China’s grand strategy encompasses several goals, including safeguarding its economic interests, expanding global influence, and ensuring stability within its borders and periphery. Against an enduring conflict and evolving regional dynamics, the prospect of a stable Afghanistan presents an opportunity to align a neighbor with China’s overarching strategic objectives.
With the departure of the United States after a failed two-decade mission, along with the Taliban’s return to power, Afghanistan finds itself at a crucial juncture. The country’s future appears uncertain, and the prospects of continued instability raise significant concerns for China. Faced with the imperative of maintaining regional stability, Beijing’s response is shaped by the goal of safeguarding security in and around Afghanistan. As a result, China’s primary course of action revolves around strengthening coordination with Pakistan and the Taliban while also seeking to collaborate with Afghan security services to mitigate potential risks.
China’s active engagement in Afghan affairs is driven by Afghanistan’s strategic position at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, coupled with its abundant natural resources. The country’s valuable mineral deposits, encompassing lithium, copper, and rare earth elements, are of great interest, particularly for China. As the world’s foremost consumer of raw materials, China views these resources as vital to fuel its economic expansion and technological progress.
On the other hand, the persistent instability in Afghanistan poses considerable challenges to China’s security policy, particularly in relation to non-traditional transnational security threats. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a far-reaching infrastructure development project, aims to foster connectivity across multiple continents. Given Afghanistan’s strategic location, it holds the potential to serve as a crucial gateway for linking China with Central Asia and beyond. The stability of Afghanistan is paramount for the success of key BRI endeavors, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). To achieve China’s economic and diplomatic objectives, it becomes imperative to effectively implement BRI projects that facilitate China’s economic transformation and contribute to Afghanistan’s equitable development.
China astutely discerns its role in Afghan security from three perspectives: as a secondary stakeholder in the conflict, as an indispensable great power and contiguous nation that defies dismissal, and as a pivotal protagonist owing to its substantial investments in post-conflict reconstruction and economic development. While the Taliban’s promise to include different stakeholders in a permanent government remains far from reality, China is dedicated to ensuring its engagement and substantive participation, astutely cognizant of its involvement’s profound ramifications for Afghanistan’s future.
China’s involvement in Afghanistan has significantly increased recently, particularly after 2012. After initially maintaining a low profile, China’s interest in Afghanistan grew due to concerns over instability in Central Asia and its potential impact on the security of China’s western provinces, especially Xinjiang. China recognized the need to address its security concerns and ensure stability in Afghanistan to protect its economic ambitions, including the success of the BRI and CPEC. Beijing began engaging with Kabul through peace efforts, aid donations, and investments in resource extraction and infrastructure development. However, China’s economic ambitions in Afghanistan have faced challenges due to the country’s poor security situation and low export capacity.
Moreover, Chinese companies have started investing in Afghanistan, with a notable multimillion-dollar investment contract signed by a Chinese firm in January 2023, marking the first significant foreign investment in the country since the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Chinese involvement in Afghanistan is believed by some observers to be driven more by security concerns than economic interests.
China’s military role in Afghanistan is also expanding, with reports that it is establishing a military base in Badakhshan province and financing an Afghan mountain brigade. While China seeks to downplay its military role and focus on capacity building and counterterrorism efforts, its primary goal is to eliminate training bases of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in the Wakhan Corridor and prevent jihadist infiltration into Xinjiang.
During the 5th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue, held in Islamabad on May 6, the foreign ministers of Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation for achieving a stable, prosperous, and peaceful Afghanistan, which serves the interests of the entire region. They reiterated their dedication to expanding CPEC by including Afghanistan and highlighted the importance of existing regional connectivity projects like CASA-1000, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, and the Trans-Afghan Railways for regional connectivity. They called for enhanced infrastructure, trade facilitation, and international support for Afghanistan’s economic development and counter-narcotics efforts.
China remains cautious about the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban-U.S. deal, particularly concerning the potential security deterioration if resistance to Taliban rule grows. Rather than taking unilateral action, China leans toward a multilateral approach, favoring a U.N. peacekeeping mission with Chinese troop involvement. Unilateral intervention is deemed unsuitable since China is not directly involved in Afghanistan’s internal conflict and is mindful of the country’s historical reputation.
If the U.N. option proves challenging, China is exploring the possibility of a greater role for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Afghanistan. While the SCO lacks specific security capabilities, it can provide political legitimacy and regional endorsement in the context of a post-withdrawal power vacuum. Chinese involvement in Afghanistan’s economic development hinges on local assurances and multilateral support, including integration into the SCO’s security mechanisms and framework.
China seeks to expand its regional hegemony and assert itself as a preeminent actor. China is looking to wield its soft power by engaging with Afghanistan and fostering diplomatic alliances. This strategic move aims to position China as a paramount influencer in regional affairs, fortifying its ties with neighboring nations and bolstering its overall sway. China aims to project itself as a conscientious global powerhouse, actively contributing to regional stability and tranquility. Through active involvement in Afghan reconstruction endeavors and backing peace initiatives, China aims to portray itself as a dependable collaborator and solidify its image as a responsible entity on the world stage.
It is important to note that China’s burgeoning hegemony in Afghanistan cannot eclipse the indelible preeminence of the United States. While China has assiduously endeavored to cultivate rapport with the Taliban and convened deliberations with their emissaries, it is imperative to acknowledge that Washington’s sway in Afghanistan remains paramount. Even after the Taliban takeover and U.S. withdrawal, the United States remains a pivotal protagonist zealously sought after by the Taliban for negotiations. Despite China’s burgeoning footprint, the United States perpetuates its unparalleled dominion and occupies a sine qua non position in molding the trajectory of Afghanistan’s destiny.
The trajectory of China-U.S. collaboration on Afghanistan issues in the coming years remains uncertain; however, China expresses its desire for ongoing cooperation. In the last 10 years, there has been a collaborative effort between the United States and China to engage in capacity-building initiatives in Afghanistan. These initiatives primarily focus on areas such as police training and demining activities.
China’s engagement in Afghanistan is distinguished by a prudent and flexible strategy. China is dedicated to guaranteeing its involvement in Afghanistan’s future, recognizing the importance of its engagement for the nation’s future.