China’s Strategic Assessment of Afghanistan
With the U.S. troop withdrawal in sight, Afghanistan’s future seems less certain than ever. As a neighboring state with significant interests at stake, how does China view and prepare for Afghanistan’s future?
Since 9/11, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has presented a dilemma for China. On the one hand, Beijing instinctively sees American troops in China’s “backyard” as a serious strategic threat. However, China believes that it has benefited from the security that the United States has provided there, especially in terms of curtailing the growth and spread of anti-China terrorist groups. The implication of this dilemma is that China wants the United States to withdraw — but only when the withdrawal is responsible and does not leave a chaotic power vacuum that would destabilize the region. The reality, however, is that the American decision regarding Afghanistan will be made in Washington — not Beijing — and that China must react to whatever moves the United States makes going forward.
The United States and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha on Feb. 29, 2020. The agreement has been met with official optimism in the United States. China, however, is less sanguine about the agreement. Beijing has little confidence in the internal Afghan peace process. Instead, China expects that the U.S.-brokered agreement will lead to more instability, and that the region eventually will have to seek multilateral alternatives — including U.N. peacekeeping operations — to escape the abyss.
China’s Historical Posture Toward Afghanistan
China’s fundamental interest in Afghanistan is stability. Chaos in Afghanistan, from Beijing’s perspective, stokes Islamic fundamentalism that threatens domestic security in China, particularly in Xinjiang. If anything, China is not a revisionist power in Afghanistan. Given the choice, China would prefer to see an Afghanistan with internal stability and a functional government that is preferably but not necessarily neutral among great powers. Having witnessed the quagmire in which Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States were each entrapped, China has always been convinced that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires.” Traditionally, Beijing believed that it should avoid serious entanglement in Afghan affairs at all costs.
China’s overall view of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is a mixture of conflicting factors. On the negative side, China saw the invasion as the United States establishing a foothold in the heart of the Eurasian continent that could then be used to contain China. Beijing views the ongoing war with the Taliban as the United States “irresponsibly” destabilizing the country and rattling the region. From the Chinese perspective, 9/11 and the ensuing war in Afghanistan fostered the radicalization of Muslims in the region and directly contributed to the unrest in China’s northwest Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. But, on the positive side, the Chinese have viewed America’s wars since 9/11 as the best thing that has happened to China since the end of the Cold War — a god-sent “window of strategic opportunity” that gave Beijing a decade to build its strength while Washington was distracted, bogged down, and spending trillions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the United States needed China’s nominal support for its war on terror, China played up the terrorist threats in Xinjiang, using the global war on terror to justify its policy in the Uighur region.
Afghanistan has never been a priority economic partner for China. Even at the peak of Beijing’s “Going Out” strategy (the previous reincarnation of the Belt and Road Initiative that encouraged Chinese companies to explore global markets), few Chinese companies demonstrated much interest in Afghanistan. The exceptions were firms involved in the Aynak copper mine in 2008 and the Amu Darya oil exploration in 2011.
Any hope of lucrative investments in Afghanistan quickly evaporated with the deteriorating security situation forcing all major projects to a stop. Despite an official narrative portraying Afghanistan as an important link for the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese investment in Afghanistan has been minimal, totaling $2.2 million in 2016 and a mere $400 million in all investment stocks by the end of 2017. By contrast, the story in Pakistan is very different: Chinese investment in Pakistan reached $1.58 billion in 2017–2018, bringing the total investment stock to $5.7 billion by the end of 2017.
Stagnant economic ties between Beijing and Kabul are primarily due to security concerns. The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan renders the security situation even more uncertain. For as long as the Afghan peace process has existed, the Chinese have been keenly aware of and concerned with the potential security vacuum in the country and the potential resurgence of even more violence. What China cannot figure out are the sincerity and the scale of the U.S. withdrawal of troops, on which Chinese planning depends. Beijing will enhance its development aid, diplomacy, capacity building, military assistance, and intervention if the United States completely exits Afghanistan and China has to invest more vigorously in stabilization efforts. However, China is intrinsically skeptical that the United States will abandon its presence and influence in Afghanistan given the country’s critical geopolitical location and the high costs the United States has incurred since 2001. A small American military presence remaining in Afghanistan would provide the most concrete payoff to Washington after a 19-year-long war.
Pessimism about the Future of Peace
China’s policy toward Afghanistan is based on its assessment of the security implications of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. From Beijing’s perspective, the situation doesn’t look positive. The internal reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Afghan government will be significantly more difficult than the negotiations between Washington and the Taliban. A dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban will be incredibly fraught. Early indicators from after Feb. 29 seem to support this view. Disagreements between the Taliban and the Afghan government over releasing Taliban prisoners continue to fester and, while not in violation of the U.S. deal, the Taliban has continued military operations against Afghan government forces.
The disputes around the results of the presidential election in Afghanistan do not help. The ongoing political impasse in Kabul between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah undermines the government’s negotiation strategy vis-à-vis the Taliban. China has officially endorsed Ghani’s political victory yet remains convinced of Abdullah’s ability to undermine the negotiation process. Although the Chinese see neither Ghani’s political advantage or power base adequately challenged by Abdullah, nor the impasse leading to instability within the central government, the “dual-track” politics in Kabul will likely continue.
What China fears — and anticipates — is that the delicate power equilibrium in Afghanistan may be shattered by the U.S. troop withdrawal. In that event, the Taliban may reject direct peace talks with the Afghan government. In the worst-case scenario, a civil war between the Taliban and what remains of the central government would ensue.
Chinese Criticism of U.S. Policy in Afghanistan
From China’s perspective, the United States has decided on an irresponsible way to exit Afghanistan. In its wake, the United States will leave a mess for Afghans and regional countries to clean up — especially if Washington follows through on its threats to significantly cut aid to Afghanistan. Official Chinese media has compared the U.S.-Taliban peace deal to America’s “disgraceful” exit from Vietnam in the 1970s. The United States seems to have delayed its exit from Afghanistan out of concern for not only the implosion of the country but also the reputational damage it would incur for creating that implosion. In the Chinese view, the “peace” the United States has achieved is a “peace” for only itself — not a peace for Afghanistan or the region. The United States plans on leaving Afghanistan having spent $2 trillion and lost 2,400 soldiers, while the Taliban remains a powerful political force and Afghan security remains perilous.
While China had been expecting President Donald Trump, motivated by his reelection campaign, to push hard for a peace deal with and an American exit from Afghanistan, the most trenchant Chinese concern is that the U.S. withdrawal irresponsibly leaves behind no path to a sustainable peace. As a result, China and other regional countries will face the inevitable spillover effects of conflict, possibly over the course of many years. The irony of the Chinese position is that, while China opposed the U.S. invasion in 2001 for destabilizing the region and deploying U.S. forces closer to China’s borders, it equally criticizes the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
At the same time, many Chinese observers are skeptical that the United States will completely withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Beijing remains incredulous that the United States would willingly abandon its strategic presence and influence in Afghanistan as a geopolitical foothold in the center of the Eurasian continent. Trump — known for his inconsistency and unpredictability — could dramatically reverse his decision in Afghanistan if it suits his interests.
Hedging between Kabul and Taliban
China’s primary concern with Afghanistan lies in its security situation and in instability and radicalization spilling over into China. Addressing this challenge requires China to work with both Kabul and the Taliban. As a result, Beijing has consistently supported political inclusiveness and the reconciliation between the two sides. Despite China’s prior support of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, its views of the Taliban gradually evolved to differentiate among factions that are anti-United States and factions that promote Islamic radicalization. Furthermore, a transactional relationship began to emerge given China’s need for the Taliban to deny Uighur militants safe havens and the Taliban’s need for China to play some advocacy role on its behalf. Starting in 2014, Taliban delegations began to publicly and regularly visit China, culminating in secret talks that China facilitated between Kabul and the Taliban in Urumqi.
On counter-terrorism, China has maintained close ties with Kabul for bilateral security cooperation primarily targeted at organizations associated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Islamic State. Through military assistance, China helped Kabul build its military mountain brigade in the Wakhan Corridor near Afghanistan’s northern Badakhshan province with the primary goal of preventing infiltration by the Islamic State into China. According to Afghan researchers, China provided more than $70 million in military aid to the Afghan government from 2016 to 2018.
China’s relationships with Kabul and the Taliban have given it a special role in negotiations between the two sides. Beijing takes pride in its relative neutrality and proudly proclaims that — unlike most of Afghanistan’s neighbors and the United States — China has never invaded Afghanistan. It has consistently issued visas to Taliban representatives to visit China for meetings, enabling China to play a faciliatory role between the Taliban and Kabul.
In anticipation of the Taliban’s strengthened legitimacy, role, and influence in Afghanistan, China will most likely enhance its relations with the organization in the future. China moved over the hurdle of its own non-interference principle in the Afghan case a long time ago, both in the name of mediation and in the effort to protect its interests on the ground. While China continues to support Ghani and his government, Chinese analysts’ favorable views of the Taliban have been on the rise. Pang Guang, a senior Chinese expert on the Middle East and counter-terrorism, called the group “supported by the poor people who make up more than half of the country’s population” while, in contrast, saying that the Kabul government “supported by the Americans.” In such analysts’ view, the peace deal between the United States and the Taliban has strengthened the legitimacy of the Taliban, giving the organization the influence to develop relations with foreign governments — especially Pakistan and China. Although China does not and cannot support a caliphate in Afghanistan as it could pose a direct challenge to China’s control of its Muslim population, it does observe that the Taliban’s political ideology has shown signs of moderation.
China’s Approach: Multilateral over Unilateral
China remains pessimistic about Afghanistan, even after the U.S.-Taliban deal. The biggest challenge for China would be a significant deterioration of the security situation inside Afghanistan if the intra-Afghan peace process falls apart.
Currently, there are several preparatory assessments in Beijing that signal different approaches China might take in the months and years ahead. First, China will prioritize a multilateral approach over a unilateral approach. If the internal security of Afghanistan deteriorates, Chinese strategists have called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission that includes Chinese troops rather than a unilateral intervention by any regional country. In no scenario does China consider a unilateral intervention an option at this stage. China is not a party or a cause to the internal conflict in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires” constantly deters China from direct intervention that would undermine its current advantageous hedging position with both the Taliban and Kabul. Due to regional countries’ stakes and involvement in the intra-Afghan peace process, a unilateral solution is simply out of question.
Second, in case the U.N. approach turns out difficult or unlikely, China has been testing the water and suggesting that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization step up its role in Afghanistan over the past decade. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a regional organization dedicated to security issues that was founded by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in 2001. India and Pakistan both joined as formal members in 2017. The grouping encompasses almost all regional stakeholders and could offer the political legitimacy and regional endorsement that an intervention would require in any new power vacuum created by the American troop departure. Although the Shanghai Cooperation Organization does not have specific military or civilian security capabilities, it has taken on a strong mandate of ensuring regional peace and stability. Beijing has examined how the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could play a counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics role, but more developments are worth watching for outside observers. Eventually, if Afghanistan stabilizes, China will support the incorporation of Afghanistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s security mechanisms and framework.
Third, China sees a multilateral security arrangement as the precondition for its enhanced economic development effort in Afghanistan. Chinese experts have repeatedly attributed the failures of two mega-infrastructure projects — the Anyak copper mine and the Amu Darya oil project — in the last decade to the poor security environment in the country, with infrastructure construction and resource exploration infeasible during an ongoing conflict. Although the economic appeal of Afghanistan is not alone sufficient to attract China, China will not refrain from a bigger economic role when given local reassurances and multilateral support. On the question of “local reassurances,” China has received some tacit reassurance from the Taliban about the security and protection of its future projects in Afghanistan such as the extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor via a railway to Kandahar. Details, however, remain elusive.
Fourth, China is uncertain whether Afghanistan will remain a focal point for U.S.-China cooperation, but the hope remains. In the last decade, the United States and China have cooperated on capacity-building programs in Afghanistan, including police training and demining. At first, the Chinese viewed the U.S. military presence and Chinese economic engagement as mutually complementary. The extent to which the United States will remain committed to the future of Afghanistan is a determining factor for the nature and scope of China’s efforts in the country.
Last but not least, the U.S. deal with the Taliban undercut India in favor of Pakistan, which could strain ties between New Delhi and Washington. India’s goal in Afghanistan is to mitigate the strategic influence of Pakistan there so that it can’t be used as a safe-haven for anti-India terrorist groups, including those that attacked Indian diplomatic missions. As a result, India has opposed the Taliban, seeing it as Pakistan’s proxy in Afghanistan. India has also attempted to turn Afghanistan into an access corridor to Central Asia in an effort to circumvent and outflank Pakistan, including by financing the Chabahar port in Iran near the Afghan border. However, the strategic value of Afghanistan for India is predicated on the presence of the U.S. military in the country. With the pending American withdrawal, India’s strategic investment looks to be a largely sunk cost.
For China, India’s failure means Pakistan’s victory. With the American exit, Pakistan is believed to have significantly more influence over events in Afghanistan, effectively alleviating its strategic vulnerability of being encircled by a hostile Afghanistan to the north and a hostile India to the south. The enhancement of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan will not only indirectly contribute to China’s influence but also potentially improve the negotiation positions of both Islamabad and Beijing vis-à-vis Washington. Although China bears a negative and pessimistic view over the internal peace and stability of Afghanistan following the peace deal, there are some silver linings in terms of regional geopolitics.
After two decades of developing ties with both the Afghan government and the Taliban, China has emerged with a special faciliatory role in the peace process. It is pleased to see plans for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan yet remains skeptical that Washington will go through with it. At the same time, Beijing is deeply pessimistic about the future of the peace process and a power vacuum left by departing American forces, and is preparing for multilateral engagement down the road to address the issue.
China sees its role in Afghanistan beyond the peace deal as cautious and flexible. It sees its role in Afghan security in three ways: as marginal in the sense that it is not a primary party to the conflict; as indispensable in the sense that China is a great power and a neighboring country that cannot be ignored; and as central in the sense that Chinese investment will be critical for the country’s future post-conflict reconstruction and economic development. The Afghan peace process still has a long way to go, and China will not be excluded.
Yun Sun is the director of the China program and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center.
Image: Chinese Embassy, Afghanistan