China's Approach to Afghanistan

Published October 6th, 2021 - 08:27 GMT
Although China has not been a major financial donor to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001; Beijing tried to have good relations with Kabul.
Afghanistan's National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib (L) talks to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during their meeting at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound in Beijing on January 10, 2019. / AFP / POOL / Andy Wong
Highlights
Although China has not been a major financial donor to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001; Beijing tried to have good relations with Kabul.

By Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

Relations between the peoples of China and Afghanistan are rooted in ancient history. China is Afghanistan's most powerful neighbor, despite its short, mountainous border. Although China has not been a major financial donor to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001; Beijing tried to have good relations with Kabul.

Economic approach and Afghanistan's position

In the last two decades, Kabul has tried to benefit from Chinese aid and investment, increasing of Chinese private sector investment in Afghanistan, its investment in agriculture, telecommunications, reconstruction and roads, marble, azure, emerald mining, increasing bank facilities, and so on.

From China's point of view, Afghanistan is one of the most important countries along the ancient Silk Road and the traffic hub connecting Central, South, and West Asia. 

In fact, China's foreign policy is more focused on economic interactions and trade cooperation. Beijing is now looking to increase its political, military, economic and security presence in Afghanistan.

The relationship between China and the Taliban, especially in trade, dates back to at least a decade ago. Even now, variables such as minerals and trace materials, trade routes and the China’s Belt and Road Initiative will strengthen relations. China's efforts to increase its influence in Afghanistan through investment will continue. The Taliban need the financial resources and technology of Chinese companies.

Zabihullah Mujahid considers China as Taliban’s most important partner. The Taliban also wants to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, in addition to verbal agreements.  Mineral resources can help Beijing increase its global influence and present itself as an alternative source for the Taliban.

In the economic sphere, China is not concerned about human rights and is realistic and pragmatic. Therefore, it may provide some immediate financial assistance and support. However, China knows that large investments can easily fail in unstable security conditions (such as the Aynak copper mine). 

China, meanwhile, is calling for the lifting of economic sanctions, access to billions of dollars in frozen foreign exchange reserves, and normalized lending to prevent a free economic downturn and imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan.

Security approach

Xinjiang Province has seen unrest with Uighur Muslims throughout the 1950s. In fact, China's concerns about the infiltration of terrorists into Xinjiang's border areas have grown.

Actually, major extremist or separatist groups, including the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Party’, the ‘World Uyghur Congress’, and ‘ISIL’ in Afghanistan (with extremist Islamic or pan-Turkish approaches) may pose a significant threat to the Muslim province of Xinjiang in China, through the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan.

In its documents, Beijing focuses on the fight against terrorism. Part of China's strategy is to curb extremism, counter-terrorism cooperation to maintain security, counter the threat of extremism, and control the spread of extremists through Afghanistan. Under these circumstances, Beijing seeks to ensure that rival players do not use the ‘Uighur card’ to destabilize China.

The risk of a possible civil war in Afghanistan could have a negative impact on important projects (one belt - one road) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and a direct threat to China's long-term interests and plans . Therefore, Beijing is well aware of the benefits of having a minimal or large presence in Afghanistan. So, China is expected to provide its more strategic and security benefits, as a first step. In addition, drug trafficking from Afghanistan to China has been a major concern for Beijing. More than 25 percent of China's opium comes from Afghanistan.

 Strategic approach and countering the siege of China

The ideas of China's global hegemony, the Chinese utopia, and China’s nationalist, historical, and imperial nostalgia have become more prominent in China. China also does not want the US withdrawal to actually lead to a strategic vacuum in and the over-expansion of other actors such as India, Iran, and even Russia in Afghanistan. However, China is working with Pakistan to strengthen its strategic position in Afghanistan.

In addition, given the US withdrawal from strategic bases such as Bagram Air Base, it seems that the Taliban is eager to replace China at the base. Presence in Bagram will give China an opportunity to play an important role in helping to expand its geopolitical influence vis à vis India and other actors in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.

For the past two decades, China has been one of the countries selling arms to Afghanistan. Even now, military aid and the sale of Chinese weapons can be considered important options.

Vision

None of the permanent members of the UN Security Council recognized the Taliban rule in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.  Non-confrontation with other ethnic groups or sects can help the recognition of the Taliban and its further relations with China. China seems to be at the forefront of relations with the Taliban.
For example it decided to keep its embassy in the country open, declared readiness for friendly relations with Taliban, and welcomed recognition of Taliban as legitimate government of Afghanistan.

For the past two decades, China has reaped the benefits of reducing the threat posed by extremist groups on its western border. China has also strongly criticized the imposition of ideology and personal values on others by sharply criticizing the US withdrawal.

Although the Taliban have assured that Afghan territory will not be used as a base of attacks into China, the Chinese seem to see the Taliban's success in Afghanistan as inherently threatening. Therefore, pressure on the Taliban to stop supporting extremism and showing carrots of economic support could be considered by Beijing.

In the economic sphere, preconditions such as severing the Taliban's ties with terrorist groups, restoring internal order and reducing the risk of insecurity (Such as reducing the risk of ISIS and anti-Chinese groups) can also affect China's economic presence in Afghanistan.

In fact, the non-interference of either side in the internal affairs of the other side and China's indifference to the Taliban's human rights violations can be considered. Meanwhile, China could keep worrying about the growth of the mushrooming of terrorism and Afghanistan's apparent potential to provide shelter to the Turkistan Islamic Party, drug production and internal divisions within the Taliban.

Beijing also hopes that Afghanistan's new government will be more inclusive and be able to prevent civil war, or to maintain peace and stability and protect China's interests in the country and the region.  Moreover, Beijing now knows that recognizing the Taliban government is not a changeable decision. Therefore, with this card, it tries to increase the pressure on the Taliban and the domination of the Haqqani network and manage it towards its goals.

In addition, China knows that the global legitimacy of the Taliban is extremely dark, so it does not want to be accused, like Pakistan, of supporting the Taliban without fulfilling the promises of an inclusive government, anti-terrorism commitments and even human rights. It also appears that China wants to take more coordinated action on Afghanistan in cooperation with regional organizations such as Shanghai and Afghanistan's neighbors.


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