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Date: 14 June 2022 Author: Wojciech Adamczyk
China’s role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal
After the United States Armed Forces withdrew from Afghanistan on 30 August 2021, many experts were envisaging a possible chance for China to fill the „vacuum” that has been left after 20 years long operation led by the US. Certainly, China and Russia were seen as the main beneficiaries of the US departure, specifically in terms of their political influence and expression of power.
Although, mainly triumphant comments about the failure of the West seem to be overshadowed by the serious concerns about the regional security situation. On the other hand, from Beijing’s perspective, it could also lead to opportunities for cooperation that may bring more stabilisation to the region of Central Asia, and Afghanistan.
When it comes to the more detailed analysis made by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, we may highlight a few remarks that are important to better understand what’s the nature of the bilateral relationship between China and Afghanistan. The main observation is that China has been very cautious in its approach toward Afghanistan. The security issues are predominant, and going further, Beijing has not been rushing to invest. Overall, experts agreed that at the current stage, the US and China are sharing common interests in the region, and for as for China, relations with the Taliban government are just a necessity.
It is understood that for China the main goal is to have a stable Afghani government that will consolidate its position not only domestically but also internationally. It’s in the Chinese interest to have a neighbour that is not sanctioned or being perceived as a pariah state. It’s also very crucial for the Taliban to cut off ties with transnational terror groups, specifically, it relates to Uyghur groups that are considered the greatest threat to Beijing. Furthermore, it can be already observed that the security issues in the country and the region will be the main condition for the further perspective of the economic cooperation. Right now, Beijing will surely play a more important role for Afghanistan, with the sight of possibly far larger investments in the Afghani economy.
On the other hand, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a factor in the great power politics rivalry in Central and South Asia, and since 2001, the US-China relations. Being more suspicious about the US intervention in Afghanistan, since its withdrawal, Beijing has started seeing the US presence in the country in a more favourable light. Certainly, the US had helped to contain Taliban and Uyghur terrorist groups, and now once again, it sees Afghanistan as a possible haven for the Uyghurs that may destabilise the Chinese western frontier.
At the same time, it is worth highlighting what kind of policy China has decided to take toward Afghanistan. It might be called a „new engagement with Afghanistan”, and it consists of five main elements: „(i) pragmatically and cautiously accepting the Taliban’s dominance in Afghan affairs; (ii) preventing the reemergence of Afghanistan as a haven for terrorists; (iii) facilitating an inclusive politics in the country; (iv) demonstrating a greater degree of humanitarian concern; and (v) shaming the US and the West for forfeiting their responsibility. The first four elements contain clear continuities from past policies, but all of them have been advanced with a greater degree of urgency”. Being objective, this mostly old, new engagement will have to be met with the Taliban’s willingness and capability to fight terrorism. Their Islamic fundamentalist movement stays contrary to the rules and values associated with modern statehood.
It is worth underlining the Chinese substantial commercial and economic interests in the region. Overall, for now, they are minimal in Afghanistan. Major investments such as Amu Darya energy projects, or the Aynak copper mine have been stalled. Of course, a lot of experts discuss Afghanistan’s role in the Belt and Road Initiative along with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Still, China’s concerns about the role of security in serious new economic projects are preceding. That’s why, China has been also restraining from building any cross-border infrastructure through the Waken Corridor, despite Afghan government requests.
Overall, the lack of Chinese increased investments into the country will leave Afghanistan dependent on Western humanitarian and development aid in the future. Although, cooperation with Beijing will remain desirable. Of course, the situation in Afghanistan and its relations with Beijing should be closely observed, but as the latter rather treats its relations rather as a necessity, not a luxury – probably, we will have to wait longer to see if China will solve the problems created by the West.
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Janka Oertel, A., 2022. After the withdrawal: China’s interests in Afghanistan. [online] ECFR. Available at: <https://ecfr.eu/article/after-the-withdrawal-chinas-interests-in-afghanistan/> [Accessed 13 June 2022].
S. Glaser, y. and Small, A., 2022. China’s Goals after the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan. [online] GMFUS. Available at: <https://www.gmfus.org/news/chinas-goals-after-us-withdrawal-afghanistan> [Accessed 13 June 2022].
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