Whether the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a challenge or an opportunity for China is yet to be tested. As the only real international power in line to fill the security and economic vacuum, it could build relations with the Taliban quickly.
For a vast country with mountainous terrains and natural barriers, Afghanistan is hard to control and the political divisions make it even harder. The recurring attempts by international powers to command the country have always collapsed, with hasty exits becoming the consistent conclusion.
The British, the Soviets, and the Americans all failed in their military incursions. Afghanistan isn’t called the “graveyard of empires” for nothing.
China’s interest in Afghanistan has been primarily motivated by security implications that emanate from their shared border and increasingly by a need to protect its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment in the wider region, Barbara Kelemen, an associate and the lead intelligence analyst for Asia at Dragonfly, told Al Arabiya English.
“China appears to have largely seen economic cooperation as a way to stabilize Afghanistan,” Kelemen said.
“This was probably the main reason which led Beijing to strike a deal with the Taliban back in the 90s where in return for economic support, the Taliban would reportedly prevent Uyghur militants from mounting attacks in its territory,” she asserted.
China has not excluded Afghanistan from the BRI, but in the past its attention has remained limited in comparison to other major projects pursued elsewhere.
When the Americans and its allies played leading roles in Afghanistan, China – although not playing a subordinate – avoided partnering with the West.
Throughout the American occupation, China kept a low profile with rare and limited official visits to Kabul. It appeared to divorce its political efforts from economic aid.
China cannot tolerate a security vacuum that might impact on its security and national interests, and while direct military intervention is always an option, it is a futile one.
Beijing has increased its investment in Afghanistan and sees the country as a connectivity within the geographical stretch of the BRI.
Kelemen noted the China-Afghanistan air corridor as becoming an important channel for the export of some Afghan products such as pine nuts.
“The opening of the corridor solved issues such as smuggling across the Pakistani border where products would be often packaged and re-exported with added-value from these processes going to Pakistan rather than Afghanistan,” she said.
The new air corridor had a downside with the processes introduced shifting to China with value-added processes benefiting Beijing, Kelemen explained.
“Many other larger projects initiated by China remain stalled and have been described, together with BRI, a mere ‘slogan’ rather than reality by the US authorities,” she said. “China in turn continues to claim this is mainly due to the poor security environment in Afghanistan.”
Were the Taliban to stabilize and improve security conditions in the country, there is a high chance economic cooperation would prove much more viable for both sides, Kelemen indicated.
“For Afghanistan, this would likely bring economic benefits which are likely to motivate the Taliban to try to navigate complex realities of [extremist] alliances in the country,” she said.
“For Beijing, besides securing its economic investment, the Taliban has already said it will not let Afghan territory be used against other countries such as China. So, this type of cooperation would probably be yet another factor prompting the group to ensure local militants are not trying to mount attacks in Xinjiang and against Chinese interests,” she concluded.