The sudden withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan presents Beijing with both opportunity and challenge. The first is because China can partially fill a power vacuum vacated by the West, and the second because the Taliban is a militant organization with historical ties to Islamic terrorist groups.
The recent US military withdrawal after a 20-year presence in Afghanistan has paved the way for the Taliban to seize control of vast swathes of Afghanistan – around 223 of its 400 districts at last count – and it will eventually threaten the Kabul government.President Joe Biden said, “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” This disguises the truth that the USA, despite its military might, failed to stabilize the war-torn country.
Does China think it can do better?
China’s ambitions in Afghanistan can be boiled down into two priorities: to block all contact between the Taliban and ethnic Uyghur militants; and to enhance long-term stability in Afghanistan to allow extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Afghanistan is a key link between China and various Central Asian republics, and Beijing envisions a “Pamir Group” of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan, with a new Silk Road linking the Caucasus to western China.
Referring specifically to security, China is most paranoid about insecurity overspill from Afghanistan (fearing that it would become a safe haven for terrorists), and after that about trouble spilling over to Central Asia. This is in line with China’s well-known mantra of fighting the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Beijing genuinely fears that Afghanistan could become a launch pad for separatist activities targeting the iron rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Only after these priorities is Beijing anxious about the confused situation in Afghanistan itself. China has worked intensively to create stability in Xinjiang Province, primarily through subjugating hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in concentration camps and attempting to blot out their ethnic and religious identity.Sun Qi, an international relations specialist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, related: “The security forces of the Afghan government are not capable of ensuring Afghan security. The situation in Afghanistan might go further into chaos in the future. Cross-border crime, drug trafficking and smuggling of firearms may proliferate. If the security situation poses a significant threat, China may send peacekeeping troops along with humanitarian assistance to the region under the terms of the charter of the United Nations to ensure the safety and interests of Chinese people and companies there.”
A UN-mandated peacekeeping force sounds far-fetched even for Chinese reasoning. There would surely be an innate reluctance for China to station People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops there too as part of a significant Chinese peacekeeping force, given the past failings of Russia, the USA and NATO.
An interesting event occurred in December 2020, hinting at increasing Chinese state-sanctioned intelligence activities in Afghanistan. Kabul officials reported that ten Chinese were arrested for organizing a long-running “terrorist cell”. In fact, they were believed linked to China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), and were allegedly there collaborating with the terrorist Haqqani Network to gather information on al-Qaeda and to entrap Uyghur fighters.
There were allegations that Beijing pressured the Afghan government to suppress news of the incident, and the group was released in January and sent back to China. The fact that China might secretly work with one terrorist group in order to uproot another shows the CCP’s pragmatism but also its frightening lack of ethics. Furthermore, this MSS cell is indicative of efforts to nip security threats in the bud.
Kevin Schwartz, writing for The Jamestown Foundation, also noted, “This espionage revelation underlines China’s willingness to confront perceived threats across its borders, with implications for the role that Beijing will play in Afghanistan and Central Asia as the United States draws down its military presence in the region.”
Schwartz concluded, “[It] indicates that China is willing to take significant steps to build security capabilities in neighboring countries and neutralize threats to the mainland from abroad. For now, Beijing has concentrated on securing its border with Afghanistan and enhancing counterterrorism and counternarcotic capacities with Central Asian states.”
Beijing constantly blames the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a shadowy group Beijing accuses of seeking Islamic rule in Xinjiang, of fomenting trouble in Xinjiang. The Syrian ambassador to Beijing claimed in 2017 that 5,000 Uyghurs were fighting in Syria, yet no other source has ever corroborated such figures.
If one considers the draconian methods China is using on its own citizens in Xinjiang, to what lengths will it go against those it alleges are terrorists by its own narrow definition?
Rather than totally unilateral efforts, China would prefer a regional approach. For example, it signed the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan on 3 August 2016 to ensure closer military cooperation.
China and Afghanistan share a 76km, albeit remote, border, and for a long time Beijing has been deeply anxious about Uyghur fighters returning home. That worry is illustrated by a secretive Chinese military base 17km inside Tajikistan, strategically sited adjacent to the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow sliver of Afghan land separating Tajikistan and Pakistan and abutting Xinjiang. Manned by personnel from the People’s Armed Police (PAP), this Kyzylrabat base has existed for at least seven years and covers 7 hectares.
Despite China categorically stating there have been “no Chinese military personnel of any kind on Afghan soil at any time”, there are persistent rumors that troops have been patrolling inside Afghan territory in the Wakhan Corridor. The border’s inhospitable terrain makes streams of illegal border crossings an impossibility. The high plateau of the Little Pamir in the Wakhan Corridor, where Chinese vehicles have been spotted patrolling, can only be reached via Tajikistan, and the border area can only be accessed through two passes nearly 5,000m above sea level.
Elsewhere, Chinese and Afghan officials agreed to “deepen pragmatic cooperation in various fields including antiterrorism operations, and push forward the state and military relations between the two countries” in December 2017. This crystalized in an agreement for China to build an Afghan military base in the border province of Badakshan. China built the base, and supplied weapons, uniforms and equipment to Afghan personnel. Beijing stationed at least one battalion of troops there, along with weapons and equipment, for training purposes.
Beijing has moved slowly in Afghanistan. It has offered help with reconstruction and reconciliation, often under a United Nations framework or in conjunction with regional powers. Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency and emerging strategic competition put paid to any meaningful possibility of cooperation in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the USA’s unpredictable Afghan policy, involving sudden U-turns, has overall enhanced Beijing’s chances to deepen involvement.
Beijing originally hedged its bet by brokering talks between Kabul and the Taliban (including two Taliban visits to Beijing in 2019), and by encouraging a political settlement with the USA. Such diplomatic efforts have been accompanied by targeted economic investments. While its investment there has been relatively modest, China is Afghanistan’s largest business investor.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is critical in Beijing’s thinking, and there are plans to extend it to Afghanistan. Earmarked projects include a motorway linking Peshawar and Kabul, and another is a trans-Afghan highway joining Pakistan to Central Asia. Afghanistan could be a promising notch in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Raw materials are attractive to China as well. For example, a Chinese consortium won a 30-year lease to mine copper in 2008. However, this Mes Aynak mine has security concerns, an intruding archaeological dig site and land disputes with locals. Afghanistan has substantial lithium deposits too, and China already has rights to Amu Darya Basin oil in the north.
Just as in Pakistan, where China is alarmed by attacks from militant groups like the Balochistan Liberation Army, it fears uncontrolled attacks against Chinese interests in Afghanistan. The latest terrorist attack on 14 July targeted Chinese workers in a Pakistani dam project. Beijing has hitherto relied upon local forces and private security companies, but such ongoing attacks must be whetting the appetite to use Chinese troops on foreign soil.
Pakistan is Beijing’s closest and most important ally. While it does not want to step on Pakistani toes more than is necessary, one wonders what China’s threshold of tolerance is. Indeed, the Baloch independence movement in southern Pakistan is probably viewed as a higher risk to Chinese interests than the Taliban is at the moment.
Yet if the Taliban were to harbor terrorist groups in its territory, would the PLA send in special forces teams or employ strike aircraft or armed drones to conduct attacks? This seems a real possibility if China senses a threat to its own borders further in the future. It is already using such methods within Xinjiang.
China employed “mask diplomacy” to Afghanistan in the wake of COVID-19 to win favor from both the government and Taliban. Such shrewdness seems to be paying off, as last week Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said, “We welcome them. If they have investments, of course we ensure their safety. Their safety is very important for us … We have been to China many times and we have good relations with them. China is a friendly country that we welcome for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan.”
The Taliban categorically promised Afghan territory would not be used by separatist groups like ETIM or al-Qaeda, which would be music to Beijing’s ears. “We will not permit any open recruitment or any training or fundraising center for any group in Afghanistan,” Shaheen stressed.
However, serious questions need to be asked. Can China accept the Taliban’s word? And can it control the lawless countryside to stop such terrorist groups from hiding there? China may well be more tolerant of Taliban excesses, but will it continue to turn a blind eye to China’s abuse of Muslims? Islamic State has already pledged support for jihad against China because of its treatment of Uyghurs.
Beijing could give the Taliban what it craves: international recognition and liberal economic aid. Such olive branches from China could cement their relationship. After all, China and Pakistan make odd bedfellows, so it is possible China and the Taliban could accommodate each other too.
In many respects, Chinese ambitions in Afghanistan are limited. Perhaps it does not mind so much who is governing the country, as long as others do not manipulate or dominate it. The Taliban is not considered a major security threat to China, and it is certainly considered a lesser evil than Islamic State.
India, Pakistan and Russia are already vying for influence in Afghanistan, and Beijing was once leery of getting fouled in the chaos. However, in recent times China has been growing immeasurably in confidence and obstreperousness. It even seems to possess the confidence that it can navigate the situation in Afghanistan, being able to get involved without getting entangled. If so, this is naive in the extreme, for the country has been a graveyard for many empires, whether British, Russian or American.
Schwarz again: “…Threats to Chinese nationals and assets are growing, and China’s increasingly muscular diplomacy and foreign policy may lead to bolder intelligence operations and military deployments to counter regional threats in the future.”
Afghanistan could turn out to be a unique opportunity for China, or it could degenerate into a miry security challenge.