Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit the Central Asian country that shares a border with Afghanistan. After the Taliban forces approached China’s border in Xinjiang, how the situation in Afghanistan develops directly affects the surrounding region. China and Russia, which have important interests in Central Asia, have started diplomatic and other actions to deal with the changing situation in Afghanistan.
The situation in Afghanistan worsens, Wang Yi visits three Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan
China announced on July 9 that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan from July 12 to 16, and that Wang will attend the meeting of the SCO Foreign Ministers and the meeting of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group.
Among the five Central Asian countries, all three of them, except Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, have borders with Afghanistan. With the changing situation in Afghanistan, security in Central Asia and how to protect China’s interests there will undoubtedly be the key issues to be discussed during Wang Yi’s trip to the three Central Asian countries.
On the same day that China announced Wang Yi’s visit, the Afghan Taliban delegation announced at a press conference in Moscow that the Taliban now control 85 percent of Afghanistan. Of the three Central Asian countries that Wang Yi will visit, Tajikistan has the longest border with Afghanistan, stretching more than 1,300 kilometers. Russian army general and CIS Collective Security and Defense Treaty Organization Chief of General Staff Sidorov, who just inspected the Tajik-Afghan border, told Russian media that the Tajik-Afghan border is now almost entirely controlled by the Taliban.
Tajikistan is a member of the CIS Collective Security and Defense Treaty Organization. Russia currently has the 201st Infantry Division stationed in Tajikistan. Tajik officials have requested help from the Russian-led Collective Security Defense Treaty Organization to address the border situation, while Tajik has begun mobilizing 20,000 reservists. More than 1,000 Afghan government soldiers fled into Tajik territory for refuge when the Taliban launched an offensive.
Tajikistan and Afghanistan share a border with China along the Wakhan Corridor in neighboring Xinjiang. How China will act and respond after the Taliban forces approach China’s border in Xinjiang will be the focus of Wang Yi’s trip to three Central Asian countries.
Tajikistan cooperates with China’s long-standing local presence
China established a 4-party security mechanism with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan a few years ago. In recent years, China has had close security cooperation with Tajikistan. China has provided a variety of assistance to the Tajik military, including training border guards, building barracks and military office buildings, and constructing a number of posts for Tajiks on the border with Afghanistan. Many Central Asian regional media report that Chinese military and police personnel began deploying and patrolling the Badakhshan region of the Wakhan Corridor belt several years ago with the acquiescence and cooperation of Tajik authorities.
Among the Central Asian countries, China and Tajikistan have the closest cooperation in the security field. In addition, China has more political and economic interests there. China has helped Tajikistan build high-voltage transmission lines, roads, presidential and parliamentary office complexes, and exploit various mineral deposits there. Tajikistan is also the Central Asian country most caught in the Chinese debt trap and most indebted to China.
Taliban Begin to Control Borders with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan
Taliban forces have likewise recently taken control of many posts on Afghanistan’s borders with Uzbekistan, as well as Afghanistan’s borders with Turkmenistan. Some Central Asian media said that after these posts came under the control of Taliban forces, the Afghan flag was lowered and the white flag used by the Taliban was raised. A few days ago the same number of Afghan government soldiers fled across the border into Uzbekistan for refuge. Turkmenistan has begun to increase its troops to the border with Afghanistan and has started to evacuate the families of military personnel from the border area.
Some political scholars from Central Asian countries say that Central Asian countries used to consult with Afghan government forces on border affairs. After the Taliban took over, they had to deal with the Taliban’s various field commanders, who were in their 30s and 40s and had never seen a peaceful life and were erratic.
China’s opportunity to send troops to protect Central Asian interests?
China also has security cooperation with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, including the sale of anti-aircraft missiles, drones and other weapons and equipment to both countries. But the most significant areas of cooperation remain economic.
China is currently actively involved in Turkmenistan’s natural gas development. Almost all of the gas produced in the country is supplied to China via the Central Asian Gas Pipeline. When the Central Asian gas pipeline to Xinjiang crosses Uzbekistan, Uzbek gas is injected into the pipeline to supply China.
Unlike the frequent anti-China protests in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, there have been no similar protests in Uzbekistan. This has led to increasing Chinese economic and trade activity in Uzbekistan in recent years, with an expanding scale of investment there. All three Central Asian countries are also areas where China is promoting Belt and Road projects.
But the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan could also provide China with a pretext to send private armed or military personnel to the Central Asian countries in question to protect gas pipelines and other economic projects there. Some Russian scholars of China say that China has discussed similar issues with Central Asian countries in private in recent years. But doing so would also mean challenging Russian interests in Central Asia and would break the tacit agreement between Russia and China in Central Asia that China’s activities in Central Asia are primarily focused on the economic sphere, while security is entirely dominated by Russia.
But there are also Russian scholars of Central Asia who believe that the Afghan Taliban have visited Beijing several times and that there have been many contacts between the two sides. China and the Taliban may also agree that the Taliban will not challenge and threaten Chinese interests in exchange for Chinese investments and economic benefits.
Russia Influences Afghan Affairs Moscow Becomes Center of Diplomatic Activity for All Parties
Russia has always had a great deal of influence on Afghan affairs. Russia is in close contact and coordination with Pakistan, which has a lot of influence on the Taliban, Russian President’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Kabulov told the media on July 9. He said that although the United Nations and Russia have long recognized the Taliban as a terrorist organization that needs to be banned, there is no ban on contacts with the Taliban.
The Taliban have visited Moscow several times. A delegation from the Taliban office in Qatar concluded a two-day visit to Russia on July 9. The Taliban delegation met with senior Russian officials and held a press conference to emphasize that the Taliban does not export threats and does not ban women from school and employment. Many Russian media say the Taliban are interested in packaging and promoting their image. But the Taliban from Qatar may be very different from the Taliban in Afghanistan. The credibility of the Taliban’s rhetoric is in doubt.
The Afghan president’s national security adviser, Mohib, also visited Moscow this week. Muhib met with Russian National Security Council Secretary General Patrushev. It is unclear whether Muhib was in Moscow to reach out to the Taliban. But in Russian media, Muhib called on Russia, China and India to provide technical assistance to Afghan government forces.
In parallel with Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan, Indian Foreign Minister Sujeet Sang concluded a two-day visit to Moscow on July 9. India is also considered a player in Afghan affairs and maintains close ties with the Afghan government in Kabul. Some Russian media comment that India has been opposed to contacts with the Taliban, but with the changing political situation in Afghanistan, India is likely to loosen its past stance, and it is unknown whether Sujetsen met with the Taliban and other Afghan officials in Moscow this time. But Sujetsen discussed Afghan issues during his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russian Foreign Ministry press spokeswoman Zakharova said on July 9 that Kerry, the U.S. president’s special envoy on climate issues, will also visit Moscow from July 12 to 15. Some Russian current affairs commentators say that in addition to the situation in Afghanistan, Kerry’s visit will likely include discussions on cybersecurity, particularly Russian hacking, which has plagued Russian-U.S. relations.
Taliban’s situation northward different from 20 years ago, Central Asian countries step up preparations
Grozin, a Russian scholar on Central Asia, said the main concern of all parties is that the power of extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Afghanistan will grow and that this threat will affect neighboring regions beyond the borders. He said Central Asian countries have already made various preparations.
Grozin: “You can say that the whole Central Asian region is being militarized, and everywhere you can see that military spending, spending on intelligence agencies, in general, spending in the security sphere is rising significantly. Including Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, two countries that are not part of the CIS Collective Security and Defense Treaty Organization, military spending is also on the rise, and all Central Asian countries are acquiring additional weaponry and holding more and more exercises and training events.”
Russian analysts of Central Asian issues also note that when the Taliban came to power in Kabul more than 20 years ago, the Taliban, made up mainly of Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan, failed to expand to the northern borderlands with Central Asian countries. The anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance,” composed mainly of Tajiks and Uzbeks in Afghanistan, controlled the northern border of Afghanistan with Central Asian countries at that time, so there was a buffer zone between the Central Asian countries and the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. But now that Taliban forces have moved north to control the border with Central Asia, the situation today is completely different from what it was more than 20 years ago.