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What the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan means for China's future approach towards Central Asia

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

Afghanistan countryside © Vladimir Lysenko / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Taliban's seizure over Afghanistan will dramatically change the power dynamics in Central Asia. China needs good relations with all its western neighbors to ensure its geopolitical opening to Eurasia. With that said, it is still an open question how it will secure its economic and political interests in the region with a fundamentalist government in Kabul.

China's growing presence in Central Asia

China is on its way to become the most important player in Central Asia. Chinese diplomats have been working for years to improve their relations with Central Asian states and their efforts have been so successful that many claim that China has replaced Russia as the leading power in the area, at least from an economic perspective (Asiryan and He, 2020). After the fall of the Soviet Union, China has built an effective presence in the region through investments and security cooperations. Social and political stability in Central Asia became a core interest for Beijing, especially because of its sometimes worrisome Chinese Western region of Xinjiang. Resources like hydrocarbons, and possible investments in agriculture and mining further increase Chinese interests in the region (Thornton, 2020). The elephant in the room in Central Asia is of course the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which needs a secure and stable environment to develop (Xie and Bai, 2021).

What's now shaking up the region is that in August 2021, the islamic-fundamentalist Taliban took over Afghanistan in shocking speed, changing the power dynamics at China's border and in all of Central Asia (Mellen, 2021). The country, which serves as a bridge between the Middle East and the rest of Asia, shifted from US-led instability to a shadowy future under the Taliban. While the Taliban takeover was perceived as a strategic victory in Pakistan, reactions in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were much more cautious (Kugelmann, 2021). For China, which intensified its engagement with the Taliban long before the US withdrew, relations with the newly founded caliphate are a mixed blessing.

Warming China-Taliban Relations

What is good for Beijing is that the Taliban have repeatedly expressed trust and hope in China, expecting it to participate in Afghanistan's reconstruction and economic recovery. Vice versa, voices from Beijing were also showing gestures of goodwill. In early September, China promised aid to Afghanistan (BBC, 2021) and in late October Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a delegation of the interim Taliban government, promising the Afghan people to help them overcome their economic difficulties (MFA of PRC, 2021). Still those plans remain announcements and nothing really got on the ground since then. Another pillar stabilizing the Taliban-Chinese relation is the US as a common enemy. Even though the reasons for the antipathy towards Washington are different, it gives both uneven actors a uniting moment. What's also decisive is the Taliban's struggle for international recognition. China will sooner or later recognize the Islamic Caliphate, but it will use this step strategically to induce the Taliban to adopt positions that align closely with Chinese interests (Yang, 2021).

Source: Own diagram based on MapChart 2021

Afghanistan might be important for China's economic plans

Chinese interests in Afghanistan are in the first place economically driven. The country’s mineral resources like cobalt, lithium, rare earths and other minerals are especially interesting for China, as those minerals are essential to the clean energy transition planned by Beijing. Chinese consortiums already secured mining rights for the world's second-largest copper deposits in Afghanistan, but political instability under US-military occupation made investments impossible and China had to wait for more stable political conditions (Kashgarin, 2021). But it will take decades and millions of yuan to get mines running, because Afghanistan lacks significant transport and logistical infrastructure. Looking at the educational level and the institutional instability, Afghanistan may still remain a hard place to operate in for years (Trakimavicius, 2021).

Besides that, Afghanistan can be crucial for Xi Jinping's prestige project - the Belt and Road Initiative. Afghanistan has an important strategic position, located close to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). To connect Pakistan with other Central Asian states through Afghanistan under Chinese supervision would be a clever move by Beijing. Of course China also has strategic interest in further opening of trade routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan to increase its export possibilities to India (Kalkhof, 2021). But for all of those plans China needs the Taliban´s agreement. Whether the fundamentalists will set economic development as their core priority is still an open question. In the beginning, infrastructure development by China won't be a top point on the Taliban's to-do list, which might decrease Chinese leverage.

Instability is making Beijing nervous

In view of its economic interests, China has several security concerns related to the fate of Taliban-led Afghanistan - the main one being terrorism. The issue is a deal-breaker in China-Taliban relations, because Beijing wants the country to stop being a base for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an extremist group aiming for the independence of the Xinjiang region (Western China) . As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang urged the Taliban government to fulfill promises on fighting the ETIM, its members appear to be now moving to neighboring countries including Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (Global Times, 2021). But as the ETIM and the Taliban partnered for decades, it remains to be seen if the Taliban will cut all relations with them (Tiezzi, 201). Reacting to that threat, Beijing conducted anti-terror drills with Tajikistan at the Afghan border in August (Zhou, 2021). Aside from the ETIM, other terrorist groups have recently been targeting Chinese citizens and entities in Central Asia: one example is the attack on the Dasu hydropower plant in Pakistan back in July, which caused the death of 9 Chinese engineers and was later claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army, a Pakistani independentist terrorist group.

A relevant actor to take into account is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which includes India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In the September 17 Dushanbe Declaration, these countries supported a united and independent Afghanistan while expressing the importance of an inclusive government (SCO, 2021). From a security perspective, the Organization has always been very vocal about its stance against terrorism. While it does not operate directly in troublesome zones, it has historically been fostering cooperation among members - especially through coordinated military drills that have been happening regularly since the 1990s. A further example of this cooperation is the recent news that China will build a border outpost in Tajikistan (Reuters,2021). This is not the first facility of the sort to be built by the Chinese in that area, as Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan is notably lacking effective control due to the state of Tajik armed forces (Sciorati, 2021). It is in Beijing’s best interest to support them in the patrolling to foster the stability of Central Asia as a whole, especially considering how Afghanistan remains to this day the most precarious country in the region. For the future of Chinese security policy, it is reasonable to expect more investments and lobbying in counter-terrorism infrastructure and measures.

Afghanistan in the greater geopolitical scene

Even though China's interest in Central Asia is tremendous, there is obviously no reason for Beijing to replace the US in Afghanistan. In the short run China's focus will be primarily on anti-terror policies and to avoid complete chaos in Afghanistan, which could also affect its neighboring states. China will push for these political interests using economic incentives like infrastructure investments.

While fighting terrorism and protecting Chinese borders may be the primary drive for Chinese security policy in Central Asia, the overall geopolitics implications of the new power dynamics in the region can’t be underestimated (Stronski, 2021). The fact that the US left chaos and distrust in Afghanistan is surely sustaining anti-US narratives coming from China. Right now, China is still isolated under its strict zero-rules, but once the pandemic is finally overcome, China will further grab for hard and soft power influence in Central Asia using Afghanistan as a strategic pillar for its strategic turn to Eurasia. On the other hand we must admit that Afghanistan is not the center of geopolitical confrontation today – that is still the Indo-Pacific and Taiwan. In Central Asia and especially in Afghanistan, China could prove that it can be a more reliable partner and international player, but it could also prove the opposite if it overestimates itself.

Nevertheless, the most important variable in the future will be how Kabul will govern its Emirate. Out of their weak position the Taliban have until now chosen a peaceful attitude towards their neighbors. Whether they will continue to do so or not is open in the long run. Domestically however, while they have proven to fight against the superpower US in an asymmetrical war, it is not sure how they will react to possible asymmetric warfare carried on against them by a terrorist organization such as IS. If the Taliban prove incapable of avoiding chaos in the country, dealing with the dangerous Afghan instability could quickly turn into a thorn in the flesh for Beijing, which might find itself bound to invest in Central Asia security resources which could be better spent elsewhere (read: the Indo-Pacific).

It is perhaps too early to tell what exactly Post-American Afghanistan will mean for China in Central Asia and beyond. It could offer the PRC excellent economic privileges, a (not merely) diplomatic bridge to the Arab world and Europe, and the opportunity to present a successful alternative to the US failure in the area. But if the Taliban decide to not follow Beijing's ideas, then the future for a Central Asian-Afghanistan-Chinese axis might be dark.

Jonathan Lehrer is a graduate student of International Relations at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany. Previously he studied at Qingdao University and interned at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. You can find him on twitter.

Giulia Alessandra Foti is an Italian law graduate in love with her country, proud to be European, and passionate about anything related to China. She has a degree in Music and will spend hours talking about history and outer space. Huge fan of football and Formula 1. You can find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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