With American military withdrawal from Afghanistan expected towards the end of the summer after 20 years of occupation, China will eye the situation with interest. As the only real international power in line to fill the vacuum, China could build relations with the government there quickly.
But the newcomer from the East might find many of the tribal factions difficult to handle. The British, the Soviets and the Americans all failed as their missions became military incursions. They do not call the country the “graveyard of empires” for nothing. When China takes its turn and the saber-rattling starts it will encounter the same fate.
For a vast country with mountainous terrains and natural barriers hard to control, political divisions, make it even harder to control. The recurring attempts by international powers to put the country under custody have always failed.
Whether the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a challenge or an opportunity for China is yet to be tested. Chinese economic support from backstage is different from direct military involvement. The former is an indispensable step, it seems, for China if it wants to preserve security and stretch its power further towards the East.
China is principally interested in averting destabilization in the Muslim majority province of Xinjiang which shares borders with Afghanistan. It has been always cautious to develop its relations with the Taliban because of its support for the “East Turkistan” Organization which is an Uyghur separatist group.
Between 1996 and 2011, under the Taliban regime, Afghanistan became a strong base for training separatist groups which Beijing found hard to tolerate.
When in 2006, China and Afghanistan signed the Treaty of Good Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation, security and economy were at the top of the list. Both countries will fight terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking. Afghanistan pledged to support China in its fight against terrorism, separatism, extremism and transnational crimes. Most of that remained ink on paper.
The Chinese expansionist policy is underlined in the so-called “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). It has stretched its power from Central Asia to Africa and other pockets of the world. China has not excluded Afghanistan, although its attention has remained limited in comparison to other major projects implemented elsewhere.
The China-Pakistan corridor is probably the best way to integrate Afghanistan into BRI. At the end of the day, Afghanistan is China’s shortest road to the Middle East and the Gulf. It is no coincidence that China is Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor.
When the Americans and, to a lesser extent, the Europeans had leading roles in Afghanistan, China had not been eager to play a subordinate role, but becoming a full partner with the West is anathema to its policies. There are too many deep conflicting interests.
Previous Western efforts to invite China to join militarily have never reached a happy ending. However, with the security vacuum imminent, the rules of the game have changed.
Throughout American occupation, China had preferred to keep a low profile with rare and limited official visits to Kabul. Beijing always considered this policy a guarantee that it would not provoke Islamic extremism. Although democratically elected, the official governing bodies in Afghanistan were rarely in full operational control of their territorial homeland. For that purpose, China had divorced its political efforts from its economic aid. Economic reconstruction is one thing, while the political reconstruction is something completely different.
This might now change. Security has always been a top priority for Beijing particularly in Central Asia.
China had tried to broker peace between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2017 but efforts reached a deadlock. The aim was to revive trilateral cooperation (China, Afghanistan and Pakistan) which had formerly functioned under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This has not worked either.
All of these efforts were catalyzed by the Chinese conviction that any conflict in Central Asia will automatically lead to the rise of Islamic extremism.
The time has come for China to decide what to do next. It cannot tolerate a security vacuum that might inflict negatively on its security and national interests, and while direct military intervention is costly it becomes unavoidable but doomed to fail. A new challenge lies ahead for Beijing.