Afghanistan - China Relations
China, whose stated foreign policy position is non-interference in other countries’ issues, was queasy about the religiosity of the Taliban given its proximity to Muslim-majority Xinjiang.
Chinese observers said there was no denying that the Taliban had initially shown the world that it had changed compared to 20 years ago, such as claiming that girls and women can receive education, but observers also cautioned that it will be unwise to expect the Taliban to reform its religious ideology. The policy of the Taliban's regime in the country will unlikely be more moderate than the existing Sunni Islamic emirates in the Middle East, said the observers.
The Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan issued a warning on 21 August 2021 to Chinese nationals in the country to strictly abide by Islamic habits and pay high attention to what clothing they wear and food they eat in public places. In some Chinese observers' eyes, it was unrealistic to expect the Taliban to be modernized and secular in all aspects immediately, as individual rights can only improve after economic development was realized and sustained, and then the modernization and secularism will follow gradually.
As Taliban took steps to stabilize the situation and pursue international recognition, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private firms are employing different investment strategies in the war-torn country, with the former exercising extreme caution in carrying out new projects and the latter eager to tap into a market where "a thousand things wait to be done."
While the wait-and-see approach is a result of SOEs weighing up both political security risks and China's national strategy, the boldness of risk-taking private firms also underscores China's successful diplomacy with the Taliban, which lays the foundation for the safe and smooth operation of Chinese businesses in Afghanistan. Chinese private firms were set to stand firm in Afghanistan, despite Western governments' potential sanctions on the Taliban.
China looked to make Afghanistan a bigger part of its regional ambitions. China is the only major power with a border with Afghanistan. China was one major country which has no extra baggage militarily or strategically vis-e-vis Afghanistan, they have had no negative involvement in Afghanistan in the past. China’s image was very positive, and China today was the biggest economic investor in Afghanistan.
China’s role in Afghanistan in the past two decades has been limited. It did not contribute troops to the US-led war that began in 2001, and Beijing has so far refrained from the sorts of big-ticket investments planned for other neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan and Kazakhstan. Beijing expanded its economic intervention in Afghanistan over the decade since 2010 to become the country's largest investor. But it avoided deeper involvement in Afghan affairs. As the drawdown of NATO forces approached, China views the potential for Afghan instability as a threat to its domestic security and economic growth.
As the US started withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in 2011, the country became increasingly unstable, raising the risk that insecurity would spill out into Central Asia and Pakistan, potentially disrupting China’s Belt and Road projects there. By early 2014 internal and external security concerns appear to have prompted China to intensify involvement in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan in the wake of the planned US military drawdown in December 2015. Regional analysts say Beijing was well-placed to play a central role in Afghan reconstruction beyond 2014 because its non-interventionist policy has earned China goodwill in Afghanistan. China also increased engagement with close ally Pakistan to achieve its Afghan goals.
Chinese concerns that a prolonged conflict in the neighboring country could fuel unrest in its Muslim majority western Xinjiang region are likely behind its increased engagement with the Afghan government. In May 2017, Afghan officials attended the massive Belt and Road Forum in China, and in October Afghanistan joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which funds BRI projects. In 2017 Beijing convened a trilateral dialogue with Pakistan and Afghanistan to ameliorate the rocky relationship between its two neighbours, which has seen border closures and skirmishes. These efforts paid off, as Afghan-Pakistani relations improved in 2018, with a new cooperation agreement in May 2019.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s rare trip to Kabul 23 February 2014 was seen as part of Beijing’s diplomatic efforts. After meetings with Afghan leaders, Wang emphasized the importance of a stable Afghanistan for his country. “Afghanistan has special and important influence. The peace and stability of this country has an impact on the security of Western China and more importantly it affects tranquility and development of the entire region,” he noted. The Chinese foreign minister warned that Afghanistan will have no future unless it overcomes political and ethnic divisions.
China has witnessed some of the deadliest violence in its restive Xinjiang autonomous region near Afghanistan and Pakistan. Beijing suspected Muslim Uighur separatists in Xinjing have links to Islamist militants entrenched in volatile areas of the two neighboring countries.
Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong promised his country’s continued support for Afghanistan. “China will continue to develop all-round good neighborly relations with Afghanistan and maintain close cooperation with the new government," he said. "China is ready to work with the international community to support Afghanistan to complete its transitions smoothly and help Afghanistan achieve lasting peace and sustainable development at an early date.”
Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani was on his first official trip to China 28 October 2014 amid optimism back home that increased Chinese diplomatic and economic engagement are important for bringing peace to his war-shattered country. President Ghani had a busy schedule during his four-day visit to Beijing, where he will hold “in-depth” talks with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on bilateral and “issues of common interests.” Ghani also led a delegation of Afghan businessmen at a meeting of Chinese investors in his bid to persuade them to develop the mining industry in his war-shattered country.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed Beijing’s support for Afghanistan’s national unity government during a February 12, 2015 visit to Pakistan. Wang was in Islamabad at the start of a two-day official visit to Pakistan, during which he will discuss bilateral relations and peace efforts in neighboring Afghanistan. Wang said a broad-based, inclusive national reconciliation government with multiple factions, including the Taliban, will be the right direction for Afghanistan's long-term stability and security.
“We will support the Afghan government in realizing reconciliation with various political factions, including (the) Taliban," said Wang. "We believe that the broad-based and inclusive national reconciliation on the basis of Afghan-owned and Afghan-led represents the right direction for Afghanistan to realize national unity and harmony and long-term stability and security of the country ...China is ready to play its constructive role and will provide necessary facilitation at any time if it is required by various parties in Afghanistan.”
When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took over in late 2014 and talk of peace and reconciliation with the Taliban gained momentum, skeptics derived hope from China's newfound interest in the process. China could succeed, many thought, where the United States had failed — in convincing Pakistan to change its behavior toward the Afghan Taliban. Both the U.S. and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan of providing a safe haven to the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan resisted any pressure.
At the heart of Chinese interest in stability in Afghanistan are two major factors. One was fear that religious militancy in Afghanistan will further fuel Islamist insurgency in China's own Xinjiang province bordering Afghanistan. Militants from the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang have occasionally received support and training in Afghanistan. The second was hope of extending the One Belt, One Road initiative through the region to Central Asia. The initiative was an effort by China to build a network of overland road and rail routes, oil and gas pipelines, and other infrastructure projects spanning from West China through Central Asia to Europe while simultaneously developing ports and coastal infrastructure through South and Southeast Asia all the way to the Mediterranean.
China initiated contacts with the Taliban and eventually agreed to become part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), set up to help facilitate reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The QCG failed to lead to a decrease in violence in Afghanistan. Both Afghans and Americans realized that China would not pressure Pakistan beyond a certain point. With the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor and the election of new leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, chances of peace talks in 2016 were grimmer than ever.
China shares a narrow border with Afghanistan in the remote Wakhan Corridor region, and was wary that the war-torn country's violence could spill into its restless Xinjiang region. In recent years, hundreds of people have been killed in that far western region of China in unrest that Beijing has blamed on Islamist militants.
By early 2018 Chinese and Afghan officials were discussing the construction of a base in Wakhan Corridor, a remote mountainous strip that is isolated from the rest of Afghanistan, according to Afghan Defense Ministry deputy spokesman Mohammad Radmanesh. "We are going to build it (the base) but the Chinese government has committed to help the division financially, provide equipment and train the Afghan soldiers," he said.
The military base will be reportedly constructed in Afghanistan's northeastern province of Badakhshan that borders China's Xinjiang – a restive region with a Muslim Uighur minority that Beijing views as a potential source of instability. However, a Chinese embassy official in Kabul was scarce on providing details on the project, saying only that Beijing was engaged in "capacity-building" in Afghanistan.
According to Fergana News Agency that talked to Afghanistan's Defense Ministry Representative Dawlat Vazari, the preliminary agreement to build the base was reached during the visit of an Afghan delegation headed by Defense Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami to China in December 2017. During the visit, the sides have discussed the cooperation in the anti-terror fight in the bordering regions.
Chinese authorities are scrutinizing the activities of exiled Uyghur members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Muslim group that has committed dozens of terrorist acts in China. "The Chinese side fears that the Chinese Uighurs, who are fighting along with terrorists [in the Middle East], can cross into China through Afghanistan and become a headache for the Chinese authorities," an unnamed source said to Fergana News Agency.
China's engagement in the base construction came amid Beijing's major push for boosting ties with its war-ravaged neighbor. China has mediated rows between Afghanistan and Pakistan and offered to make Kabul a part of the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor it wants to build with Islamabad.
China was denying reports that it plans to deploy troops or establish a military base in Afghanistan, saying it was merely engaged in "normal military and security cooperation" with its neighbor. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Wu Qian said on 30 August 2018 that reports in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper and elsewhere that Beijing has plans to station hundreds of People's Liberation Army soldiers at a base in eastern Afghanistan are "simply not true."
Unconfirmed reports had shown what appeared to be Chinese military vehicles operating in the Wakhan Corridor, which lies in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountains, with Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south.
However, Wu said China was only in the region to help Afghanistan bolster counterterrorism efforts and protect its common border with China. "China and Afghanistan have normal military and security cooperation," he told reporters at a monthly briefing in Beijing. "China and the international community are all supporting Afghanistan to strengthen its defense and counterterrorism building efforts," he said.
Afghanistan's ambassador to China, Janan Mosazai, on 30 August 2018 also denied reports that have repeatedly said China was seeking a military presence in Afghanistan. He said that Beijing was helping Afghanistan set up a mountain brigade to bolster counterterrorism operations, but that no Chinese troops would be stationed in the country. "While the Afghan government appreciates this Chinese assistance, and our two militaries are working in close coordination on utilizing this assistance, there will be no Chinese military personnel of any kind involved in this process on Afghan soil," Mosazai said.
While denying any military expansion plans in Afghanistan, China has openly sought to increase its presence in other ways there, including by co-sponsoring peace efforts with the Taliban, after 17 years of Western involvement that has left the country still at war.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|