Written by Abhishree Choudhary
Research Associate at Law & Order
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
The Historic Military drawdown of 2021 marked the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. The US and NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan soil, evacuating completely by 30th August, 2021. Taliban forces took control of Kabul on 15th August during a military offensive against the Afghan government and all other provincial capitals fell in succession. With the Taliban as the new Afghan government and lack of any foreign powers in the region, this paper argues that China will fill the foreign power vacuum created by the drawdown.
Traditionally China has not involved itself with the domestic politics of Afghanistan and has been cautious with its approach to Taliban. Rather than condemning the Taliban “harshly” and “frequently”, Huasheng (2016) is of the opinion that China has taken a “more calm and low-key tone”.
According to Pantucci (2010), Beijing rightfully believed that the US and NATO troops would leave Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban or affiliated groups as a result of which, Beijing had no interest taking sides against the Taliban.
As a result, the Chinese government has taken the view that the Taliban is not only an extremist religious group but also a real political force that would remain an enduring phenomenon in the Afghan political arena. Hence, Beijing has taken a “long-term perspective” towards Taliban (Huasheng, 2016).
Foreign Minister Wang met with Taliban representatives in July and extended Beijing support by stating “Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people, and its future should be in the hands of its own people”. China also held its first diplomatic contact with the Taliban in Kabul, post evacuation, and the two sides now have “unimpended and effective communication”.
China has followed its New Neighborhood Diplomacy with Afghanistan. The Two countries have been signatories to the ‘Good Neighbor’ Declaration-2002, which implies that China respects Afghanistan’s independence and territorial integrity. Scholars are of the opinion that China had taken this diplomatic approach to prepare for the vacuum created by the impending withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the threats to the regional security architecture. (Huasheng, 2016; Pantucci, 2010).
This article hence, puts forth its arguments for a further intensive Sino-Afghan relation on security, economic and strategic parameters.
With the US and NATO troops out of its backyard, security has become the number one priority for China with regards to Afghanistan. While China and Afghanistan are neighbors, their shared 76 km border lacks the infrastructure to connect the two countries. Andrew Small opines that the maintenance of the barren Wakhan Corridor is quite intentional on part of Beijing (2014). This is because of the Chinese anxiety regarding the instability, terrorism, extremism and narcotics that is exported from Afghanistan to China’s far –western Xinjiang province, where the ethno-separatist tendencies of the large Uighur Muslim minority have in the past been linked to al-Qaeda militancy (Pantucci 2010). In such context, if Afghanistan does not stabilize, it will continue to be an “incubator for terrorism and extremism” becoming a threat to China’s internal security (Huasheng, 2016). China is trying to ensure that the Muslim separatist group: East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the western Chinese Xinjiang region does not benefit from the Taliban after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. Hence, security has become the principal reason for dialogue between China and Afghanistan. In an “unusually well-publicised” meeting between the co-founder of Taliban, Mullah Baradar and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, the latter asked the former to sever its links with terror groups especially the Uyghur Muslim militant group from Xinjiang, the ETIM. Mr. Baradar ensured that ETIM would not be permitted to operate from Afghanistan and in return asked for Chinese investments in the war torn region (PTI, 2021; Oertel & Small, 2021).
Many scholars have argued that China has been the indirect beneficiary of the foreign presence in the region.
While the US and NATO troops have maintained stability in the Afghan region, it is China that has lavished the spoils of the war. (Daishi 2009, as cited by Khan 2015).
With the US and NATO troops out of the region, China has no choice but to strengthen its relations with Afghanistan with an emphasis on security in order to ensure regional stability and internal security.
Clarke (2013) accuses “Beijing of simply ‘free-riding’ on Washington’s and NATO’s expenditure of ‘blood and treasure’ in Afghanistan to gain access to that country’s relatively untapped mineral resources”. Chinese interests do in fact extend beyond security considerations.
“Chinese companies have poured in Billions of dollars into the Afghan economy. In 2007 China Metallurgical Group won a contract for a 30-year lease on the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar province, south of Kabul. The site is believed to hold one of the biggest copper deposits in the world; the initial call for tenders cited Afghan and British Geological Survey estimates of some 240 million tonnes.1 The initial expectation in the press was that the sale would raise some $1.8 billion, but the Chinese offered almost $3bn, as well as to build a 400MW coal-fired power plant and other infrastructure which would supply both the mine and nearby villages. The total cost of the project to the Chinese firm has since been estimated to be as high as $4.4bn.” (Pantucci 2010).
“Watan Oil & Gas, secured the rights to three oil blocks in the provinces of Sari-i-Pul and Faryab in northwestern Afghanistan, Amu Darya Basin (Downs, 2012 as cited by Khan 2015). China Besides this, the Northern Afghanistan region is believed to contain more than 1.6 billion barrels of crude oil, 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 500 million barrels of natural liquids gas (Downs, 2012 as cited by Khan 2015). China has initially invested $400 million for the oil exploration in these oilfields in Afghanistan. China has offered to build a power plant and a railroad to service the mine, which could nearly multiply the investment and will be beneficial for the population with civic facilities for the local population.” (Khan 2015)
China has also provided Afghanistan with economic aid in the past totalling up to over 500 million dollars (Huasheng, 2016).
In Clarke’s (2013) opinion, the continued instability in Afghanistan is a roadblock to China’s long-term investments in the region. The Mes Aynak and Amu Darya projects have not made much progress in the region and have both been suspended with the fund being reallocated due to security issues and complaints for adequate compensation by locals (Pantucci 2018).
Here there seems to be a “security for economy” approach between China and Afghanistan: if Afghanistan provides China with internal stability and does not export terrorism to its border, China can provide Afghanistan with the funds to develop its fragile economy (Haiyun, 2021).
From a strategic perspective, China has a lot to gain vis-a-vis the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a lucrative geopolitical location and is the pivotal point for the “land bridge ” linking Central and South Asia (Clarke, 2013). Chinese strategists state that China has been eyeing Afghanistan as part of its massive infrastructure project, The Belt and Road Initiative (Feng and Ruwitch, 2021). Huasheng (2016) believes that China prefers the BRI route that goes through Tajikistan and Afghanistan to Iran.
However, some scholars have pointed out Chinese wariness in carrying out the Belt and Road Initiative through Afghanistan, due to the volatility and instability in the country and the history of failed Chinese projects In Afghanistan and elsewhere (Johnson, 2021; Small, 2021).
In Khans opinion, Beijing is also concerned about having close engagements with Afghanistan, which has been seen as a “strategic trap” that has defeated other Great Powers.
Chinese scholars and thinkers have endlessly referenced the Afghan sobriquet of “Graveyard of Empires”.
Many academicians and think tanks have argued that Beijing’s relationship with the Taliban will be heavily mercantilist, since Afghanistan has a fragile economy and is heavily dependent on Western donors’ foreign aid, Taliban will likely welcome Chinese business ventures in the region (Johnson, 2021). However, Andrew Small (2021) is of the opinion that from Beijing’s point of view, stability has to precede new economic and strategic commitments.
He draws the example of the buffer Wakhan Corridor to elucidate his point, highlighting the cautiousness and conditionality with which Beijing will tread around Afghanistan:
“If there is a permissive security and political environment in the country, then China would certainly take on a significant investment role – but it will be extremely cautious.”
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