Excerpt

China Is Doomed to Play a Significant Role in Afghanistan

Beijing is desperate to avoid being trapped in Kabul’s politics.

An Afghan security guard stands in front of the Chinese Embassy in Kabul.
An Afghan security guard stands in front of the Chinese Embassy in Kabul.
An Afghan security guard stands in front of the Chinese Embassy in Kabul on Dec. 20, 2001, which marked the return of an ambassador to the embassy in the wake of 9/11 after it was closed in 1993 for security reasons. JIMIN LAI/AFP via Getty Images
By , a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, and

For decades, Beijing has worried about security in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, Beijing worried about the possibility of Uyghur militants using camps in Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against China. Then, in the early 2000s, Chinese workers were killed and kidnapped in the country. China also shares a remote but direct border with Afghanistan, and even before the Taliban takeover, increasing violence in the wider region gave China good reason to worry.

Despite this, China’s approach to its neighbor for a long time was, as prominent Central Asia analyst Zhao Huasheng aptly characterized it, essentially to act as an observer, leaving security questions to the United States and its allies. That changed in 2012, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he wanted to get Washington out of the conflict he had inherited. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal came into sharper relief, Beijing realized that it would have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. Even then—and even after security concerns rose once again after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021—China never fully came to assume that role.

The Taliban takeover in 2021 came after we had concluded writing our book Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. But many of the trends and patterns we observed continued to hold. Although China has undeniably stepped into a far more prominent role than ever before, it has continued to hedge its bets and refused to take on a leadership role in the country. China’s unwillingness to take on that role, even though it is increasingly being thrust into it, serves as a perfect example of the central concept our book: China is doomed to play a significant role in the country, but is studiously avoiding it.

An Afghan security guard stands in front of the Chinese Embassy in Kabul.
An Afghan security guard stands in front of the Chinese Embassy in Kabul.

An Afghan security guard stands in front of the Chinese Embassy in Kabul on Dec. 20, 2001, which marked the return of an ambassador to the embassy in the wake of 9/11 after it was closed in 1993 for security reasons.JIMIN LAI/AFP via Getty Images

For decades, Beijing has worried about security in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, Beijing worried about the possibility of Uyghur militants using camps in Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against China. Then, in the early 2000s, Chinese workers were killed and kidnapped in the country. China also shares a remote but direct border with Afghanistan, and even before the Taliban takeover, increasing violence in the wider region gave China good reason to worry.

This article is adapted from Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen (Oxford University Press, 336 pp., .95, July 2022).
This article is adapted from Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen (Oxford University Press, 336 pp., .95, July 2022).

This article is adapted from Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen (Oxford University Press, 336 pp., $27.95, July 2022).

Despite this, China’s approach to its neighbor for a long time was, as prominent Central Asia analyst Zhao Huasheng aptly characterized it, essentially to act as an observer, leaving security questions to the United States and its allies. That changed in 2012, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he wanted to get Washington out of the conflict he had inherited. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal came into sharper relief, Beijing realized that it would have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. Even then—and even after security concerns rose once again after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021—China never fully came to assume that role.

The Taliban takeover in 2021 came after we had concluded writing our book Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. But many of the trends and patterns we observed continued to hold. Although China has undeniably stepped into a far more prominent role than ever before, it has continued to hedge its bets and refused to take on a leadership role in the country. China’s unwillingness to take on that role, even though it is increasingly being thrust into it, serves as a perfect example of the central concept our book: China is doomed to play a significant role in the country, but is studiously avoiding it.


Then-Chinese President Hu Jintao and then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai review an honor guard.
Then-Chinese President Hu Jintao and then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai review an honor guard.

Then-Chinese President Hu Jintao (center left) and then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center right) review an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8, 2012.Ed Jones/AFP/GettyImages

China’s clear, yet gradual, shift from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement in Afghanistan took place over the past decade.

The most visible and significant element of China’s newfound attention on Afghanistan was Politburo member and security supremo Zhou Yongkang’s visit to Kabul in September 2012—the first visit by a Politburo-level Chinese official to Afghanistan since 1966.

But even earlier that year, when we visited Afghanistan, China was seeking to advance diplomacy with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In February 2012, Beijing hosted the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue. Then, in May 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department initiated a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. The group of a dozen young diplomats would get a 15-day experience in Beijing, followed by another 15 days in Washington.

That June, as China was hosting the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral “strategic and cooperative partnership” agreement with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai and welcomed the country as an official SCO observer state. Just over a month later, then-Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Guo Boxiong met with then-Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak to “enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in order to contribute to bilateral strategic cooperation.”

The signaling was clear. As Washington approached a drawdown, China was going to have to step in more, though the extent of it was unclear. Yet there were clearly dissenters in Beijing, and many of the security-focused Chinese officials and experts we met were quite clear that this was a problem of Washington’s making that China wanted little to do with.

All of this change in Chinese activity was, however, undermined by the fact that Washington did not leave. In the end, Obama did not withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Although its presence shrunk considerably, the United States retained a capability to launch attacks and kept bases in the country.

Meanwhile, within China, security concerns increased. In April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang. This came after a tumultuous period where incidents linked to Xinjiang spread across the country—including a car and incendiary device attack on Tiananmen Square, a mass stabbing incident in Kunming, and escalating violence in Xinjiang itself. Just as Xi was leaving Xinjiang, attackers launched a knife and bomb attack on the train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

In his speeches about the threat in 2014, Xi made a clear link between what was going on in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. Beijing’s answer to this concern appears to have been to push a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing escalated its engagement with the Afghan authorities, building on what was already being done to create a wave of bilateral and multilateral formats with other partners in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it strengthened its contacts with the Taliban, making sure it was covering its bases for all eventualities. It seemed as though China was going to take on a more active role in the country, aware of the fact that no matter whether the United States stayed or left, it was likely to be an erratic partner Beijing could not rely on.

In July 2014, China appointed Sun Yuxi, a popular former ambassador to Kabul, as its first special envoy for Afghanistan. His role was to serve as a point of contact and a coordinator for China’s engagement with the Taliban, and after his arrival, there was a noticeable uptick in public engagement among China, the Taliban, and the Afghan government.

When Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan’s president that September, he immediately signaled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his first formal trip abroad. During this visit, he laid the groundwork for formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early 2015, stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations; officials we spoke to in Beijing said they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks. By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi. In July, another round of talks was held in Pakistan, at which Chinese participants also played a role. This was followed by more multilateral engagements.

The Chinese-supported peace track seemed to be bearing fruit, until abruptly, in late July 2015, news leaked that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had died back in 2013. This declaration scuttled the discussions and set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced over his successor. It also complicated China’s role, since it was not clear whom Beijing would engage with on the Taliban side.

Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan government to negotiate with full confidence or for Beijing to feel like it could do much. Chinese officials we spoke to at the time almost immediately fell back into stating that it was up to the United States to step up and support the Afghan government and its national security forces. They further noted that until there was greater clarity about who the main Taliban negotiator was, talks were unlikely to bear much fruit.

But it seemed that China maintained its contacts with the Taliban. In fact, Beijing has had a long history of contacts with the Taliban, dating to when the group was in power in Kabul before September 2001. At the time, China was one of the few countries that engaged with them, though this was largely through China’s contacts in Islamabad.

Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque.
Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque.

Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, on July 31, 2014, as China increased security in many parts of the province.Getty Images

In the early days, Beijing seemed to focus its discussions on ensuring that any trouble in Afghanistan did not spill into China and that the Taliban maintained control over Uyghur groups. Some Chinese experts who visited Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s told us they were surprised during their visit to learn of large numbers of Uyghur militants in the country. Taliban authorities reportedly sought to reassure Beijing that they would stop these individuals from launching attacks against China, though it was never clear whether the Uyghur groups adhered to this and did not launch attacks or use the territory to plot against China. We later met individuals who had been to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and al Qaeda-managed camps who told us stories—corroborated by others—of Uyghurs in the camps in large numbers.

In 2015, it seemed as though China decided to use its contacts with the Taliban to help protect its longer-term interests in the country. Aside from seeking to broker greater discussions among the Taliban, Pakistan, and the government in Kabul, China also sought to bring the United States into the discussions. Around this time, Beijing was engaged in numerous bilateral, multilateral, and minilateral engagements concerning Afghanistan.

One senior Afghan diplomat told us during a session in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that he was exhausted from running between these different events, though it was not clear to him how useful they were. Other Afghans we spoke to were far more scathing about Beijing’s engagement behind closed doors. One former senior defense official told us that they had been forced to dispose of most of the equipment that China had handed over, claiming “it was full of bugs.” Others said they had evidence that Beijing was paying off and providing military equipment to the Taliban to develop contacts and maintain influence, something that was partially confirmed to us by a Chinese contact who mentioned in passing being involved in handing over bags of money to Taliban contacts. We were never able to independently confirm this, but it did speak to a greater sense of confidence in Beijing about what China was doing in Afghanistan.

In March 2016, then-Chinese People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui visited Kabul, seemingly to help start a new minilateral regional organization. That organization, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM), brought together the chiefs of army staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan “to coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training,” according to a statement by the Chinese defense ministry.

By bringing together senior security officials with all the countries that had a presence around the Wakhan Corridor, China was helping secure its own border and creating a format through which it could monitor it. The structure also formalized the People’s Liberation Army’s responsibilities in Afghanistan.

Alongside the creation of the QCCM, China started to make its security contributions to the other members of the group more public. In Afghanistan, Beijing revealed it had helped build a base and was providing funding for a mountain security force in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. Locals reported seeing Chinese soldiers patrolling the region. Other reports highlighted how Afghan forces were being trained in China. In Tajikistan, China built around a dozen border posts for Tajik border guards as well as a base for its own forces in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. China was, in essence, creating a security buffer to seal itself off from direct threats from its border regions with Afghanistan.


A Chinese official adjusts a national flag.
A Chinese official adjusts a national flag.

A Chinese official adjusts a national flag in front of an ornamental window at the Xinjiang Room of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 10, 2001.Andrew Wong/Reuters

Although the China-Afghanistan relationship continued to stay relatively strong over the next few years, in the dying days of Afghanistan’s government under Ghani, there was growing turmoil between the two countries. The first loud signal of trouble was the U.S. decision in November 2020 to de-list the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement from its list of terrorist organizations. It was a decision Kabul reportedly did not agree with and one that caused friction with China.

Then, in December 2020, a spy scandal erupted with the Afghan National Directorate of Security detaining a network of 10 Chinese nationals who, it claimed, were spies undertaking covert activities against the government in Kabul. The Afghan and Chinese governments worked to keep the story out of the media and rushed to get the spies out on a private jet back to China, denying everything, though the story was leaked in considerable detail to the Indian media.

But the Afghan government was very careful about how it handled the scandal. Unlike the United States that was now heading for the door, Kabul recognized that it needed to maintain a working relationship with Beijing.

It was later revealed that their counterterrorism relationship had also come under strain, with Kabul apparently stopping its regular repatriation of Uyghur militants it caught on the battlefield. This was made public when in the wake of Kabul’s fall, news emerged that some 30 or so Uyghurs who had been in custody were released when the Taliban emptied the country’s prisons.

But this revelation cut both ways: On the one hand, it showed how the relationship between Kabul and Beijing had broken down, but it was also an early indication of the Taliban’s lack of capability or interest in managing the problem of militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan to Beijing’s desires (highlighted by the fact that they freed them).

An Afghan man rides his bike outside the Chinese Embassy in Kabul.
An Afghan man rides his bike outside the Chinese Embassy in Kabul.

An Afghan man rides his bike outside the entrance to the Chinese Embassy in Kabul on June 10, 2004.MARIAM KOSHA/AFP via Getty Images

In current Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there is no denying that China is more prominent. The Chinese Embassy was one of the few that stayed during the Taliban takeover. A number of Chinese businessmen are reportedly showing up to try their fortune. China has engaged with, participated in, and hosted numerous regional formats on Afghanistan. It has also sponsored some limited bilateral trade efforts and provided aid of some substance across the country, and Chinese state-owned enterprises have started to talk about restarting their projects with Taliban authorities. China has done everything except formally acknowledge the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan—a step it is unlikely to take until it sees others in the international community do so first.

But talk to Chinese experts, and the picture is more circumspect. They hold little hope for the Taliban to create an inclusive government, see instability on the horizon, and worry about the worsening security situation in the broader region.

Although China has spoken of Afghanistan as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and some recent trade has started, in reality, the tangible economic links between China and Afghanistan amount to the export of Afghan pine nuts to China and the construction of a fiberoptic cable down the Wakhan Corridor to help Afghanistan get on the internet. Talk about the BRI in Kabul, and people will say good things and hope for greater engagement, but they are still waiting for it to materialize. Afghan businessmen still find it difficult to get visas into China, flights are irregular, and COVID-19 continues to make travel to China difficult.

China is still concerned about its security interests in Afghanistan, but, as in the past, its answer has been to largely seal itself off, hardening its own and nearby borders. Through a web of multilateral engagements, China has offered itself as a host and discussant but never a moderator—in other words, China is willing to be involved but does not want to take the key role of confronting actors and forcing them to resolve their issues. Beijing is certainly doing more than it did before, but it is clear that it is not going to step into a leadership role. China has all the trappings and potential to be a dominant player but has made a strategic decision to continue to watch from the sidelines.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the co-author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, with Alexandros Petersen. Twitter: @raffpantucci

Dr. Alexandros Petersen was an academic, writer, and geopolitical energy expert. The author of three books and scores of articles and reports, Petersen’s work addressed the implications of the West withdrawing its engagement from the Caucasus and Central Asia, the expansion of Chinese influence, and Russia’s strategic interests. He taught at the American Universities of Afghanistan and Central Asia. He was killed in a Kabul restaurant bombing and shooting attack in 2014.

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