The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul have revealed the interests of new foreign actors in the country. The withdrawal has reshaped regional dynamics in a manner that neighboring states have now become increasingly concerned about their national interests.
The national interest at stake is regional peace and stability as it will directly affect the security, economic development, and political stability of every country. So much so that China, which was previously conservative regarding its active role in Afghanistan’s internal matters and adhered to a policy of non-interference in its political and internal affairs, with the U.S. withdrawal, has also now taken up a more primary role in the Afghan peace process.
China stepping up its geopolitical game
China is Afghanistan’s largest neighbor, and since the signing of the peace deal in February 2020, and the announcement of U.S. withdrawal by September 2021, Beijing has stepped up its game in the conflict-ridden region. However, it appears that Chinese leadership still remains uncertain about Afghanistan since it sees the country both as a security threat and an economic opportunity.
Surprisingly, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken views Chinese engagement in Afghanistan, particularly peace negotiations with the Taliban, from an optimistic lens. Despite their mounting tensions in recent years, the U.S. and China, although less ambitious, are somewhat on the same page when it comes to Afghanistan as both hope for peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction of the war-ravaged region.
No matter what China’s game plan is for Afghanistan, it will face challenges as many analysts argue that the former is a revisionist state and aims to alter the status quo through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region and that it has found the window of opportunity with the U.S’withdrawal. Many believe that it is China’s turn to step into Afghanistan and get its hands dirty.
However, China has been playing its cards very carefully. It has learned from the experiences of great empires and has witnessed the quagmire of the British, Soviets, and the Americans trapped in Afghanistan. It has always been believed that Afghanistan is a “graveyard of empires” and with the U.S. withdrawal, this belief has become has solidified. From this belief, China has extracted that the best strategy that suits it would be to avoid entanglement in Afghanistan’s internal affairs at all costs.
In fact, it appears that China has no interest in filling the void left by the U.S. However, this does not mean that it would pursue a hands-off strategy, rather it is engaged with Afghanistan in a manner that addresses its goals of regional peace and integration.
What attracts China towards Afghanistan?
China’s fundamental interest in Afghanistan is its stability and security. Xi Jinping has advised his military to remain prepared amid the worsening security calculus of Afghanistan. The security aspect that concerns China the most is the infiltration of terrorism into its Xinjiang province. In particular, China believes that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)may contribute to unrest in its territories.
ETIM or Turkistan Islamic Movement/Party was founded in western China around the Xinjiang region and was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. and China. Its goal is to unite Turks in the region in order to establish an independent state in Xinjiang and rename it ‘East Turkestan.’ ETIM, along with Al-Qaeda, believes that Xinjiang is a jihadist battleground that needs to be liberated from China. China is negotiating with the Taliban and expects that they would crack down on ETIM since it is evident that if the unrest and violence in Afghanistan continue to grow, it will have a spillover effect in western China.
Another aspect that interests China in Afghanistan is the investment and development front. China has embraced Afghanistan with open arms under BRI. Beijing has encouraged large Chinese companies to actively invest in Afghanistan and initiate their businesses. In particular, Beijing has convened foreign minister-level meetings on trade and connectivity through the “China-Afghanistan-Central Asia” trade and connectivity forum. Moreover, it has been reported that it is engaged in the construction of the Peshawar-Kabul Motorway which would connect Pakistan to Afghanistan.
What is the future of such interests?
Additionally, China has also constructed major roads through the Wakhan Corridor which is a thin strip of mountainous terrain connecting Xinjiang to Afghanistan. This network of road and infrastructure would connect China, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan establishing a dense hub of interconnectivity aiming to reconstruct Afghanistan after years of turmoil.
Taliban seemed skeptical about aligning with the Chinese camp at first as they did not want to side with either China or the U.S. The Taliban also had sour relations with China due to tensions in Xinjiang. However, more recently, its representatives have welcomed China as “friends” and said that they would remain out of Beijing’s domestic affairs. They have also assured that Taliban territories would not be used for terrorism against China. This has provided the latter a somewhat green signal to invest in Afghanistan. However, security concerns remain atop Chinese priority.
The security aspect is more concerning for China as compared to investment in Afghanistan as it is managing BRI through Pakistan and Central Asia. China cannot allow infiltration of terrorism and unrest in its Xinjiang province. Unrest in the South Asian region could dampen its efforts to integrate the territory into BRI. In the meantime, China, while attempting to iron out relations, is hedging carefully and preparing for all possible outcomes given the current situation in Afghanistan.
Maheen Shafeeq is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). She holds a Master’s in International Relations from the University of Sheffield, UK. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.