As the United States and its allies begin what looks like a final drawdown of their forces from Afghanistan, China appears to be expanding its role and influence in the country.
Beijing is actively enhancing contacts and possibly building robust relations with the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban, visibly pushing for a reconciliation between its longstanding ally Pakistan and Afghanistan. China is underpinning its diplomacy with the prospects of greater trade and investment in the impoverished country.
Arif Sahar, an Afghan security expert based in London, sees China pursuing some major objectives in Afghanistan in the possible post-U.S. withdrawal period.
“Afghanistan’s large natural resources could only be effectively exploited by near neighbors rather than distant neighbors because of the geopolitical and logistical requirements,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “China is also signaling that it is the only country in the region with the financial and economic capabilities that can be relied on as a trustworthy partner.”
Based on leadership statements and actions, Sahar also says Beijing is actively pursuing a close relationship with the Taliban. While China has declared its support for the Afghan peace process, it is also keen to protect its security interests by reaching out to the Taliban. A remote region in northeastern Afghanistan is connected to the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, which is home to unrest and violence that Beijing views as a major threat.
Such interests have prompted China to attempt to cultivate a more robust relationship with Afghanistan. Over the past several weeks, senior Chinese officials have reached out to Afghan counterparts.
“As a neighbor and friend of Afghanistan, China respects the Afghan people's choice of their own development path and stands ready to continue to support, mediate, and facilitate the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan and further play its constructive role,” an April 27 statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry said after Foreign Minister Wang Yi telephoned his Afghan counterpart Mohammad Hanif Atmar.
“China, more than anyone else, wants to see a harmonious Afghanistan-Pakistan relation and will contribute to any effort that helps improve the mutual trust and relations between the two sides,” the statement quoted Wang as saying.
Beijing has also offered to host a dialogue between Kabul and Islamabad “to push forward cooperation among the three countries.”
Afghanistan is part of Beijing’s mask diplomacy amid the coronavirus pandemic that originated in China. The country has dispatched much-needed medical supplies including face masks, protective gear, and ventilators to Afghanistan to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
Beijing ditched its past policy of avoiding Afghanistan when most NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014. It then attempted to become the biggest business investor in Afghanistan when Chinese companies announced billions of dollars’ worth of investments in copper mining and oil exploration. Chinese companies have been involved in Afghan infrastructure and development projects and, significantly, Beijing has extended some development aid and security assistance to Afghanistan.
On the diplomatic front, China supported reconciliation in Afghanistan. Beijing hosted informal meetings between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives and welcomed public visits by senior Taliban leaders such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. It supported the process that resulted in an initial peace deal between the United States and the Taliban on February 29.
But Beijing’s low-key investment approach didn’t appeal to Washington. In November, Alice Wells, the recently retired acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, voiced criticism of China’s role in Afghanistan
“China is not a provider of any significant grant assistance. It has invested or it has laid claim to a copper mine, a significant copper mine, but has never developed the copper mine,” she told a think tank audience in Washington. “I haven’t seen China take the steps that would make it a real contributor to Afghanistan’s stabilization, much less stitching it back into Central Asia and the international community.”
Sahar, however, says China is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy not only to thwart the West but also to undermine its neighbor and regional rival, India, in Afghanistan. In recent years, New Delhi has emerged as a close strategic partner of Kabul.
A Pentagon report in January tried to explain the new Chinese approach.
“China believes regional stability will improve its access to trade markets, weaken western regional influence, and counterbalance India’s role and strategic expansion in the region,” the report said. “China is seeking to become more involved in intra-Afghan talks.”
The report highlighted that China has widened its relationship with Afghanistan “toward a greater emphasis on political and military engagement.” It said the relationship “was largely confined to economic matters before 2015.”
The Pentagon also attempted to identify Chinese security objectives in Afghanistan. “China is primarily concerned that Uighur militants transit through the Afghanistan Wakhan Corridor, which borders China’s Xinjiang Province,” the report said. “China promoted counterterrorism and economic integration between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Local officials in northeastern Badakhshan Province, where Wakhan is located, recently claimed many Uighur fighters are present in the province. But the Taliban have rejected such claims.
Valey Arya, an Afghan commentator based in London, says the Chinese effort in Afghanistan is part of its larger push to utilize its economic, military, diplomatic, and intelligence power in its immediate neighborhood.
“The withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan, stability in the country, and a government which is friendly with Pakistan are other foreign policy goals of China,” he said, arguing that these objectives are informed by Beijing’s close strategic alliance with Islamabad.
But he sees China unlikely to assume the role held by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. “It’s very unlikely that in the near future China will have the will, mechanisms, and resources of providing aid to other countries in the same way that Western democracies did,” he noted. “China doesn’t have that kind of tradition.”
Sine late 2001, Washington and its allies have recreated an Afghan state by providing hundreds of billions in aid and helping Afghans resurrect and sustain key institutions. Beijing, however, seems more likely to pursue its own interests.