After the withdrawal: China’s interests in Afghanistan

ECFR’s Janka Oertel and Andrew Small discuss China’s attitude towards the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan

The security situation in Afghanistan has been worsening since the United States and its European allies decided to withdraw from the decades-long mission in the country. Following conversations between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Taliban leaders, many observers see an opportunity for China to enhance its influence in the region. ECFR’s Janka Oertel and Andrew Small discuss whether this assessment is correct, what China wants, and what all this means for Europe.

Janka Oertel: Just briefly, to bring everyone on the same page, what is the current development that we are seeing in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal?

Andrew Small: The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating at worrying speed. The Taliban already controlled significant tracts of rural territory, but they have moved to take control of a number of border crossings, and stepped up their attacks on major cities. The United States is conducting airstrikes to halt the Taliban’s advances, but it is unclear how far even this will continue after the withdrawal is completed at the end of August. There appears to be little serious Taliban engagement with peace talks anymore, given that they see the opportunity to position themselves at least to wield the lion’s share of power in any political settlement or even to achieve an outright victory on the battlefield. Civilian deaths are rising, and the inevitable outflow of refugees has begun.

JO: And what does China make of this? Is this an opportunity – or actually a really bad development that is not in Beijing’s interest at all?

AS: China does not tend to perceive Afghanistan through the prism of opportunities; it is almost entirely about managing threats. The US presence was understood as a geopolitical threat, much like the Soviet military presence in the 1980s, but Beijing had grown to see it as the lesser of two evils. Pushing back Islamic militancy in China’s backyard and killing militants on China’s hit-list ranked above nebulous fears about how the United States might use bases there for strategic ‘containment’ purposes. Beijing certainly hoped that the US would withdraw from the region – but only after a peace deal had been brokered. China is now anxious on multiple counts. Its perennial concern, going back to the Taliban’s last time in power, is the potential for Afghanistan to become a safe haven for militant groups targeting China. Chinese economic and political interests in the wider region have grown considerably since then, though, and Beijing is also worried about the spillover effects in neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan.

The Chinese government has long sought to reach agreements with the Taliban, largely focused on the question of their ties with Uyghur groups. The recent meeting between Mullah Baradar and Wang Yi in Tianjin was unusually well-publicised, but the two sides have been interacting with each other for a couple of decades. Nonetheless, although Beijing is pragmatic about the power realities in Afghanistan, it has always been uncomfortable with the Taliban’s ideological agenda. China wants to see them hemmed in by compromises with other political forces in the country, not resurgent after a military victory. The Chinese government fears the inspirational effect of their success in Afghanistan for militancy across the region, including the Pakistani Taliban.

China does not tend to perceive Afghanistan through the prism of opportunities; it is almost entirely about managing threats

Beijing is also concerned about the risks of entanglement in Afghanistan, which is seen as a strategic trap that has diminished the other great powers that have involved themselves too deeply. There are endless references to the “graveyard of empires” in Chinese analysis. So, while they see the necessity of taking on a more active political role to deal with the fallout of what is now underway, there is considerable wariness about being sucked in.

JO: But what about the often-touted commercial and economic interests that China has in Afghanistan?

AS: China certainly has substantial commercial and economic interests in the wider region, but they are minimal in Afghanistan itself. Its major investments there, the Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya energy projects, have been in stasis for many years. There have been numerous discussions about Afghanistan’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative, including connections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but Beijing’s view has been that, in Afghanistan, stability has to precede serious new economic commitments. Beijing has also chosen not to build any cross-border infrastructure through the Wakhan Corridor, despite Afghan government requests, effectively leaving a physical buffer with its neighbour. If there is a permissive security and political environment in the country, then China would certainly take on a significant investment role – but it will be extremely cautious. Right now, it is very worried about recent attacks on Chinese nationals working on projects in Pakistan, not thinking about hair-raisingly risky new ventures in Afghanistan.

JO: How does all this relate to the situation in Xinjiang and China’s own narrative of terrorism in the region?

AS: The direct connections to Xinjiang are minimal. Virtually every attack in China itself has been entirely indigenous, not tied to international terror networks. The border is locked down and there are no plausible concerns about literal spillover from neighbouring Badakhshan. Any potential cross-border issues have tended to be focused on Central Asia and Pakistan, which is one of the main reasons we have seen a Chinese security presence by the Tajik border with Afghanistan. In the longer narrative, Chinese concerns about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have tended to be vastly out of synch with the threat posed by any of the Uyghurs caught up in the militant networks in the region.

The picture has shifted in recent years, though. The civil war in Syria saw the Turkestan Islamic Party emerge as a more capable actor than any of its predecessor entities, and it has a presence in Afghanistan too. China has been concerned about the return of more battle-hardened fighters from northern Syria. Since the late 2000s, for reasons partly related to Xinjiang and partly related to Pakistan, China has also been targeted by various other militant and terrorist groups that had previously given it a pass. The Taliban – whatever commitments it makes to the Chinese government and however willing it is to turn a blind eye to the situation in Xinjiang – has engendered an environment in which many of these groups are likely to flourish. Even if it is implausible to expect attacks on the Chinese mainland, it is already clear that threats to soft Chinese targets in the region have grown.

JO: And, finally, what does all this mean for Europe? We are already seeing massive internal displacements and a spike in refugees leaving Afghanistan. Is this an opportunity, as often mentioned, to “cooperate with China” on a question of global concern or will this be left pretty much to the Europeans to deal with themselves?

AS: Evidently, for Europeans, the situation in Afghanistan brings back the spectre of large-scale refugee flows and everything that may follow from that politically. Afghans are already showing up in Turkey in greater numbers as they flee the violence and the potential consequences of a Taliban takeover of urban areas. Unsurprisingly, a number of European states would rather have seen a more graduated, conditions-based US withdrawal rather than the current scenario. Afghanistan is a rare issue where China’s interests and not just European but US interests too have been relatively well aligned. Beijing wants to see a stable political settlement there and, at different points, has played a helpful role on the reconciliation talks. China’s closest partner in the region, Pakistan, has been the Taliban’s chief host and backer, which gives them an additional avenue of influence, even if it’s not one they’ve always been willing or able to use effectively. In the coming period, though, Beijing will be tightly focused on securing their bilateral interests in Afghanistan and channelling their diplomatic energies in the region to deal with the fallout from current events. There will certainly be opportunities for European exchanges with China on Afghanistan. And the two sides are not pulling in different directions. But I wouldn’t expect Beijing to attach such a high priority to any active cooperation with Europe at present, given the nature of the issues at stake.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Authors

Director, Asia programme
Senior Policy Fellow
Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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