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China’s Political Calculations and Potential Options in Afghanistan

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China’s Political Calculations and Potential Options in Afghanistan

Beijing will approach Afghan affairs – and the Taliban – more cautiously than people think.

China’s Political Calculations and Potential Options in Afghanistan
Credit: Depositphotos

The Afghan government backed by the United States collapsed after losing its military protection, and the speed was jaw-dropping. While international political stakeholders have rushed to respond, China seems to have made arrangements earlier than other countries. Still, its future options in Afghanistan are under scrutiny.

In July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Taliban representatives in Tianjin. This was an important event following the direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in 2018, as it greatly enhanced the Taliban’s international standing and signaled that the group is being recognized as a major political force on the global stage. Weeks before, Taliban representatives had also visited other capitals, including Moscow and Tehran, but had not been formally received by the countries’ foreign ministers. While Beijing has had several interactions with the Afghan Taliban over the years, the meeting in Tianjin was the most high-profile one.

At the regular press conference of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the day President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan, spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked if the Chinese government intends to recognize – or under what circumstances will it recognize – the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. In her answer, Hua expressed Beijing’s willingness to develop a good relationship with the Taliban, stating that “China respects the will of the Afghan people.”

Some observers regarded this response as a hint that China will soon recognize the Taliban regime and become fully involved in Afghanistan. However, the matter is complicated, and Beijing will approach Afghan affairs more cautiously than people think.

Undoubtedly, political recognition from Beijing will be crucial to the Taliban regime, which is eager for China to become Afghanistan’s primary source of foreign economic aid for the foreseeable future. However, the ever-pragmatic Chinese Communist regime has no intention of sending troops to Afghanistan, nor will it rush to fill the power vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal. Although China intends to increase its political influence in Afghanistan, it has real interests to calculate and concerns to resolve. China will gradually satisfy the Taliban’s wishes while ensuring that its own interests are guaranteed and its concerns addressed. It will seek the greatest tangible benefits in return for political recognition of the Taliban regime.

China currently faces two major challenges in Afghanistan.

First, the CCP desperately wants to prevent the resurgence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Xinjiang. The extremist religious views of the Taliban, who are overrunning Afghanistan, constitute a source of concern for Beijing. China is worried that the situation in Afghanistan could threaten the stability of Xinjiang, and is particularly worried that Taliban-controlled areas could become an external stronghold for separatist forces. Thus, at the meeting in Tianjin, Wang told visiting Taliban representatives that he hopes Afghanistan will adopt a “moderate Islamic policy.” However, according to the latest U.N. report on Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida continue to enjoy close ties based on “ideological coherence” and formed through “common struggle and intermarriage.” In this respect, China is skeptical of the Taliban’s promise that they will not allow “any activities of foreign extremist groups such as ETIM that are detrimental to China” after seizing power in Afghanistan.

Second, although China does not currently have much direct economic interest in Afghanistan, the CCP certainly hopes that dealing with the Afghan Taliban will not compromise the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Indeed, with China’s growing ambition to expand across Central Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative, and given the close ties between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan, China hopes that it will be able to extend CPEC to Afghanistan, from which it can obtain considerable mineral resources. Yet all of this hinges on whether Afghanistan’s future is peaceful.

The White House has irreversibly committed to withdrawing U.S. troops. In a televised address on August 16, President Joe Biden stated: “American troops cannot and should not be fighting [and] dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.” While the U.S.-backed Kabul regime has fallen, this does not mean that the residual pro-government forces have completely abandoned their resistance, and the lack of consensus within the Taliban (and between the Taliban and other extremist groups) will lead to a serious “security deficit” in Afghanistan. Under such circumstances, China can only manage its 50-mile-long border with Afghanistan, and will be reluctant to take on the risk of investing in Afghanistan again as it did when the United States and its Western allies were stationed there.

China clearly has a huge interest in achieving peace in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As mentioned, if stability is achieved, China can extend the Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. On the other hand, chaos in Afghanistan can breed religious extremism and terrorism, which is detrimental to China’s strategy to stabilize the Xinjiang region, and CPEC has already been targeted by terrorist groups both inside and outside of Pakistan. After the meeting with Wang, the Taliban expressed their hope that China will play a greater role in building the Afghan economy. This statement by the Taliban suggests that China could use economic assistance and investment commitments as carrots to encourage all parties, including the Taliban, to stop fighting and achieve political reconciliation.

When dealing with the Taliban, China actually possesses an advantage that the United States and Russia lack: China has never waged military operations against the Taliban. However, China is realistic in its approach to international affairs and excels at free-riding. Beijing will seek to avoid becoming needlessly entangled in Afghan affairs. China will not unilaterally interfere with the political situation in Afghanistan, because Chinese leaders are unwilling to repeat the mistakes of Soviet and U.S. leaders and step into an imperial quagmire.

However, China is already deeply engaged with the Taliban and is unlikely to stay completely out of Afghan affairs. The question, then, is with whom Beijing will partner to deal with the situation in Afghanistan.

In theory, both Russia and China have a need to fill the “security deficit” in West and Central Asia, and the interests of the two countries on security issues are fairly consistent. But Russia has greater influence in Central Asia, and the “-stan” countries that were former Soviet republics are more inclined to cooperate militarily with Russia. Moreover, in terms of military involvement in Central Asia, the Kremlin does not want China to become more active than Russia; Moscow prides itself as being the military protector of Central Asia. Therefore, it is unlikely that China and Russia will work too closely together to solve the Afghan problem.

Another international mechanism that seems obvious for China to exploit is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). However, as mentioned, there are problems with Russia, a fellow SCO member state. The more direct discord comes from another SCO member: India. Given the China-India border conflict over the past two years, as well as India’s gradual rapprochement with the United States, Australia, Japan, and other countries to form a strategic alliance against China, Beijing and New Delhi are unlikely to cooperate closely on Afghan affairs.

India, which has previously condemned the Taliban (and vice versa), clearly supported the U.S.-backed Afghan government. For this reason, although New Delhi in June changed its previous position of not having any form of contact with the Taliban, India was not invited to attend the Russia-led talks on Afghanistan held in Qatar on August 11, whereas China, the United States, and even Pakistan all attended the meeting. Although the U.S. has still pulled India into discussions on Afghan issues, it is apparent that India is being marginalized in Taliban affairs by the rest of Afghanistan’s neighbors and the other major powers, China and Russia. New Delhi will not relax its vigilance against Afghanistan cooperating with Pakistan and China to geopolitically encircle India.

Probably the closest collaborator China will have on Afghan affairs is Pakistan. First, both China and Pakistan want the Taliban to be in power. Islamabad’s support for the Taliban is readily apparent, and Pakistan has maintained a close relationship with the Afghan Taliban; the Quetta Shura (a militant organization composed of the leaders of the Afghan Taliban) is still active in the country. Pakistan is inextricably linked to terrorist groups that China is seeking to guard against. The radical Islamist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has close ties with the Afghan Taliban and still has about 6,000 trained fighters on the Afghan side of the border, and both the TTP and ETIM have publicly stated their intention to undermine China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China has significant security interests in Pakistan. If China cooperates with Pakistan to support the Afghan Taliban and deal with terrorist groups, it would actually be killing two birds with one stone. China will put pressure on Pakistan to clamp down on extremists in their own country, and if Pakistan cooperates, it would not only benefit China’s development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but also support the Afghan Taliban in promoting China’s strategic interest against India.