China in a post-US Afghanistan: A paradigm shift in foreign policy?

China in a post-US Afghanistan: A paradigm shift in foreign policy?

China’s long-standing policy of non-interference is challenged by the cruel geopolitical realities and developments in the country with which it shares its smallest border. The U.S. military withdrawal, coupled with Afghanistan’s seizure by the Taliban, have marked a major turning point, presenting China with both opportunities and challenges. It seems Beijing can no longer afford to stay away from the region.

Background: Biden’s decision to withdraw

In April this year, President Biden announced one of his early flagship foreign policy decisions: the withdrawal of the U.S. military forces from Afghanistan by the 11th of September 2021. However, by August 15, the Taliban had already managed to take over Afghanistan, including Kabul, bar some districts of Panjshir province, forcing the U.S. into a premature withdrawal.

Ending U.S. direct involvement in a war that cost 2,400 U.S. military lives and more than $3 trillion was one of the few points of convergence between Biden  and his predecessor, Donald Trump. Following a bilateral agreement in Doha between the Trump Administration and the Taliban in February 2020, a timetable for the U.S. withdrawal was set, in exchange for the Taliban’s promises to relaunch peace talks with the Afghan government. Approximately 90% of the U.S. troops’ withdrawal has already taken place.

The current U.S. president pledged to continue assisting the Afghan government financially and to provide support for its security forces. However, both international and local observers have questioned the timing of the withdrawal, particularly at a time when Taliban fighters are regaining significant ground. 

Taliban advances across the Afghan territory

Earlier in July the Taliban made significant advances in Herat province, seizing important major transit routes across Afghan-Iranian borders. Over the course of the first two weeks of August, the Taliban had successfully seized the majority of the country’s provincial capitals, including Ghazni, Lashkar Gah, Herat and Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city. On August 15, Kabul had already fallen to the Taliban. Currently, the Taliban are fighting in order to seize Panjshir province, the last anti-Taliban stronghold.

The UN reported that civilian casualties rose by 29% in the first quarter of 2021. It is estimated that 270,000 Afghans have already been displaced during the first half of 2021, while neighbouring states (mainly Tajikistan and Pakistan) are preparing for a new influx of refugees due to the Taliban transition to power, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation. The UNHCR expects up to 500,000 Afghans to flee Afghanistan by the end of 2021 in a ‘’worst case scenario’’.  

The U.S. withdrawal has already left a significant power vacuum. As question marks are raised over the way the Taliban are expected to rule, regional actors are expected to step in, in order to share the burden and prevent a potential collapse of the Afghan state.  

Russia, Iran, Turkey, India and Pakistan have their own reasons to intervene. However, the biggest question is whether China will depart from its longstanding ‘’non-alignment’’ policy to be actively involved in an area historically known as ‘’the graveyard of empires’’.

Motives and current involvement: What is at stake for China in Afghanistan? 

For years, China was benefitting from the U.S. presence as a stability provider in Afghanistan, allowing Beijing to focus on its purely (geo)economic goals. However, following the U.S. military withdrawal and the transition to the rule of the Taliban, Afghanistan could once again turn into a harbour of terrorism, resulting in a potential spill-over effect across its own borders. China’s leading political figures, including Xi Jinping, have repeatedly expressed the need to address the so-called ‘’three evil forces’’ (extremism, terrorism, separatism), a discourse allegedly associated with the armed separatist movement in its own Xinjiang province.

Secondly, apart from security considerations, China has its own economic interests in the region. Afghanistan is a country notably rich in minerals, such as copper, cobalt, iron, mercury and lithium, with an estimated value of $1 trillion. The majority of them remain unexploited. It is also a country heavily reliant  on international aid (approximately 40 percent of its GDP in 2018, according to the World Bank). Its vital need to secure alternative sources of funding offers Beijing investment opportunities in constructing and mining natural resources. Moreover, Beijing could add one more corridor to its current complex network of pipelines, roadways, railways, ports and power grids under the auspices of its ‘’One Belt, One Road Initiative’’, as an extension of the existing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. A politically stable Afghanistan with a cooperative government in Kabul, whether dominated exclusively by Taliban or in a more inclusive format, is a precondition. 

China has already held talks with the Taliban. Last year, it was reported that Beijing offered to assist rebuilding Afghanistan’s damaged infrastructure by funnelling funds directly to the group through Pakistan, China’s closest ally in the region. It is in Beijing’s interest to engage with local stakeholders, including the Taliban, offering its conditional support in exchange for commitment to its own priorities. Indeed, China will likely seek to alter the group’s stance on Xinjiang, demanding it to cut its ties with Uighur armed separatist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. 

Thus, earlier in July, the spokesman for the Taliban Political Office in Qatar confirmed that the group perceives China ‘’as a friend of Afghanistan’’, also stating that the group will no longer provide refuge to Uighur separatist groups from China. On July 28, a Taliban delegation visited China in order to discuss security related issues and the peace process. The Chinese foreign minister reiterated Beijing’s belief that Taliban are expected ”to play an important role in the progress of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan”, arguably boosting the militant group’s international outlook.

Assuming a peacekeeping role towards greater engagement?

Even though greater involvement of different regional actors should be expected, it appears that it is China that potentially holds the key to Afghanistan’s peace and reconstruction. Indeed, with its policy of neutrality, its declared support for an ‘’Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’’ peace process and more importantly, its rising geopolitical and geo-economic clout, it has the privilege of being perceived as a trusted and respected party to all conflicting sides in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.

Hence, the new state of affairs shaped by U.S. withdrawal presents China with both risks and opportunities. However, it remains to be seen whether China will manage to maintain this delicate equilibrium without being further dragged into deeper engagement, following in the footsteps of Soviet Russia and the U.S.

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