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Ukraine, Afghanistan, and China’s ‘Inadvertent Empire’

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abul Ghani Baradar, acting deputy prime minister of the Afghan Taliban's caretaker government in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 24, 2022. Image via Xinhua.

By Hugo Jones and Lukas Fiala

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters a new phase and more evidence of war crimes surfaces, it is hard to overstate the significance these events will have for Europe’s security architecture, the West’s relationship with Russia, and – increasingly – mapping China’s future as a global power. China’s position may be dubbed ‘pro-Russian nonchalance’; that is, supporting Moscow, spreading pro-Russian propaganda, and shifting blame to the U.S. and NATO, while simultaneously trying to present China as an external and secondary actor to what Beijing frames as exclusively a European security issue.

As we wrote a few weeks ago, contra to mainstream opinion, China’s relatively vague positioning and risk-management strategies over the last month have not shown Beijing’s strategic resolve, but rather the country’s inability to lead an alternative world order. Since then, events have demonstrated China’s ‘diplomacy as usual’ approach, suggesting that Beijing has been keen to push ahead on other security hotspots closer to China instead of becoming more invested in the Ukraine war.

Indeed, while Ukraine has stolen the international spotlight, China has shown renewed engagement toward the situation in Afghanistan. On 24 March Wang Yi made a surprise visit to Kabul whilst touring South Asia, raising China’s concerns about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and teasing a future in which Afghanistan is integrated into the BRI. And from 30-31 March China held the third foreign ministers’ meeting for countries neighboring Afghanistan in Tunxi – inviting Sergei Lavrov to China at a time when allegations of Russian war crimes were already emerging. These developments show that Beijing is increasingly worried that a spiraling Afghanistan will bring dire security consequences to its door down the line.

At the same time, it’s been eight months since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan and China is still yet to formally recognize their government. Nor does it look like they will any time soon, defying many commentators’ expectations. While Beijing is donating 200 million RMB of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, it is not swooping in to fill the power vacuum left by the American withdrawal. Like Ukraine, China’s diplomats and state media outlets prefer to deflect attention toward the US than take on meaningful long-term responsibility in Afghanistan. Criticizing the US has become a low-stakes refrain of Chinese diplomacy in challenging areas where China does not want to get burnt.

The recent political turbulence in Pakistan will certainly add a new dimension to China’s position towards Afghanistan. Whilst Pakistan’s close friendship with China is unlikely to be affected, the new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif may choose to seek improved relations with the US, which had waned under Imran Khan. This could open up new avenues for multilateral cooperation to ameliorate the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan has blamed U.S.-backed regime change for his downfall, in an attempt to cash in on anti-Western sentiments at home and abroad. Khan may have expected this narrative to find favor in Beijing amidst geopolitical tensions over Ukraine, particularly given his loyalty to China over the years. But China has quickly distanced itself from Khan, congratulating Sharif and declaring the China-Pakistan partnership ‘all-weather’ and ‘rock-solid’.

All this begs the question of whether China readily builds a coalition of like-minded governments to support a non-Western alternative vision for international affairs. Ukraine is certainly not as much of a key policy priority for some Asian and African states as it is for Europe, the U.S., and their closest allies, which should make it easier for some countries to pay lip service to China’s diplomatic overtures. But this should not distract from the fact that it is also in the interest of many to support China, whether through regional initiatives such as the recent meeting on Afghanistan or in the face of political change such as in Pakistan.

These actions reflect what Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen refer to as ‘inadvertent empire’ in their recently published book Sinostan. Last week, Raffaello joined one of China Foresight’s webinars to talk about the concept and argument in the book, which resonates starkly with the developments above. The book suggests that while China has built an impressive array of commercial and diplomatic networks across the Eurasian heartland and has consequently eclipsed Moscow as the most consequential regional power, this material shift has not gone hand in hand with a shift in strategy among Chinese senior leaders concerning how to use China’s new-found position.

In other words, China has become influential almost by accident. Beijing’s appetite to shoulder burdens such as acting as a mediator between regional conflict parties is consequently limited, as most of China’s foreign policy in Central Asia is driven by domestic priorities and reflective of the Chinese Communist Party’s interests. The reason why China has to act in Afghanistan is the country’s proximity and the potential for instability to spill over into Xinjiang. Faced with a West that has largely withdrawn from the country, Beijing is thrust into a position in which it needs to engage in order to minimize potential fallouts. Evidently, this imperative does not exist in Ukraine, offering another explanation for China’s ongoing response to the crisis.

In the end, China will continue to position itself according to what caters to its national interests, regardless of what happens in Ukraine, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. It seems that even when confronted with crises of the scale witnessed over the past year, this process is more ‘inadvertent’ than we may assume.

Lukas Fiala is Project Coordinator of LSE IDEAS China Foresight and Hugo Jones is a Programme and Research Associate at LSE IDEAS

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