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Afghanistan: A Potential Quicksand for China

by Debendra Sanyal

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban, in north China's Tianjin (Xinhua/Li Ran)

On 28 July, a nine-member delegation of the Taliban, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, met the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin. China hailed the Taliban as “a pivotal military and political force” in Afghanistan, and expected it to “play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan.” Moreover, China has reiterated that they will respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and not interfere in its internal affairs, while at the same time assisting the country in solving its problems. In return, the Taliban has promised China that Afghan soil will not be used for anti-China activities and that it will cut ties with extremist groups and anti-China forces.

This meeting comes in the backdrop of a military offensive launched in Afghanistan by the Taliban, in the wake of the departure of US military forces from the country. Till now, the Taliban has captured and gained control of several provinces and border check-posts, pushing the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, on the backfoot. The recent violence is another episode in war-torn Afghanistan’s history that has plunged the nation into chaos since the American intervention post-9/11. After years of conflict, in February 2020, then US President Donald Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, which provided a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces from the country. This kickstarted the Afghan peace process, which entailed negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The final leg of the US withdrawal began in May 2021 and is expected to finish by August end.

The American presence in Afghanistan meant that major players in the vicinity kept themselves in check. With the US absent now, there is a power vacuum that needs to be filled. Meanwhile, China has major ambitions of becoming a global superpower, as exemplified by projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, and taking a more active role in global governance. Afghanistan shares a 90 km long border with China, and the country falls in the ambit of the BRI. Bringing Afghanistan under the Chinese fold does seem lucrative, as this would open up the pathway to Central Asia and the Middle East. The country also has abundant and untapped natural resources like gold and oil, which would be economically useful for the BRI. As a matter of fact, China had initiated some key economic projects in Afghanistan, such as the Aynak copper mines and the Hajigak iron ore project, which remained stalled due to the security situation. China has also often talked about extending the CPEC to Kabul. But more than that, gaining dominance in Afghanistan would consolidate China’s position as the leader of Asia since it is situated in the trijunction between West, South, and Central Asia. In such a context, ensuring Afghanistan's stability is of paramount importance. And as recent developments indicate, the meeting with the Taliban delegation implies that Beijing has begun to take steps in that regard.

However, Afghanistan poses a peculiar challenge to China. The restive Xinjiang province, home to the Uighur Muslims, borders the Wakhan Corridor. If the Taliban comes to power, it would embolden separatist forces active in the area, such as the East Turkestan Islamist Movement operating from Badakhshan. This could lead to them operating from Afghan soil on a massive scale, and a possible chain reaction triggering terror groups such as the IS- Khorasan and Al-Qaeda. In other words, the threats of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, considered by the Chinese state as the ‘three evils’ plaguing the country, will converge. Also, the strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will become vulnerable in such an eventuality, as evidenced by the attack on Chinese workers in Pakistan last month. In Tianjin, the Taliban did assure that this would not be the situation, as they would not want to cross Beijing and the fact that China is the only power that can shield them against the US. But the Taliban is a heterogeneous group, with multiple ambitions, voices, and power centers, like the Haqqani Network, the Quetta Shura, and the network of field commanders. There is a lack of coordination between the different elements of the Taliban. This is evidenced by the fact that while the Taliban chief, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, called for a ‘political settlement’ to the Afghan crisis last month, the battlefield commanders on the ground proceeded with the military offensive anyway. As a result, the Taliban's ability to keep their end of the deal is questionable, as whatever their political leadership agrees upon, may necessarily not be implemented on the ground. In short, Afghanistan might turn out to be a potential quicksand for China, because the moment Beijing involves itself there, it may get stuck in an inextricable mess.

What would be China’s play with regards to Afghanistan?

As many experts have noted, China would be uncomfortable with the possibility of the Taliban coming to power, due to the security threat they possess. Beijing also desires a stable Afghanistan, but it cannot play the leading role in the peace process. Regardless of how the current conflict culminates in the end, China will have to safeguard its interests in the Af-Pak and Central Asian region, particularly the security of the CPEC and the Wakhan Corridor. In that case, it will look to engage with all the relevant parties in the country in a pragmatic manner, be it the Taliban or the Ghani administration. Dealing with the latter would not be a huge hurdle for Beijing, since Sino-Afghan relations have generally remained stable, but the Taliban is an unpredictable entity. However, the Taliban also craves legitimacy, so it would be agreeable to Chinese demands, notwithstanding its ability to follow up on them. China also has the other option of handling the Taliban indirectly through Pakistan, but this option gives Beijing lesser control over the situation, not to forget Pakistan's complicated dynamic vis-a-vis the Taliban. According to Dr. Sean Roberts, associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University, “it is far more likely, for example, that China would ask the Pakistan military to intervene in the country before involving Chinese troops. The question is whether Pakistan really has the capacity to control events in Afghanistan, and whether the country’s security apparatus always follows state orders.” Hence, by dealing with the Taliban directly, China is taking a calculated risk, intending to secure its interests and safeguard its assets in the region.

In conclusion, China's meeting with the Taliban, in the backdrop of the crisis in Afghanistan, suggests that Beijing is seriously evaluating its options in the country. The American withdrawal has left a vacuum, which China intends to fill, but in doing so, it would have to take on risks to national security and territorial integrity. The Taliban is a difficult customer, but it has its compulsions as well, which makes it a risk worth taking for Beijing to deal with them directly. Historically, Afghanistan has been known as the ‘graveyard of empires’, and it will be interesting to see how the Chinese, who aspire to build their empire, maneuver through the quicksand on the checkpoint between the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia.

About the Author

Debendra Sanyal is a research intern at Ytharth.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.

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