Realism before ideology
A recent TDF seminar highlighted Beijing’s stance on Afghanistan since the Taliban’s return to power, examining China’s potential future role in the country and the region
Pragmatism and evolution encapsulate China’s approach towards Afghanistan, according to experts at a recent Democracy Forum panel discussion.
Since the departure of US forces a year ago, said TDF President Lord Bruce in his introductory comments, China appears to be developing a five-pronged engagement policy towards Afghanistan: a cautious but pragmatic acceptance of the Taliban’s dominance; preventing the re-emergence of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorism; facilitating an inclusive political process; pursuing humanitarian goals; all while pointedly shaming the US and its allies for their abdication of responsibility.In questioning the ultimate destination of this engagement strategy, some commentators believe this policy shift might be ‘part of a New Great Game in the region for China’s global economic and geo-strategic aspiration’, raising the prospect that China intends to ‘use Afghanistan as a stepping-stone for broader regional strategic, economic and political endeavour… moving towards realignment of the region’s balance of power and hegemony’. With news dominated by President Putin’s call to mobilise military reservists, Lord Bruce concluded, it is inevitable that China’s next moves in Central Asia will be affected by the future realignment of regional hegemonies as the duration and consequential cost of Russia’s war in Ukraine become clearer.
In her brief prehistory of China’s engagement with Afghan Islamists, Christine Fair, Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, said that, in the wake of China’s support for Chinese Uyghur Muslims in the anti-Soviet jihad, it was a desire to gain control of potential Uyghur separatists that motivated China to reach out to the Taliban in the 1990s. Regarding Afghanistan’s central geopolitical position and abundant resources leading to its addition to the BRI in 2016, the Taliban’s security guarantees to China have not prevented instability, which continues to threaten the BRI’s economic viability. The Taliban are not the sole providers of violence in Afghanistan, with groups such as Islamic State committing rival acts of violence. Fair anticipated that the drivers of the fundaments that initially brought the Chinese to the table with the Taliban will remain in place, but she remained unconvinced that the Taliban would be able to provide Chinese firms with the assistance required to make their investments truly worthwhile. She also highlighted Taliban acts since their return to power that strained their relationships with others, including reaching out to India, which displeased Pakistan. With regard to Pakistan and its desire to use the Taliban as an instrument to control Afghanistan, she foresaw that the good relationship between China and the Taliban is likely to put stressors on the Pakistan Taliban, and on Sino-Pakistan relations. While China will not fare any better in Afghanistan than the US and NATO, Fair concluded, it does have one advantage: it is more risk-acceptant to danger.
Given Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, Beijing will have to employ a delicate balancing act in the region, according to Muhammad Tayyab Safdar, a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Virginia’s Dept. of Politics. From the Chinese perspective, there are two fundamental objectives that are important vis-à-vis Afghanistan: domestic stability, which includes maintaining control over Xinjiang and ensuring that Afghanistan does not act as a staging ground for Uyghur militants; and trying to protect the substantial Chinese foreign direct investments in regional countries, especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. But violence against Chinese interests from the TTP has increased as China’s footprint in the region has expanded, and while it is risk-acceptant, Beijing has reacted, in order to convey a message. Sardar also spoke of the ‘win-win’ narrative of regional economic integration, which China believes will improve stability. A main focus for this is the idea of a ‘CPEC-plus’, to which Afghanistan is central, having links to landlocked Central Asian countries, which can use Afghanistan as a route to Pakistan. However, despite China’s hope for ‘CPEC-plus’, there are substantial emerging tensions between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, with reports of Taliban attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and SWAT region. The ability of the Afghan Taliban to control the TTP is largely limited – whether by design or not is open to interpretation, said Sardar – and it is also important to remember the Durand Line, whose legality has been questioned by subsequent Afghan governments. So, for Beijing, he concluded, underlying tensions on the ground remain largely intractable, and keeping old alliances in place while building new ones remains difficult.
Although, in 2001, China committed to taking anactive part in the construction of Afghanistan, and the good neighbourly agreement – originally signed in 1965 – was re-signed in 2002, Beijing’s economic relationship with Kabul remained ‘insignificant’ between 2001 and 2021, said Fatima Airan, a former Senior Specialistat Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance. From 2013, greater diplomatic engagement between the two countries began, although a Taliban attack on Kabul in 2019 and then Covid stalled this. In 2021, China called the Taliban ‘a crucial military and political force’, while the Taliban called China their ‘most important partner’. Regarding progress between the Taliban and China, she said a contract had been signed to build a ‘China Town’ in Kabul, and an agreement had been signed in Uzbekistan earlier this year to allow goods to travel from China to Afghanistan and vice-versa. However, from her personal experience, she said China was more interested in Afghanistan’s politics than its economy, and it has not been vocal in criticising the Taliban’s poor human rights record, saying human/women’s rights violations in the country are ‘internal affairs’.
The Taliban government’s security guarantees to China in return for investment in copper extraction was one of the issues highlighted by Dr Pamir Sahill, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies, Prague. He referencedChinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s meeting with Taliban representatives in Doha, in which Wang elaborated on his expectations for the future of Afghanistan: that the Taliban form an inclusive government; implement moderate domestic policies, placing emphasis on women’s and children’s rights; break ties with all terrorist forces; and pursue a peaceful foreign policy. In these expectations, China is in line with the rest of the world’s nations. But hopes of a break with terror groups is inconsistent with the emergence, in May, of a video showing the leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the north of Afghanistan,meeting with Taliban leaders. Sahill also spoke of internal rifts within the Taliban and their dependence on Pakistan, which ostensibly wants a weaker Afghanistan in order to achieve its political objectives. In terms of investments, China is not so interested in copper in Afghanistan now, as copper prices have fallen in recent months. It is more interested in lithium, used in computers and mobile phones, and in cobalt and nickel.Ultimately, Sahill envisaged big challenges for the Taliban, which may lead China to delay its investments in Afghanistan. Beijing, he concluded, is not looking at Afghanistan to expand it influence, but mostly for business reasons.
Lucas Myers, Program Coordinator at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, addressed China’s interests and policy towards Afghanistan, looking at stability and mitigating risks, including risks of cross-border terrorism. He touched on China’s Afghanistan policy since the US withdrawal, which engaged with the Taliban (through humanitarian aid, including Covid vaccines, and reduced tariffs) whilst not formally recognising them. Although Beijing argues that the threat of terrorism from Uyghur militants and the ETIM is a serious spillover risk in Xinjiang, and has struck an agreement with the Taliban to remove Uyghur militants from border regions, Myers believed that the actual risk is exaggerated by Beijing to justify its repressive policies. In fact, he added, the main security threat to Chinese interests emanating from Afghanistan is not in Xinjiang, but rather from the wider region, for example, the TTP and ISIS-K, which target Chinese assets and nationals in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. Myers also addressed China’s ambitions of regional connectivity and economic engagement, saying Beijing is pragmatic, not ideological, in its dealings with regional powers.
In his closing message, TDF Chair Barry Gardiner MP spoke of China’s deep reservations over the Taliban’s new role in Afghanistan, and said that an important part of Beijing’s motivation in seeking stability in Afghanistan is protecting existing BRI projects in Pakistan, whilst potentially opening Afghanistan to future investments. It has been suggested, said Gardiner, that China would be happy to dangle promises and engage in talks on BRI and CPEC extensions to Afghanistan. But it won’t move ahead with anything on the ground until it is confident of political and security concessions.
Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti