The Limits of China’s Engagement in Afghanistan

Jon Hoffman

In the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan amid the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces and their allies, China has rhetorically seized upon America’s failures. The official Xinhua news agency lambasted the United States as “the world’s largest exporter of unrest,” arguing that “its hegemonic policies” have led to far too many human tragedies, and that the fall of Kabul marked the collapse of America’s international image and credibility.

Beijing also appears to be extending an enthusiastic hand to the Taliban. In late July, several of the group’s leaders visited China and met directly with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who referred to the Taliban as “a pivotal military and political force” that is expected to play “an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan,” according to a subsequent Chinese readout of the meeting. More recently, following the fall of Kabul, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing said it has established “open and effective communication and consultation with the Afghan Taliban,” and that it seeks to “play a constructive role in the peace and reconstruction of the country.” The Taliban, for their part, have also made known their desire for Chinese investment in the country and help from Beijing in the reconstruction process.

Despite this apparent entente, it would be a mistake to believe, as some analysts have argued, that China is now poised to “step into the void in Afghanistan” following America’s exit.

The reality is that Afghanistan does not rank among Beijing’s top strategic priorities, and it has no interest in becoming the main security guarantor in the country. As Azeem Ibrahim of the Washington-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy has argued, China “has no inherent affinity or interest in an Afghan party.” As much as Chinese propaganda outlets celebrated the departure of U.S. forces, China actually benefited from a U.S. security presence that tamped down extremist activity in a country that shares a small border with it. Beijing’s focus now will primarily be on risk management, particularly minimizing security threats that may emanate from Afghanistan.

While the Taliban may hope that Beijing will deliver badly needed investment to the country, prospects for Chinese ventures in Afghanistan are extremely limited. To be sure, Afghanistan is home to vast deposits of minerals and other natural resources, with some estimates placing the potential value of these reserves at $3 trillion. Of particular interest for China would be Afghanistan’s vast deposits of lithium, which is the key ingredient for various high-tech devices and electric car batteries. Beijing has also expressed its desire to deepen cooperation and help rebuild Afghanistan’s transportation and energy infrastructure. Chinese officials last week announced it would donate $31 million worth of food supplies, winter clothing and COVID-19 vaccines to Afghanistan, but this is a paltry sum relative to the scale of assistance that will be needed.

More robust Chinese economic engagement in Afghanistan will be hindered by the lack of existing infrastructure, as well as the highly unstable security environment. Chinese investment in Afghanistan has historically been very limited, and Beijing’s two largest economic projects in the country—the Mes Aynak copper mine, in eastern Logar province, and the Amu Darya oil basin in the northwest—both remain stalled due to a variety of challenges. As the Stimson Center’s Yun Sun argued recently, “China has been burned badly in its previous investments in Afghanistan and will tread carefully in the future.”

While the Taliban may hope that Beijing will deliver badly needed investment to the country, prospects for Chinese ventures in Afghanistan are extremely limited.

In July, a Pakistani extremist group loosely affiliated with the Taliban, known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, carried out a suicide bomb attack on a bus carrying Chinese workers in Pakistan, killing 13 people. Incidents like this—as well as the more recent terrorist attacks in Kabul committed by the Afghan branch of the Islamic State group—are testament to the instability that is likely to plague Afghanistan under Taliban rule. In fact, over the past several months, the Chinese government has been encouraging its citizens to leave Afghanistan.

What, then, are China’s interests in Afghanistan? They mainly concern the prospect of extremist violence spilling over into areas where it has far greater strategic interests, such as Central Asia or the Chinese homeland itself. Beijing has historically accused the Taliban of harboring militants who have carried out terrorist attacks in China and remains concerned that such violence could return.

Beijing’s greatest fear in this regard has to do with its own Muslim minorities, specifically the Uyghurs, who live predominantly in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.

The ethnically Turkic Uyghurs have recently been subjected to a ruthless, forceful assimilation campaign that many countries have labeled genocide. Xinjiang itself is of critical strategic importance to China: It serves as Beijing’s gateway to Central and South Asia and hosts 15 percent of China’s proven oil reserves, as well as 22 percent of its natural gas reserves.

During the Taliban’s previous stint in control of Afghanistan, it lent support to militant Uyghur groups fighting to replace the Xinjiang regional government with an independent state, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, now known as the Turkestan Islamic Party. China now fears that Afghanistan could once again emerge as a safe haven for Uyghur separatists or other militants, given that it directly borders Xinjiang province.

The Taliban have apparently recognized Beijing’s concerns and have sought to convince them that this time would be different. “People from other countries who want to use Afghanistan as a site [to launch attacks] against other countries, we have made a commitment that we will not allow them in, whether it’s an individual or entity against any country, including China,” Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the group, told the South China Morning Post in July. The group has even said it would refrain from criticizing China for its oppression of Muslims. As one Taliban official put it to The Wall Street Journal, “We care about the oppression of Muslims, be it in Palestine, Myanmar, or in China, and we care about the oppression of non-Muslims anywhere in the world. But what we are not going to do is interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

It is unclear how effective these reassurances will be, but in any case, Beijing does not have considerable enough interests at stake in Afghanistan to warrant any substantial military or economic involvement there. China’s primary concerns center around preventing attacks against the Chinese homeland or Chinese interests throughout Central or South Asia, and insulating its own Muslim minorities as it continues on its campaign of internal repression.

It may be willing to make certain agreements with the Taliban in order to achieve those limited objectives, but it certainly does not aim to “fill the void” left by the United States.

Follow him on Twitter @Hoffman8Jon.

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