Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

China Is Worried About a Post-U.S. Afghanistan

Beijing would have preferred U.S. troops to stay.

By , an associate professor of history at Frostburg State University, and , a research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.
The Afghan Embassy in Beijing
A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard outside the Afghan Embassy in Beijing on July 9. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. military exit from Afghanistan has predictably escalated internal turmoil and increased regional security concerns in neighboring countries like China. In the United States, though, there have been fears that China will step in to fill the gap left by Washington. Headlines such as “America departs Afghanistan as China arrives” summarize the prevailing narrative. The Daily Beast claims that China has a big plan for post-U.S. Afghanistan. Such claims are largely built on the back of the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan dialogue and cooperation program that launched in 2017.

But the idea that U.S. loss equals China’s gain is contradicted by China’s recent moves in Afghanistan. Since late May, the Chinese Embassy in Kabul and China’s Foreign Ministry have repeatedly urged Chinese citizens to leave Afghanistan. Beijing’s simultaneous criticism of the abrupt U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, as voiced by China’s ambassador to the U.N., Zhang Jun, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, actually reveals a deep-rooted Chinese view that the sustained U.S. military presence in Afghanistan aided in securing Beijing’s interests there.

During the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, China signed major investment agreements with Kabul, including the Mes Aynak copper mine deal and an oil deal. But the U.S. decision to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan has led to “explosive attacks throughout the country,” according to the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. In the face of the U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Beijing has been forced to bring its citizens home and scale down its presence amid the deteriorating security situation.

The U.S. military exit from Afghanistan has predictably escalated internal turmoil and increased regional security concerns in neighboring countries like China. In the United States, though, there have been fears that China will step in to fill the gap left by Washington. Headlines such as “America departs Afghanistan as China arrives” summarize the prevailing narrative. The Daily Beast claims that China has a big plan for post-U.S. Afghanistan. Such claims are largely built on the back of the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan dialogue and cooperation program that launched in 2017.

But the idea that U.S. loss equals China’s gain is contradicted by China’s recent moves in Afghanistan. Since late May, the Chinese Embassy in Kabul and China’s Foreign Ministry have repeatedly urged Chinese citizens to leave Afghanistan. Beijing’s simultaneous criticism of the abrupt U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, as voiced by China’s ambassador to the U.N., Zhang Jun, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, actually reveals a deep-rooted Chinese view that the sustained U.S. military presence in Afghanistan aided in securing Beijing’s interests there.

During the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, China signed major investment agreements with Kabul, including the Mes Aynak copper mine deal and an oil deal. But the U.S. decision to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan has led to “explosive attacks throughout the country,” according to the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. In the face of the U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Beijing has been forced to bring its citizens home and scale down its presence amid the deteriorating security situation.

The Taliban’s speedy offensive campaign, and thus progress, in northern Afghanistan, especially in the Afghanistan-China borderland region of Badakhshan, has alarmed the Chinese government. Local officials have attributed the fall of Badakhshan to the presence of Tajik, Uzbek, Uyghur, and Chechen fighters. This seems probable given the fact that northern Afghanistan has hosted transnational militant groups. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jihad Union, Jamaat Ansarullah, Jundullah, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) all have a footprint in this region. Contrary to the Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) global jihadi ambitions, these other armed groups are largely driven by local politics, often in response to governmental religious oppression and political suppression.

Some Uyghur experts argue that ETIM is virtually nonexistent and that Beijing has exaggerated the threats posed by ETIM and TIP. However, the U.S. airstrike on a suspected ETIM training camp in Badakhshan in 2018, as well as a former ETIM leader’s interview, suggests the presence and operations of either ETIM or similar militant groups in Afghanistan.

Taliban control of the northern part of the country has compelled China to adjust its security arrangements and economic initiatives, which had gone through the Kabul government channel. Since 2001, Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan have been driven by a desire to prevent Uyghur militant groups from using bases in Afghanistan to launch attacks into China. Counterterrorism cooperation, therefore, constitutes the core of the Beijing-Kabul relationship. Chinese provision of financial assistance, troop trainings, mountain brigades, and border patrols is aimed at strengthening Kabul’s capacity to provide some level of security for China.

The Taliban have been certainly aware of China’s security concerns and, in following in Kabul’s example, have leveraged their relationship with Beijing to gain assistance and negotiate potential future investments. This is particularly true now with the Taliban’s advancement into Chinese borderlands. The Taliban recently reassured Beijing that they will ensure the safety of Chinese investors in Afghanistan and also not interfere in China’s internal affairs. The Taliban’s pledge to Beijing is consistent with stipulations in the Doha Agreement that the Taliban would not allow any individuals and entities to use Afghan soil against other countries, in the same way as the group has assured Moscow that it poses no threat to Central Asian states.

However, such gestures do not suggest that the Taliban will act seriously against militant groups on China’s behalf, especially since the Taliban have drawn on them for support itself. Targeting Uyghur groups would not only jeopardize the Taliban’s ongoing ground operations, but may also cause an undesired chain reaction in the Taliban’s relations with others, including Taliban hard-liners, al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and the IMU, which have expressed sympathy with the Uyghur cause. The worst-case scenario of an open conflict with these groups risks pushing them to join the ISKP. This may suggest in part why Washington has downplayed Taliban-al Qaeda links upon leaving Afghanistan. In fact, a U.N. report states that the Taliban still maintain close ties with al Qaeda, contrary to the group’s promise in the Doha peace deal to break such ties.

Furthermore, several outlets, including China’s nationalist mouthpiece the Global Times, have implied that China would advance its economic encroachment into Afghanistan following the U.S. retreat. To be sure, Afghanistan has long been a target of China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A trilateral dialogue among Beijing, Islamabad, and Kabul in 2019 affirmed their commitment to advancing regional ties.

The latest dialogue, this June, repeated the commitment that the three sides will deepen cooperation under BRI. In support of regional connectivity, the Kabul government began to build a $5 million road to link to China via the rough terrain of the Wakhan Corridor. The most recent Taliban appeal for Chinese investments in construction projects is a parallel step in this direction. China’s BRI extension plan, coupled with Pakistan’s desired strategic national orientation from geopolitics to geoeconomics, has pointed to a regional push for broader economic connectivity between Central and South Asia.

Despite the hype, Chinese economic investments have performed poorly in Afghanistan. In the past, Chinese investments have largely been arranged via Kabul and have been concentrated in the mining industry, represented by the Mes Aynak copper mine project since 2008, and in the energy industry, such as the development of the Amu Darya basin oil fields since 2012. However, these two megaprojects have stalled and have been called an “epic fail.”

Contrary to Kabul’s expectations, China’s buying into Afghanistan has not resulted in much development or profit due to security threats, warlord politics, and lack of infrastructure, emanating from the country’s decentralized governance structure. The Taliban’s advancement across the country has worsened fundamental ground conditions that further deter China from investment. As Kabul has embraced New Delhi amid tense relations with Islamabad, Beijing has limited leverage on the Afghan government through Pakistan.

Even if the Taliban hypothetically return to power either through a military insertion or as a result of peace talks, China’s economic involvement in Afghanistan will continue to confront serious challenges on the ground. Afghanistan’s decentralized, privatized economy requires engagement with local ethnic and religious networks, which the Chinese have a hard time tapping into. The operation of China’s state companies in a future Taliban-dominated society has not yet been tested. The 2004 killing of 11 Chinese workers in northern Afghanistan and the more recent deaths of nine Chinese nationals in Pakistan this month illustrate the security risks of working in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Unlike authoritarian, pro-China Central Asian republics, a future Afghan central government will likely be unable to eliminate Uyghur militant groups and their sympathizers.

The United States may be out of Afghanistan, but China is definitely not in. The Chinese government’s call for its citizens to leave Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal illustrates a interconnected relationship between the U.S. military presence and Chinese interests in Afghanistan. Despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the U.S. retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains in Afghanistan largely symbolic in nature.

Haiyun Ma is an associate professor of history at Frostburg State University.

I-wei Jennifer Chang is a research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.

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