Prospects for Sino-Russian Coordination in Afghanistan

November 8, 2021
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The increasingly close bilateral relationship between China and Russia is one of the most interesting, consequential, and surprising geopolitical developments since the end of the Cold War. Beijing and Moscow — once bitter adversaries — now cooperate on military issues, cyber security, high technology, and in outer space, among other areas. While it falls short of an alliance, the deepening Sino-Russian partnership confounds U.S. strategists. Some have proposed driving a wedge between the two countries, but this seems unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Some have speculated that China and Russia might cooperate in Afghanistan to exploit the chaos left by the U.S. withdrawal. But is that true? Does the fall of Kabul to the Taliban pave the way for greater Sino-Russian coordination in Afghanistan?

In the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover, China and Russia seemed to have pursued shared interests and avoided undercutting each other. The two countries have engaged in some parallel actions of late by holding military exercises with Central Asian partners — both bilaterally and within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia has been expanding its economic cooperation and diplomatic outreach with Pakistan, while China perseveres in developing the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key artery of the Belt and Road Initiative.

 

 

Despite recent cooperation in the region, Chinese and Russian interests in Central and South Asia are not identical. China aims to integrate these regions economically into the Belt and Road Initiative, while keeping Indian influence at bay and addressing perceived security threats to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. By contrast, Russia’s objectives are to maintain its role as the primary security provider in what it sees as the greater Eurasian region and to balance its longstanding ties with India with a new approach to Pakistan. China and Russia share some positions on broader security considerations — such as a concern over the expansion of terrorism and drug-trafficking threats from Afghanistan — but they part company on certain key regional issues, notably the role of India, mechanisms for providing security in Central Asia, and recognition of the Taliban.

In Afghanistan, as in several other areas of their joint interaction, China and Russia project an appearance of coordination, but in practice their differing regional interests and identities set real limits.

Opportunities for Sino-Russian Coordination

At first glance, the U.S. exit from Afghanistan seems to present new avenues for Sino-Russian coordination. China claims to want to work with Russia on Afghanistan, or at least to appear to be doing so. On Sept. 16, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that “China is ready to strengthen coordination with Russia to jointly handle the issue of Afghanistan.” Lavrov has spoken similarly of working with China to “jointly manage changes” in Afghanistan.

Just prior to the collapse of the Afghan government, China and Russia celebrated the 20th anniversary of their treaty of friendship, good-neighborliness, and cooperation, signed in July 2001. Since 2019, the two neighbors have proclaimed that they have established a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era, the epitome of strategic partnerships in the Chinese lexicon.

In some respects, China and Russia appear to share the same playbook on Afghanistan. Both blame the United States for the current chaos, and oppose U.N. measures to hold the Taliban to account on human rights. For instance, Beijing and Moscow voted against the appointment of a U.N. rapporteur for human rights issues in Afghanistan. They have also taken some complementary initiatives in Central Asia to boost their individual security cooperation with Central Asian states.

Impediments to Sino-Russian Coordination

Russia and China may seem to work in tandem on Afghanistan, but there are some real obstacles to substantive cooperation. Russia is engaging more with India on regional security, is cautious about recognizing the Taliban, and seeks to maintain its role as the primary security partner for Central Asia. This contrasts with China’s efforts to exclude India, increase its role in Central Asian security, and engage with Taliban in the interest of preventing security threats to Xinjiang.

Despite some positive public signaling, Russia’s preference seems to be to engage with the broader international community on Afghanistan, not just China. In a 25-minute speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations on Oct. 15, Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan, suggested a need for a broader negotiation process led by the United Nations. Notably, he did not discuss working with China. Speaking at the same meeting, Alexander Sternik, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Third Commonwealth of Independent States Department, also did not mention greater Sino-Russian cooperation. Instead, he cast doubt on the merit of economic integration plans for Central Asia developed by outside powers and highlighted the risks from foreign military bases, which presumably could include China’s unofficial base located just south of Shaymak, Tajikistan, near the Afghan border. China is not alone in its interest in military basing in Central Asia. Nearly two decades ago, India established two bases in Tajikistan — the Gissar Military Aerodrome near Dushanbe and the Farkhor base near the Afghan border — though they appear to be used primarily by Russia. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly approached Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s General Staff, regarding U.S. basing access in Central Asia. During the June 16, 2021, summit between President Joe Biden and Putin in Geneva, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned U.S. officials that such a move would be unacceptable after the U.S. withdrawal.

China and Russia disagree on the role of India in the new environment in Afghanistan. Moscow views New Delhi as a longtime partner and a key market for Russian defense equipment — even as India improves ties with the United States — and likely considers a greater Indian role in Afghanistan as a net positive. In April 2021, Russia and India began a 2+2 dialogue of their foreign and defense ministers, and in September they signed an intelligence-sharing agreement for cooperation against terrorism and drug trafficking. A former Indian intelligence official suggested that Russia was now seeking closer defense and intelligence cooperation with India as a part of a broader strategy to boost Russian influence in the Indian Ocean and provide an alternative to other powers active in the region. Russia has been engaging simultaneously with its longtime partner India while opening up new avenues of cooperation with Pakistan, China’s key partner in the region.

The Taliban takeover is motivating greater cooperation between Russia and India. India was invited to an Oct. 20 meeting Russia organized about Afghanistan, though it was not included in previous meetings of the extended troika (Russia, China, Pakistan, United States) in 2021, ostensibly because at the time India lacked official contacts with both the Taliban and the Afghan government. India had been a key supporter of the previous Afghan government, providing $3 billion in aid over the course of twenty years, including $90 million for Kabul’s parliament building, completed just six years ago. Notably, New Delhi refused to hold official talks with the Taliban until Aug. 31, long after it was clear that they would rule Afghanistan.

China welcomes the marginalization of Indian influence in Afghanistan. Liu Zongyi, a Chinese South Asia expert, wrote in the nationalist tabloid Global Times, “If India is to play a role in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to play a positive one.” India has established increasingly close ties with the United States and its allies, deepened its participation in the Quad as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and is facing off against China in a tense border standoff. As a result, New Delhi’s possible emergence as a player in Afghanistan has the potential to introduce new complications for China. Chinese media outlets have been impugning India’s likely impact — the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily suggested that India’s involvement in Russia’s Central Asian backyard might make Russia uneasy, a statement that might just as easily be made about China. Global Times cited Chinese analysts warning India not to be “poison for [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] cooperation as the group takes up the challenge of a Taliban-governed Afghanistan.

From China’s perspective, an effective multilateral response to emerging security threats from Afghanistan would be optimal, though one is not very likely. Xi Jinping, speaking by video link to the Sept. 17, 2021, Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, optimistically suggested that the organization lead a smooth transition in Afghanistan. Putin’s special representative for Shanghai Cooperation Organization affairs, Bakhtiyor Khakimov, rejected the prospect of a Taliban-governed Afghanistan joining the organization any time soon, however. He also pushed back against talk of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization acquiring a greater security role, stating that “in no case is the SCO talking about turning into a kind of military-political bloc.”

Notwithstanding the hope for an effective Shanghai Cooperation Organization  role in Afghanistan’s security, China has been increasing its own security footprint in the region. Media reports in early October 2021 (interestingly picked up by a Russian website) that a Chinese military aircraft had landed at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan invited some unwanted scrutiny. According to an Indian website, a Chinese delegation flew in via Pakistan to explore setting up an intelligence-gathering facility. On Oct. 4, China’s ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu denied the report via Twitter, claiming that those who propagated it had ulterior motives.

Chinese experts have told me repeatedly that China would never intervene unilaterally in Afghanistan and it remains to be seen whether the new situation on the ground will change this position. Pan Guang, the director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies Centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, contends that the prospect of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (whose members include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) creating a buffer zone on the lengthy border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan would be in China’s interest. Pan noted that China, which is not a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, could support such a zone indirectly through its intelligence-sharing cooperation framework with Collective Security Treaty Organization member Tajikistan, plus Shanghai Cooperation Organization member Pakistan. It remains unclear what will happen to this four-party cooperation (previously including the government of Afghanistan) with the Taliban takeover, and which countries would be responsible for security in this buffer zone. There have been reports since 2019 of troops from a Chinese paramilitary force, most likely the People’s Armed Police, patrolling the Tajikistani-Afghan border on their own.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service reported that China’s unofficial base in Shaymak, Tajikistan, has been expanding the scope of its surveillance activities — including the use of drones — and appears to be connected to efforts within China to monitor developments which could affect Xinjiang. India Today had previously reported that since April 2020 China has been constructing an airbase in Tashkurgan on the Chinese side of the border with Afghanistan. Reid Standish of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty cited Alexander Gabuev, a senior China analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, saying that the Chinese initially proceeded cautiously in establishing their base in Tajikistan in an effort to avoid crossing any Russian red lines. China may have concluded that a limited unofficial presence in this one Central Asian country might be tolerable, assuming that it is connected to Chinese domestic security concerns.

Recognition of the Taliban’s regime is another thorny issue that has the potential to divide Russia and China. Despite formally listing the Taliban as a terrorist group, Russia had secret contacts with the group in 2007, ostensibly to prevent drug trafficking. In 2015, Russian officials began engaging with the Taliban openly on counter-terrorism issues and have held official talks with Taliban representatives since 2018. Russia, like China, has retained its embassy in Kabul and the Kremlin dispatched Maxim Shagoley to Kabul as an unofficial emissary. Shagoley works for Putin ally Evgeniy Prigozhin, whom the U.S. government accuses of interfering in U.S. elections in 2016 and 2018 (Prigozhin also is believed to facilitate the financing of the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary group). Shagoley reportedly traveled to Afghanistan on a fact-finding mission about local attitudes towards the Taliban in an effort to explore avenues for engagement.

Russia refused to attend the Taliban’s planned inaugural ceremony on Sept. 6. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said his country “understood Russia’s position,” but Chinese officials refused to comment on China’s own response to the invitation. Ultimately, the Taliban decided not to hold the event at all.

Speculation about Sino-Russian differences over the Taliban continued during recent regional summits. When Xi announced he would not attend these meetings in person, some Tajikistani experts suggested that Putin’s last-minute cancellation of his own trip reflected differences with China over engagement with the Taliban, not COVID-19 precautions. At the joint Collective Security Treaty Organization-Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit on Sept. 16 and 17, Putin urged member states to “align their positions and build a dialogue” with the Taliban. Positions did indeed enter into greater alignment after these meetings, but the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s concluding document appeared to support the position of Tajikistan, which has called for a more ethnically inclusive Afghan government and has been opposed to recognition of the Taliban. Just days before the Oct. 20 meeting, Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon issued a statement calling the Taliban a threat to regional security and urging the creation of a common Commonwealth of Independent States list of terrorist organizations.

Although Russia invited the Taliban to an Oct. 20 meeting in Moscow involving talks with China, India, Pakistan, and Iran, Kabulov, Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan, has stated that “it is not expedient to rush” to remove sanctions on the Taliban. Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Dmitry Zhirnov, further commented that it is too early to speak of recognition of the Taliban, though the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement indicating that interaction with Afghanistan must take into account “the new reality” of Taliban control. This meeting was followed by a separate discussion among China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran, where Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed the creation of a “joint assistance force” for Afghanistan and encouraged regional economic cooperation.

As the Taliban was solidifying its hold over Afghanistan, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Geng Shuang, stated that China hoped that the group would “fulfill its commitments and completely cut off its ties with terrorist groups.” Despite misgivings about the reliability of the Taliban to uphold their promises on terrorism, Chinese officials have made a show of engaging with the Taliban, providing a small amount of aid ($31 million) and encouraging other states in the region to develop contacts with the group. Nonetheless, most experts see China facing more risks than opportunities in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover and only reluctantly engaging with the group due to a lack of alternatives. China finds itself in a tight spot — if it is seen as being too far in front on this issue this will likely impact relations with Central Asian states, where its soft power already faces challenges. China’s primary concern is the impact on its neighboring Xinjiang province. Thus far the Taliban appear to be saying and doing what China is requesting, though the realities on the ground may prove to be different.

Differences between Russia and China on the Taliban-governed Afghanistan are unlikely to provide the United States any leverage over the Sino-Russian partnership. The relationship between the two countries is rooted in the enduring interests they share in ensuring the security of their lengthy border, countering their perception of Western pressure, and forging a normative agreement on the rules of authoritarian governance. Thus far Russia and China do not appear to speak with one mind on Afghanistan, nor should they be expected to do so, due to their different history in the region and the legacy of regional partnerships that ensued. Putin’s vision of a Greater Eurasian Partnership, based on Russian-led economic and security institutions, makes Russian acceptance of some sort of Pax Sinica in Afghanistan, or Central Asia more broadly — assuming China was interested and/or able to accomplish this — highly unlikely.

What to Look for Going Forward

Putin and Xi view Afghanistan from different vantage points, making their coordination improbable. In Afghanistan, there are three areas that will provide indications of the depth of Sino-Russian coordination.

First, Russia’s reaction to the expansion of China’s unofficial base in Tajikistan will indicate its tolerance of a greater role for China in Central Asian security. As one journalist wrote in Pravda, “why is Russia’s reaction calm?” If Russia seeks to deepen its military cooperation with China in Tajikistan, this would be an indication of greater security coordination. Conversely, a Russian effort to expand its own bilateral military cooperation with Tajikistan, or to expand multilateral cooperation, perhaps even involving India as well as Central Asian states but excluding China, would show Russia’s determination to stay in charge of the regional security portfolio.

Next, Russian engagement with India in Central Asia and Afghanistan will show which partnership — the Sino-Russian partnership or Russia’s longstanding relationship with India — takes pride of place and how Russia copes with their competing demands. Russia invited India to its Moscow format talks with the Taliban in October. Does this presage greater cooperation with India on Afghanistan, bilaterally or multilaterally? If so, it will be interesting to follow the extent of their interactions and Chinese responses.

Third, it will be a promising development for Sino-Russian ties if they jointly recognize the Taliban. Thus far, Russia appears to be following Tajikistan’s lead and slow-walking the prospect of international recognition for the Taliban. A joint initiative by Russia and China at the United Nations or within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to recognize the Taliban simultaneously would show a degree of policy coordination, though even there the two countries might take this step for different reasons.

Recently Alexander Lukin, a longtime scholar of the Sino-Russian relationship, argued that the partnership between China and Russia may have reached its peak. The changing circumstances in Afghanistan certainly will provide a new stress test for the partnership. How Russia and China address India’s role — and their own — in regional security and navigate the recognition of the Taliban as they each pursue their own regional agendas will provide key indicators of the parameters of future Sino-Russian coordination.

 

 

Elizabeth Wishnick, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Montclair State University and a senior research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University. She is also a senior research scientist in CNA’s China and Indo-Pacific Studies Division. The views expressed are her own. She can be reached at www.chinasresourcerisks.com, where she writes a blog.

Image: Xinhua (Photo by Li Ziheng)