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The Limits of China’s Engagement in Afghanistan

A general view shows burnt and broken windows a day after a deadly attack by gunmen at a hotel in Kabul on December 13, 2022. Wakil KOHSAR / AFP

By Lukas Fiala

On Monday, armed extremists opened fire inside Kabul Longan Hotel, a popular accommodation for Chinese citizens in Afghanistan. With many dead or injured, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility and that the attack targeted Chinese citizens. More than one year after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, this horrific incident reflects a broader conundrum for China’s strategy – or the lack thereof – in the country.

Indeed, when the Taliban took over in August 2021, two interpretations of China’s ambitions in the country emerged. One argued that China would swiftly move into Afghanistan to fill a supposed power vacuum left by the U.S. In this interpretation, China would build on its relatively close relationship with the Taliban, as attested to by several high-level meetings in the wake of the take-over, and offer economic assistance to a Taliban government shunned by the West. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it was argued, would be extended to Afghanistan and serve as a diplomatic tool to bolster Chinese influence in South Asia, connecting Afghanistan to China’s broader engagement in neighboring Pakistan.

However, some, including myself, were not convinced China would be willing to take on the risk of operating large-scale BRI-financed projects on the ground anytime soon. Beijing would certainly appeal to the Taliban to establish red lines, including clamping down on the proliferation of Islamic extremism and its spillover into China’s western region of Xinjiang. But in the absence of a clear strategy for Afghanistan – one in which China is prepared to shoulder a considerable security responsibility – Beijing would be hard-pressed to capitalize on the withdrawal of U.S. military power.

This debate is still ongoing. Recently, some have begun to point towards the evolving presence of Chinese merchants in Kabul as evidence of China’s changing engagement. China has also removed tariffs on 98% of imported Afghan goods and re-established an air transport corridor for Afghan pine nuts reportedly worth $800 million annually. China’s embassy is also one of the few diplomatic outlets still operating in Kabul and China has facilitated multilateral diplomatic dialogues among regional countries including Afghanistan such as the Tunxi initiative in March 2022 discussing humanitarian and development issues.

Yet, most concrete activities such as plans for a new Chinatown Industrial Park outside Kabul appear opportunistic rather than driven by a grand strategy. And although Chinese mining companies have reportedly made inquiries about exploiting Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth – especially lithium and copper – it is unclear to what extent this has borne fruit over the last year. Without major projects for auxiliary infrastructure to enable mining operations, it’s hard to imagine China capitalizing on Afghan mineral deposits anytime soon. As in other locations characterized by instability, the presence of Chinese entrepreneurs alone should not be seen as evidence of a grand plan in Beijing.

In fact, as Raffaello Pantucci has argued recently: “Far from inheriting an opportunity, China finds itself encumbered with an ever-expanding roster of problems in Afghanistan, which it is showing little interest in trying to resolve or own.”

Going forward, two variables will likely affect Beijing’s decision-making regarding Afghanistan. The first is Russia’s security presence in the wider region, particularly in neighboring countries such as Tajikistan. In the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the long-term effect Western sanctions may have on the performance of the Russian armed forces and their equipment, Beijing may increasingly feel the need to step up in the security domain. In September, for instance, reports emerged of Russian troop transfers from military facilities in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to the battlefield in Ukraine, suggesting that Russia may be unable to sustain its prior military build-up in Central Asia.

With the People’s Liberation Army’s military power growing, Beijing has increasingly emerged as the senior partner in its bilateral security relationship with Moscow, affecting the longstanding regional division of labor whereby Russia held primacy in the security domain while China engaged economically. In November, for instance, China and Tajikistan agreed to formalize security cooperation under the framework of biannual counterterrorism exercises following the reported operation of a Chinese military facility at the Tajik-Afghan border and a proposal to build another facility in 2021.

A greater willingness to work on security issues and especially counter-terrorism is not new, of course, but has been the long-term focus of the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) of which China is an active member. Nor is it likely that China will ever want to play the role commonly assigned to Russia, as seen in Beijing’s hesitant reaction to the Kazakh protests earlier this year when Moscow intervened in support of the Kazakh government.

What these events do suggest, however, is that China finds it increasingly difficult to outsource responsibilities regarding regional security issues. The second factor shaping China’s engagement in Afghanistan will be whether growing extremist violence forces China to engage more proactively in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

Some may point to China’s recently announced and propagated Global Security Initiative (GSI) – a slogan used to frame China’s contributions to global security governance in line with Beijing’s rhetoric centered on non-interference and sovereignty. Afghanistan may become a litmus test for the GSI, showing the extent to which China is willing to back up verbal commitments to a sustainable peace with material inducements such as dedicated funds for economic development or security sector reform. Yet, as of now, the GSI is little more than diplomatic jargon without any realistic, publicized policy framework to coordinate China’s security-related activities.

As such, Afghanistan, and the effects of terrorism on Chinese economic interests in neighboring Pakistan, demonstrate the limits of China’s ability – and willingness – to craft a regional order capable of protecting its national interests, Chinese citizens, and companies. China may reiterate that it “firmly opposes” terrorist attacks such as the one this week. But they demonstrate that even close to one and a half years after the U.S. withdrawal, Beijing has not found a lasting solution to the security issues in its immediate neighborhood.

Indeed, though many writers assert that “Beijing has sustained extensive diplomatic contact with the Taliban leadership to safeguard its security, economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan”, these very interests are evidently still at risk. While greater Chinese investment could surely impact an ostracised Afghan economy, the associated security responsibilities may be too much for Beijing to bear – at least in the near future.

Lukas Fiala is the project coordinator for the China Foresight initiative at LSE IDEAS

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