed to perfection in many other countries. In exchange for its generosity, China will expect the Taliban to turn a blind eye to the “genocidal” (as Washington believes) suppression of the 12 million Uighur Muslims who live in China’s Xinjiang province, close to the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The last thing Beijing wants is an anarchic scenario in which a wave of Islamic fundamentalism at the country’s borders would threaten China’s internal security.

On July 12, Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, officially announced: “China is a friend of Afghanistan, and its possible efforts in rebuilding the country are welcome.” Suhail made an assurance that the Taliban would not allow Uyghur separatists, some of whom had sought refuge and settlement in Afghanistan.

China has pledged to support the Taliban’s role “in the process of restoring stability in Afghanistan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a statement to this effect during talks with a delegation of the radical Taliban movement (banned in Russia and many other countries), who arrived in Tianjin late July, the South China Morning Post reports. The publication specifies that the delegation of nine Taliban arrived under the leadership of the Taliban’s deputy leader and negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. During the talks, Wang Yi demanded that the Taliban cut all ties with the Uyghur separatist organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (banned in the Russian Federation). In turn, the Chinese authorities promised not to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan but expressed their readiness to assist in establishing peace in the country. Representatives of the movement thanked China for its continued cooperation with the Afghan people, especially in the fight against the coronavirus. They assured that Afghanistan’s territory would not be used against any other countries.

On July 28, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem officially confirmed on Twitter that a nine-member delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the militant movement, had held talks with Chinese officials in Beijing. “The meetings discussed politics, the economy, and issues related to the security of the two countries, as well as the current situation in Afghanistan and the peace process,” Mohammad Naeem wrote.

Vladimir Danilov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.