The majority of opinions on China’s strategy in Afghanistan are marked by thinking in binary patterns. In fact, almost a year after the Taliban’s takeover, the country is by all measurable standards sliding deeper into humanitarian and economic crises. But when it comes to the Chinese calculus, the situation presents a mixed picture and so seems to defy the traditional zero-sum outcome. While China does not act as a global leader and prefers what could be described as a selective engagement, it might well achieve its objectives in Afghanistan without modifying its approach.
Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan have always been primarily driven by its domestic security concerns. This has been demonstrated in China’s decades-long pragmatic relationship with the Taliban, built mainly around Beijing’s awareness of the potential security implications of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan on China, particularly around Islamist militancy.
Still, this is not that different from Beijing’s approach to other countries; one could argue that China’s foreign policy is always tied to its internal security first and foremost. This explains why for Beijing, political objectives trump economic interests and why economic coercion is one of China’s preferred instruments of submission.
There seems to be very little in China’s approach that would suggest any special treatment of Afghanistan. Given the high security stakes and presence of Uyghur militants in Afghanistan, one might have expected that the months following the Taliban takeover would become a case study of Beijing modifying its behavior and becoming more engaged in its western neighborhood. Instead, China has remained committed to – and on occasions only amplified – its traditional approaches to international engagement and conflict-resolution, such as Beijing’s self-proclaimed non-interference policy, dialogue with all parties, and attempts to enhance stability via economic engagement. Indeed China, has already done it all before in other countries.
It appears then, that the persistent focus on the Afghanistan-China nexus originates more from the yet-unrealized potential of this relationship rather than the reality. To some extent, this can also be attributed to the Chinese thinkers themselves; in 2012 prominent academic Wang Jisi argued in his “March West” strategy that Beijing should focus on expanding its influence and engagement in Central Asia, where it would be free from strong geopolitical competition with the United States. In this regard, Afghanistan would play an important role, serving as a platform for China’s outreach to wider Central Asia. In addition, others have argued that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan presents an opportunity for China to expand its dominance and take upon a more U.S.-like role, demonstrating its own idea of leadership.
Despite all this, however, Beijing remains unwavering in its reluctance to become a leader in Afghanistan. There are several reasons for this. But ultimately, the important points is that China is not a leader, which is an argument that runs counter to many narratives and hopes that Beijing would take up the leadership mantle. Precedent suggests China prefers to delegate responsibility to local actors and chooses a “balancing” strategy where it can. And while this does not mean one approach is better than the other, it also predicts how Beijing will continue to deal with Afghanistan, whether or not the Taliban remain in power in the foreseeable future.
China’s modus operandi can be described as a selective engagement. Indeed, it has engaged with the Taliban over the past two decades while expanding its economic footprint in the country under the republican government. However, China has and continues to refrain from outright support for the group and will most likely remain cautious about the ways it deploys its assets in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
That said, the picture emerging from Afghanistan almost a year since the Taliban’s takeover seems to be a mixed one for Beijing. First, it appears that the Taliban are sincere in their efforts to contain Uyghur militancy; according to the most recent U.N. report concerning Afghanistan published at the end of May, the Taliban had actively relocated members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), a Uyghur Islamist group, from the Chinese border to both “protect and restrain the group.” Previous reporting by the U.N. claims the fighters were relocated from their former stronghold in Badakhshan to Baghlan, Takhar, and other provinces.
It is unclear to what extent the move is a genuine effort by the Taliban to restrain the TIP and appeal to China. But there are several signs that suggest it is in their interest to do so; the Taliban have been pushing on China to increase its economic and political engagement in Afghanistan, with the Taliban’s leader even calling Beijing its “principal partner.” This shows that there is a chance that Beijing might achieve its objectives in Afghanistan without particularly changing its approach. As demonstrated, the Taliban seem left but with no choice to approach China as their primary breadwinner.
The pace with which Beijing has jumped on the cooperation narrative has been remarkable. Already in September 2021, the state-run Global Times promoted mining as a way to boost Afghanistan’s post-war reconstruction, including China’s investment in local mining projects. And only a few months after, the authorities said that operations at the Logar Mes Aynak project, a major Chinese venture, had resumed in December. This most likely referred to ongoing talks, as the mine still does not exist and according to the officials the extraction of copper is now planned to begin in the spring of 2023. Most recently reports also emerged in February that China is interested in accessing lithium, but details around this remain unclear.
Despite some positive signs for China, there are also threats emerging on the horizon. Once again these are in relations the Islamist militancy and the rise of Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) more specifically. In recent months, IS-K has not only grown in size but more importantly actively started targeting Uyghur militants in its recruitment while focusing its propaganda on China. According to the U.N., it has established a special “Uyghur team” in recruitment, with one member state claiming that 40 to 50 Uyghur militants are now affiliated with IS-K in Nuristan province alone. Most recently, the group said it plans to expand its operations to Chinese territory, further doubling down on its efforts to use China’s policy in Xinjiang as a rallying cause.