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How will China approach Afghanistan in the post-US era?

Behind the competitive posturing, the world’s rival superpowers share a historic concern with security.

By Jessie Lau

For weeks, China has triumphantly portrayed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a boon to Beijing and catastrophic for Washington. State media has depicted the frenzied US departure as the end of an era of Western domination that has impeded China’s rise. It has also portrayed Afghanistan as a land of “a thousand opportunities” for Chinese developers and investors, although it’s unclear how effectively China will be able to capitalise on the country’s vast resources moving forward.

Meanwhile in the US, some hawkish commentary has played up fears that China will capitalise on the region’s changing strategic landscape. John Bolton, the former US national security adviser, warned in an op-ed that China and Russia “are already seeking to reap advantages”.

Yet despite this geopolitical posturing, both sides actually have many common interests when it comes to seeking stability in the war-torn country. Beijing and Washington have a history of security cooperation in Afghanistan that predates the US invasion. The two coordinated closely in the 1980s to support the anti-Soviet mujahideen rebels, with the US even providing military support to China in the Soviet-Afghan war.

“It’s a classic security issue in which you have a track record of cooperation going back decades,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “On the long term situation in Afghanistan, the two sides did broadly see eye to eye, in a way that most other actors in the region couldn’t be said to.”

As the Taliban consolidates control over Afghanistan therefore, what does this drastic geopolitical shift mean for China’s security interests and US-China cooperation in the region moving forward?

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When it comes to protecting China’s interests, the Chinese president Xi Jinping has long signalled to the Taliban that Beijing would offer diplomatic recognition and economic incentives in exchange for security.

Prior to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the head of their political commission met with the Chinese foreign minister in July, in a highly-publicised gathering in China. The minister expressed hopes that the Taliban would establish an “inclusive political structure” and “make a clean break with all terrorist organisations”.

On 8 September, after the Taliban announced its new interim government, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the move a “necessary step” in the state’s reconstruction, and said that Beijing is ready to maintain communication with its leaders. China also promised to provide 200 million yuan (about £22m) worth of emergency aid and vaccines.

Yet there are cracks beneath the surface of Beijing’s confident stance. Going forward, China’s approach to Afghanistan will be more about managing risks than seeking opportunities, according to Small. 

As the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan continues, experts say Beijing is extremely concerned about the potential for a terrorist spillover that will threaten Chinese investment and trade interests, as well as fuel separatism among Uyghur muslims in its border region of Xinjiang. The region has been turned into a surveillance state in the past decade by authorities who claim that militant Uyghurs have been fanning separatism and violence in China for years – but analysts have argued there is no substantive evidence for these accusations.

“China is [concerned] it’s going to have to spend a lot more energy managing that [regional instability] than they would have liked to,” says Small, adding that authorities are also anxious that the Taliban’s success will embolden other militant outfits and contribute to a rise in terrorism across the region.

While China may be reluctant to step into the security vacuum left by the US, since Xi assumed the presidency in 2013 it has already adopted a more interventionist approach to the region, according to Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. Over the years, Chinese security agencies such as the People’s Liberation Army, as well as the ministries of defence and public security, have poured funding into Afghanistan in the form of aid and equipment donations, she said.

“[In recent years] China built what it calls ‘anti-drug trafficking hubs’ on the Tajik-Afghan border. There is a presence of Chinese private security companies in the region,” Yau said. “These things already scream that it’s no longer a non-interventionist policy.”

Now, rather than overtly placing troops on the ground as tried by the US and the UK, Beijing will use initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – a political, economic and security alliance founded in 2001 by China, Russia and several Central Asian countries – to work with local security offices to combat terrorism, as well as indirectly safeguard Chinese businesses and investment projects.

Iran, which was previously barred from the SCO by members such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan due to concerns over international sanctions placed on Tehran, has also recently claimed that it will soon join the China-led security organisation. 

“We’re going to have, finally, this full encirclement of Afghanistan via the SCO,” Yau said, adding that such developments will also have a large impact on the geopolitical balance in the region. “Increasingly, we also see narratives between China and Russia, or China and Iran, that countries should band together and be strong against the ‘West.’ It’s a very dangerous path.”

Despite Beijing’s desire to take an active role in shaping Afghanistan’s future development, however, there is some degree of confusion over how to navigate relations during this period of instability. China still has relatively limited expertise in the region, and has traditionally relied on partners such as Pakistan to interpret and facilitate relations with the Taliban, analysts say.

On the Taliban’s side, while the militant group overall appears receptive to Chinese financing, it’s unclear whether members within its various factions – which previously united on an anti-Western and anti-Afghanistan government agenda – will be able to work together to forge a clear China strategy, Yau said. Some may not be willing to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s ongoing crackdowns on Uyghur Muslims, she added.

Furthermore, while it’s clear that paving the future of Afghanistan is a critical issue for both China and the US moving forward, the rivalry between the two states may continue to threaten cooperation.

On 9 September, for the first time in seven months, Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden spoke over a call in a bid to address deteriorating relations between the two countries.

In recent talks between China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and the US secretary of state Antony Blinken, Wang emphasised that cooperation on Afghanistan and the Taliban can only occur if Washington meets its various demands. They include requesting the US to lift visa restrictions placed on members of the Chinese Communist Party and remove requirements for Chinese media to register as foreign agents.

The future of Beijing-Taliban relations also depends on the degree of Western recognition of the militant group. If the Taliban must operate under U.S. sanctions, the relationship will become more challenging for China to manoeuvre since it will create yet another obstacle for diplomacy, Small explains.

Beijing, however, desires a pragmatic form of US involvement in Afghanistan, and, in turn, Washington hopes the Chinese may become a helpful interlocuter with the Taliban. According to Small, Afghanistan is one area in which the US is relatively relaxed about more Chinese involvement, particularly if it helps bring stability to the region.

“(Beijing) wants to make this cooperation conditional on a more benign wider framework on the US-China relationship. But realistically, they know this is an area where both sides can benefit from coordinating,” Small said. “So, although the relationship is sufficiently bad – I still think this is going to be an issue where the two sides will continue to talk.”

Jessie Lau is a writer and journalist covering identity, human rights and politics in China and Asia. She tweets @_laujessie

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