The inexorable economic rise of China is producing political and strategic repercussions in all directions. One of the more interesting cases is China’s growing interest in Afghanistan, a country wracked by multiple conflicts and intermittently occupied by foreign powers for nearly forty years.
China and Afghanistan are immediate neighbours as they share a short 76 km border. The border point is distant from urban centres on both sides as it interfaces with the extremity of the Wakhan corridor on the Afghan side, and the outer edge of the Chalachigu Valley on the Chinese side.
The immediacy of Afghanistan’s geographic proximity to China makes the country hard to ignore. But in view of Afghanistan’s profile as an essentially failed state which has been in political and military turmoil for four decades, China can hardly afford to take its eyes of the place.
Add to that the fact that global powers, notably two superpowers in the form of the former Soviet Union and the United States, have maximally intervened in Afghan affairs (notably by occupying the country), then we can legitimately wonder as to why China hasn’t also forcefully intervened in Afghan affairs. Not yet anyway.
Welcome to KJ Vids. In this video we will examine the reasons behind China’s growing involvement in Afghanistan.
What is the full extent of Chinese involvement in Afghanistan?
China is reportedly building its first military base in Afghanistan. It is important to note that the Chinese government denies these claims and only admits to building a training camp in the Wakhan corridor to train Afghan forces. According to Chinese military sources, Beijing is helping Afghanistan set up a mountain brigade in the remote north-eastern corner of the country.
But even if we take these Chinese denials at face value, the fact that China admits to training Afghan forces is in and of itself of great political and strategic import. It speaks to growing Chinese influence in Kabul and signals that China wants to get involved in the military affairs of its volatile western neighbour.
Despite its massive economic clout, and projections that it will displace America as the world’s biggest economy as early as 2032, China hasn’t invested in a big political presence overseas. It may surprise many viewers that China has only one avowed military base overseas and that’s situated in Djibouti.
The newly opened base in Djibouti is designed to serve multiple military and economic functions but above all it is going to provide China with vital experience in how to exercise and manage power projection well beyond its borders. It is perhaps China’s first step toward projecting hard power at a global level, akin to how Western powers flex their muscles on the world stage.
The training camp in the Wakhan corridor (with or without Chinese troops) is clearly not about power projection on the world stage. For a start it borders china and is in close proximity to the restive Chinese region of Xinjiang. China faces serious unrest in this region as a result of continually repressing the region’s indigenous Muslim community known as the Uyghurs. In that context, the base in the remote north-eastern corner of Afghanistan is focussed on counter-terrorism operations and to that end it is potentially more concerned with Chinese security than Afghanistan’s. More on this later.
But beyond latest reports of Sino-Afghan military cooperation, just how involved is Beijing in Afghanistan? Well, for a start China maintains a relatively large embassy in Kabul, a reflection of the scope of its operations across the country. China has an abiding economic interest in Afghanistan, primarily not because the country is attractive economically, but because Afghanistan is central to two of China’s core regional economic ambitions.
These are the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China needs a measure of stability and security in Afghanistan in order to safeguard its massive regional investments, stretching from Pakistan to Central Asia. To that end, China began to step up its activities in Afghanistan from 2014 onwards.
At the economic level, Beijing is involved in the Afghan economy in multiple ways. First, China gives Afghanistan direct financial aid. Statistics vary but according to conservative estimates Beijing has given Kabul at least $410 million in direct aid since 2014.
Second, China has emerged as Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor, focussing mostly on minerals and other natural resource extraction. China was also the first country to begin extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan.
But not all Chinese investment projects have progressed according to plan, in part because of lack of security but equally because of the nature of Chinese overseas economic and commercial enterprise. Concerns about contractual issues and the general aggressive and single-minded approach of Chinese firms – often to the detriment of local workers’ rights – have ground some projects to a halt. The best example is the Mes Aynak concession (concerned with copper ore extraction) which was awarded to Chinese firms more than ten years ago but which has so far failed to even get off the ground.
At the political level, China stepped up its involvement in Afghanistan in late 2014 by trying to set up a “forum” to revive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This was followed by other initiatives, notably in partnership with Pakistan. But China’s attempt at peace-making has been largely unsuccessful, reflecting two inescapable facts. Foremost, China lacks experience in foreign conflict resolution. Second, as an ally of Pakistan, China is not seen as an honest broker by the Afghan government.
But to fully understand the drivers of China’s involvement in Afghanistan and Beijing’s desired outcomes we must take account of geopolitics and specifically China’s competition with major global and regional powers in this arena. Let’s start with India.
Undermining India in Afghanistan
Despite its substantial investments in Afghanistan – and notwithstanding its role as a major donor to the Afghan government – it is important to note that China is not in the first tier of active states in the Afghan arena. That distinction goes to three countries, namely the United States, Pakistan and Iran.
China belongs to a second-tier group of countries that are vying for influence in Afghanistan. The other member states of this tier are India and Russia. Similar to China, the Indians have also stepped up their activities in Afghanistan, although not in the sharp manner as Beijing post-2014. By contrast, New Delhi has incrementally increased its activities in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001.
India has to tread carefully in Afghanistan so as not to draw Pakistan’s wrath. The latter remains the single most influential player in Afghanistan and in view of broader Indo-Pakistan hostilities, any significant movement by New Delhi inside Afghanistan is likely to draw a fierce reaction from Islamabad.
The Indian embassy in Kabul was bombed twice, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, causing dozens of fatalities. The 2008 attack – which killed 58 people including an Indian brigadier general – was attributed to Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency by US intelligence officials.
Unlike Pakistan, China is not interested in taking “kinetic” action against Indian interests in Afghanistan. In fact, the two powers are known to cooprate on joint projects in Afghanistan, notably developing the new Afghan diplomatic corps.
Limited cooperation notwithstanding, China is clearly interested at containing Indian influence in Afghanistan as any increase of influence there positively impacts India’s standing in the broader Central Asia region. India is fast making inroads in Central Asia – and although it cannot displace the two biggest actors in that arena, namely China and Turkey – nevertheless Beijing is fearful of the potential political impact of New Delhi’s outreach to Central Asian states.
Keeping America in check
As we have seen in relation to India, the strategic impact of China’s involvement in Afghanistan primarily serves to augment the role and standing of a Chinese ally, notably Pakistan.
The same pattern can be observed in relation to China’s view of and approach towards the US presence in Afghanistan. In hard power terms – specifically in terms of the deployment of military forces and centrality to the counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban and its allies – the US is the dominant foreign power in Afghanistan.
But a more nuanced appraisal of power and influence projection in Afghanistan cannot fail but to identify Pakistan and Iran as the true dominant foreign powers not least because they are Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and will continue to compete for dominance long after the US has departed the arena.
In view of its broader rivalry with the US, notably in the South China Sea, the People’s Republic does not the want the US to succeed in any conflict arena, let alone not one with massive geopolitical importance, as demonstrated by the longstanding and multi-faceted Afghan conflict.
To that end, China’s strategic posture in Afghanistan complements the role and standing of another one of its allies, notably the Islamic Republic of Iran. But whilst Iran takes active measures against US and broader Western interests in Afghanistan – by for instance allegedly directly supporting the Taliban in military operations – China is content to limit its containment strategy to the political and diplomatic levels.
The domestic dimension
Finally, in assessing China’s role and influence in Afghanistan, it is important to take full stock of the domestic considerations informing Chinese strategy. As stated earlier, China has a counter-terrorism stake in the conflict as it fears infiltration by Uyghur and other militants from Afghanistan into China’s restive Xinjiang region.
Furthermore, the Islamic State group is active in Afghanistan and by definition this jihadist group is deeply opposed to the Chinese presence that country. More broadly, the Islamic State (or Daesh as its detractors call it) is incensed by China’s massive repression of Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims, specifically in Xinjiang but also across China as a whole. China fears that the Islamic State group may try to conduct operations inside China and the Wakhan corridor would be the preferred infiltration point. This explains China’s military interest in the corridor.
But beyond jihadist groups, all the authentic Islamic currents in Afghanistan are appalled by China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The Chinese have reportedly imprisoned up to one million Uyghur Muslims in so-called “counter-extremism centres” which amount to concentration camps.
If China wants to be successful in Afghanistan, and ultimately to play a stabilising role by reconciling the Afghan government with its opponents, then it must also properly address concerns about its treatment of Chinese Muslim minorities.