China’s Strategy in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

In the upcoming weeks, an interview with Karl Eikenberry, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, will be published on the China Focus blog. As valuable as these insightful geopolitical analyses, it is also crucial to see through the abstraction and visualize the displaced families as the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan aggravates. Please do what you can to help these refugees.

On August 15, in the wake of America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban swept into the capital of Kabul and seized control over the government. The organization’s rapid takeover has sent shockwaves throughout the region and as far as China, forcing Beijing to reevaluate its approach to the volatile country.

China’s security and economic interests in Afghanistan

Beijing has long desired peace in Afghanistan, both for security and economic interests. In regards to the former, Chinese leaders have sought to prevent Afghanistan’s constant instability from threatening its own national security. Afghanistan shares a border with China’s Xinjiang province, whose predominantly Muslim population has long been viewed with suspicion by officials in Beijing. In recent years, the Chinese government has cracked down on and instituted a mass-imprisonment of the province’s Uighur Muslims, citing a need to stifle both regional separatism and domestic jihadist elements such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is known to operate within Afghanistan. In pursuing this end, China has coordinated with other governments in the region to prevent militancy from seeping into Xinjiang. Since 2000, 97 percent of Chinese arms sales to Central Asia have occurred following NATO’s 2014 cessation of combat operations in Afghanistan, possibly signaling Beijing’s desire to bolster the capacity of regional actors to prevent a security spillover. In neighboring Tajikistan, China has conducted joint anti-terror exercises, and rumors abound of the Tajik government hosting Chinese paramilitary forces. China has also trained Afghan soldiers to patrol the Wakhan Corridor near the Xinjiang border and repeatedly engaged Afghan government officials and the Taliban in hopes of brokering peace.

As for economic considerations, Afghanistan’s key geographic position between two major Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) routes, as well as its estimated $1 trillion in untapped mineral wealth, are of particular interest to Beijing. Chinese companies have won contracts to extract much-needed minerals, and China has signaled its desire to integrate Afghanistan into the BRI’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which would enhance China’s regional trade connectivity. Despite these incentives, however, Afghanistan’s instability and constant low-level warfare have long impeded any serious economic engagement and kept Chinese investment at modest levels, especially in comparison with its neighbors.

The Taliban’s triumph, however, may generate a countrywide stabilization more conducive to increased Chinese economic engagement in Afghanistan. Beijing has already offered to invest in areas controlled by the Taliban, and will likely formally recognize a Taliban government. For its part, the Taliban government would certainly benefit Chinese-financed development; now that it de facto is the new government of Afghanistan, it must keep the economy functioning and pay salaries. The Taliban has thus already publicly welcomed potential Chinese investment, promising security for Chinese projects.

Barriers to Chinese-Afghan cooperation

Yet the cessation of violence within Afghanistan and the ascent of a Taliban government alone do not by any means guarantee greater Chinese investment. Complicating the matter are two issues: first, the Taliban’s ties to foreign terrorist organizations that pose a threat to China’s domestic security, and second, the consequences of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan on the country’s immediate neighbor: Pakistan.

Regarding the first, the Taliban—which has ties to ETIM and other terrorist groups—was recently urged by Chinese officials to “make a clean break with all terrorist organizations including the ETIM.” The Taliban’s leaders appear eager to quell the international community’s anxieties over the numerous terrorist groups residing in Afghanistan, insisting that the country would not be a launching point for terrorist attacks “against any country including China.” However, it is not clear how willing they are to cut support for ETIM and other Uighur militants. Even if one assumes the organization’s leadership is willing to sacrifice its patronage of Uighur extremists in exchange for Chinese economic patronage, the Taliban’s various commanders and soldiers may not be so keen on the prospect. ETIM has allegedly fought alongside the Taliban, and ethnic Uighurs have joined the Taliban’s ranks. Reining in these fighters may thus be an unpopular move for the group’s leadership. After all, the Taliban is—at its core—a religious fundamentalist group, and it has not ceased support for groups such as al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP). In short, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban will jettison its ties to the Uighur militants in Afghanistan and settle for being another link in China’s BRI.

Regarding the second issue, Pakistan: the establishment of an Islamic Emirate next door will likely rouse jihadist elements within Pakistan proper. Radicals like the TTP, whose stated goal is the overthrow of the government in Islamabad, may become emboldened by the Taliban’s victory. The TTP maintains ties with the Afghan Taliban and has attacked Pakistani civilians and security forces. Moreover, under the new regime in Kabul, Pakistani-based terrorists could be more freely aided by sympathetic elements in Afghanistan. Such a threat to Pakistan’s stability is incredibly concerning to Beijing, which has invested over $60 billion into the country so far. The immediate security of China’s BRI projects in Pakistan remains in question as well, with Chinese nationals working on said projects facing attacks from Pakistan-based terrorist groups as recently as July. Given the Taliban’s renewed position of power, it is unclear if Pakistan’s security establishment remains influential enough to persuade the organization to rein in terrorist groups that target Chinese projects.

If the Taliban’s leaders refuse to cut ties with radical militants who threaten China’s direct interests, or if they are unable to stabilize Afghanistan, Beijing will maintain an observational role, focusing on the security of its border areas and regional investments. China will likely invest more into regional security and place pressure on neighboring countries to ensure the safety of BRI projects. In July, as the Taliban was swiftly bringing Afghanistan under their control, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Tajikistan for talks with Central Asian states, to whom he stressed the need for cooperation on “border defense and security.” It is too early to tell whether the Taliban’s triumph and the potential stabilization of Afghanistan will open the door for greater Chinese-Afghan cooperation. China, however, has signaled its redline, making clear that its support is conditional on the Taliban’s willingness to suppress anti-China militancy. The Taliban may call China a “friend,” but a closer relationship hinges on whether the Taliban is willing to acquiesce to Beijing’s demand.

Image Source: flushingmedia

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Jack Erickson

Jack Erickson is an undergraduate studying Political Science at Emory University. He has written for The National Interest, The American Conservative, and Charged Affairs.

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