As the U.S. nears completion of its troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, China appears to be eager to expand its economic and geopolitical influence in the country. But analysts point out that the security situation and political landscape in Afghanistan will face great changes after the U.S. military withdrawal, and Beijing is likely to be caught in a dilemma.
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke on July 8 on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He said the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan will end on Aug. 31. Prior to that, U.S. Central Command announced July 6 that U.S. troops in Afghanistan had completed 90 percent of their withdrawal.
China Sees Opportunity as U.S. Troops Withdraw
According to the U.S. news website Daily Beast, citing unnamed Afghan sources, China is ready to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) to Afghanistan after the U.S.-led coalition completes its withdrawal. extended to Afghanistan. A proposed plan is the construction of a highway connecting the Afghan capital Kabul to Pakistan Peshawar.
Afghanistan is located in Central Asia, bordering China’s Xinjiang, is an important country connecting China and Eurasia, for China to implement its key “One Belt, One Road” plan has important geostrategic significance. The $6.2 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Daily Beast reports that China has been interested in including Afghanistan in its Belt and Road Initiative for the past five years, but Kabul has not approved any projects due to the U.S. presence. Now, with the withdrawal of U.S. troops, China sees an opportunity. Early last month, China held its fourth trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting with Pakistan and Afghanistan by video. The joint statement issued by the three parties pledged to further deepen and expand cooperation in the areas of peace, politics, economy, connectivity, security and counter-terrorism. The statement also made special mention of Afghanistan’s progress in promoting connectivity and re-export trade through Gwadar port and other ports in the region.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program and senior fellow for South Asia Studies, told the Voice of America that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would undoubtedly present Beijing with a strategic opportunity to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of U.S. forces, but only if Afghanistan’s security problems are resolved. I think the Afghans want commitment, I mean, they want to see commitment from the international community, particularly in terms of development support,” he said. And that’s something that China is capable of doing, if it has sufficient assurances about the security situation.”
Sun Yun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and director of its China program, said the reason China has had almost no major projects in Afghanistan over the past decade is precisely because the security situation in Afghanistan has not fundamentally improved, not because of the U.S. presence. The security situation in Afghanistan is likely to deteriorate further after U.S. troops complete their withdrawal at the end of August.
She said, “China’s investment and economic cooperation in Afghanistan over the past decade has been very limited, not because the U.S. is still in Afghanistan, there is a military presence or the U.S. still has a security presence in Afghanistan, but mainly because the security situation in Afghanistan has not fundamentally changed or improved. Therefore, I think that after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the domestic security situation in Afghanistan may take a sharp turn and continue to deteriorate. In such a situation, then I don’t think China will take advantage of such an opportunity to inject its economic investment into such a country on a large scale.”
Beijing’s Ambivalent Mindset
Since the outbreak of the war in Afghanistan, Beijing has been critical of the U.S. military operations and presence in the country, arguing that the war not only deviates from the original purpose of fighting terrorism, but that the U.S. presence manipulates and interferes in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and is a source of regional instability. But as the Biden administration has moved forward with its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Beijing has criticized the U.S. for “walking away” and being “irresponsible.
Sun Yun told VOA that China has a long history of ambivalence toward the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
“China is discontented with the U.S. war and security presence in Afghanistan because it is, after all, the equivalent of driving a big wedge into a geopolitical heartland,” she said, adding, “Later on, as this situation develops, China also believes that the U.S. presence in the region does contribute to global efforts to deal with terrorism.”
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a keynote speech at the World Peace Forum at Tsinghua University in Beijing on July 3 that “the United States, as the originator of the Afghan problem, should ensure a smooth transition of the situation in a responsible manner and not shrug off the blame and walk away. We cannot create chaos and war by withdrawing.”
China is concerned that the ongoing Afghan crisis could undermine what it says are the gains it has made in fighting terrorism in Xinjiang. Beijing has blamed violence on insurgents from the Uighur Muslim community and has carried out a massive crackdown on Islamist Uighurs and other minorities in recent years amid growing allegations of human rights abuses. The number of Uighur and other minority Muslims held in Xinjiang detention camps is estimated to be around one million.
The Stimson Center’s Sun Yun believes that, as things stand, China’s primary strategic interest in Afghanistan remains maintaining stability in the situation. I think China still believes in Afghanistan that the United States has a major responsibility for the security of Afghanistan,” she said. So if the U.S. ‘walks away’ and instead the chaos within Afghanistan intensifies and has spillover effects in the region, this would be considered by China to be one of the worst situations in Afghanistan.”
Working with the Taliban to avoid security risks?
But Beijing seems to have found a way to hedge its security risks by working with the Taliban through Pakistan. According to the Financial Times, Beijing has held secret talks with the Taliban, seeking to provide funds through this Pakistani channel to work with the Taliban to rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure. Pakistan is China’s staunchest ally, officially known as its “all-weather strategic partner” and popularly known as “Pakistani iron”. On the other hand, tensions between Pakistan and the Afghan government have increased as accusations grow that Islamabad’s covert support for the Taliban is behind the group’s rapid shift from defense to offense in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials have denied the allegations.
Since the battle between Afghan government forces and the Taliban expanded in May, the Taliban have been on a roll, taking 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Where Pakistan could be helpful to China is in using its influence and its ties to the Taliban to try to reach some form of understanding with the Taliban that would allow China to participate in infrastructure projects in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan or areas where it has influence,” said Krugman of the Wilson Center. I think it is possible that China could see Pakistan as a useful interlocutor for dialogue with the Taliban in order to create a state of affairs in Afghanistan that would give China more opportunities to build its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.”
The Financial Times report quoted another source familiar with the matter as saying that in return Beijing would ask the Taliban to limit its ties to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETM). “The Taliban will be asked to limit their ties to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETM). Beijing says the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is made up of “Uighur terrorists” who have carried out a number of terrorist activities in Xinjiang. The Trump administration last year rescinded the East-Iraq Movement’s terrorist group designation, drawing strong resentment from Beijing.
But Krugman believes that Beijing’s dialogue with the Taliban is still at an exploratory stage, and that potential cooperation with the Taliban will face many variables due to the vast differences in ideology and values between the two sides, especially because of Beijing’s systematic and large-scale persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
“Obviously, China will have a strategic opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, but I don’t think we should exaggerate China’s opportunity,” he said, adding, “I think the perception of China stepping in and replacing the U.S. is a bit problematic because in this very chaotic security situation, the Chinese can do There’s only so much that can be done. They’ve said that even with U.S. troops on the ground, they’re concerned (about security).”