The complete withdrawal of US and allied forces from Afghanistan later this year does not mean China will be able to establish its influence in the region or fill the security vacuum left by Washington, analysts have said. Instead, the withdrawal and the uncertain security situation it poses, including the likelihood of a civil war, is likely to challenge China’s economic interests in the country and may even threaten security within China’s own borders, in the northwestern Xinjiang region where Beijing is trying to keep terrorism and extremism at bay.
In April, US President Joe Biden said the United States would withdraw its remaining troops from Afghanistan before September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.
Biden said the worst terrorist attack in American history could not justify the continuing deaths of American forces in what has become the nation’s longest war. The 20-years of fighting have taken the lives of 2,448 American service personnel and cost an estimated US$2 trillion.
CHINA’S SECURITY CHALLENGES
While some reports have suggested that Washington’s retreat might allow China to establish its influence in the region, Mark N. Katz, a government and politics professor at George Mason University in the US, said this was unlikely due to the poor security situation in the country, where the weak government in Kabul was likely to be overthrown by the Taliban within a year or two of allied forces departing.
“The US presence in Afghanistan served to counter the Islamist threat to China from there. With the US presence gone, China and neighbouring countries may have to deal with this issue themselves,” Katz said.
Since being ousted from power in 2001, the Taliban has maintained its insurgency against the Afghan government with many predicting that a collapse in the intra-Afghan peace negotiations could pave the way for the group’s return to power.
Elizabeth Wishnick, a political-science professor at the Montclair State University in the US, said after the US withdrawal China would face greater instability on its Western borders, at a time when it was already concerned with unrest in Myanmar and tensions with India.
“Although China always criticised the presence of Nato forces on its Western border, Nato’s security role actually suited Beijing fine and gave the Chinese government the opportunity to take the high road and focus on bringing the warring parties to the negotiating table,” Wishnick said.
Pointing out that China would not seek to fill the security vacuum, Sun Yun, a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Programme and director of the China Programme at the Stimson Center, said Beijing would work with other countries to ensure Afghanistan’s stability.
“China has the distinct advantage of economic capacity, so its role is indispensable, irreplaceable and always sought after,” said Sun, adding that the power contest between the Afghan government and the Taliban was not a problem that China could resolve.
Analysts said that China saw Afghanistan as an important part of its Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy aimed at promoting economic development and inter-regional connectivity.
Harsh Pant, strategic studies programme chief at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank, said Beijing “certainly would like to have greater influence in Afghanistan” but this was unlikely given Kabul’s fractured nature and the existence of multiple stakeholders.
“China has so far been very cautious when it comes to Afghanistan,” Pant said.
China’s defence ministry said in 2018 that it was supporting and strengthening Afghanistan’s defence and counterterrorism efforts – with Beijing providing more than US$70 million in military aid to the Afghan government from 2016 to 2018, according to Afghan researchers.
But beyond that, China has few investments in Afghanistan – US$400 million by the end of 2017 in contrast to the US$5.7 billion it had invested in Pakistan by the same year. Therefore Beijing’s risk profile was quite limited, which meant China was likely to adopt a wait-and-see approach after the US withdrawal, said Nishank Motwani, an independent analyst based in Kabul.
Motwani said the withdrawal of US forces would create a political and security vacuum for actors including China to play a larger role in influencing foreign and security policy decisions in the country.
“The difference that China brings to Afghanistan is that it is the strongest country in Asia with the deepest pockets and this reality provides opportunities for Beijing to outspend competitors, buy loyalty, even if this loyalty is transactional, and protect its core interests,” Motwani said.
RETURN OF THE TALIBAN
Given the shared 90km border between China and Afghanistan, Beijing is worried that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – which it has repeatedly blamed for violent acts in Xinjiang – will move to Afghanistan and threaten China’s security.
Noting that the American presence in Afghanistan had helped China’s counterterrorism efforts, Pant said these would now come under stress with the US withdrawal.
“China will have to worry about extremism emanating from Afghanistan and influencing its own Xinjiang region,” Pant said, adding that even though China had maintained good ties with the Taliban, mainly to safeguard its belt and road projects and to prevent a surge of violent jihadism in Xinjiang, the Taliban’s likely return to power might threaten those interests and even regional stability.
Katz said the Taliban would be “emotionally inclined to help fellow Islamists elsewhere, including those in Xinjiang”, adding that even if the Taliban were to restrain themselves, their return to power in Afghanistan would serve to inspire similar groups in neighbouring areas, including Xinjiang.
However, Sun said the impact of the US troop withdrawal on China’s counterterrorism efforts in Xinjiang would depend on Afghanistan’s domestic situation, where in the worst-case scenario of a civil war, there could be spillover effects into Xinjiang.
“But as China is needed by both the government and the Taliban, China has leverage and some ability to protect its border,” Sun said, adding that the Taliban appreciated Beijing treating it as a legitimate political power not just to be reckoned with but which had to be absorbed into the political process.
In recent years, China has organised talks among Afghanistan’s rival factions – including inviting Taliban delegations to Beijing – as part of its efforts to end the Afghan conflict.
Independent analyst Motwani said China’s diplomatic outreach to the Taliban was a sign it was willing to work with the insurgents as “the Chinese leadership has likely calculated that the Taliban are not going anywhere and will probably return to power in some form”.
He added that Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor that borders China’s Xinjiang province was hostile mountainous terrain and its high altitude averaging 5,000 metres made it difficult for militants to operate there.
“Geography is the best defence against Afghanistan’s conflict spilling into Xinjiang province, which in any case is heavily policed and surveilled,” Motwani said.
Motwani said China could play a constructive role by putting pressure on the Taliban to come to a peace agreement with Kabul in which it would not only cease violence and agree to a ceasefire, but provide political support and lend legitimacy to the current government.
Currently, the Afghan government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani, is highly dependent on Washington for legitimacy and remains at the mercy of Taliban-led violence and armed fundamentalist warlords. On Tuesday, the State Department ordered government employees out of its embassy in Kabul if their work could be done elsewhere, citing increasing violence in the Afghan capital.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said that after the US withdrawal, China’s main consideration was to ensure that Washington would be unable to use Afghanistan as a place from which it could foment instability in China, specifically in Xinjiang.
“This will likely take the form of developing relationships, usually supported by money, with individuals within governance structures or offering support for security forces whose tasks will be to worry about Chinese interests,” Pantucci said.
CHINESE BOOTS ON THE GROUND?
While some analysts said China was likely to send troops to Afghanistan if the security situation posed a threat to its borders, independent analyst Motwani said this was “highly unlikely”, given that “a former and a current superpower have failed to meet their objectives in the landlocked country”.
Apart from America’s challenges with securing peace in the country, the former Soviet Union spent almost a decade in Afghanistan but was unable to quell the Afghan mujahideens or jihadist groups. So much so that analysts have described the country as the “Graveyard of Empires”.
Montclair State University’s Wishnick said China had been using private security companies in Afghanistan for its limited needs there and replacing Nato with People’s Liberation Army troops was “extremely unlikely”, as it would also alarm India which is a major investor in Afghanistan.
“Russia, China’s strategic partner, isn’t likely to welcome a Chinese military presence either even though the Russian government has thus far tolerated the presence of Chinese border forces in neighbouring Tajikistan,” Wishnick said.
In recent years, China has built up its military presence in Tajikistan and in 2019 concluded a joint drill in the eastern part of the country. The landlocked country in central Asia – traditionally seen as Russia’s sphere of influence – is strategically important for China, which is worried that its porous borders will serve as an entry point for drugs and Islamist militants into Xinjiang.
Observer Research Foundation’s Pant said instead of stationing troops, China might prefer “to use Pakistan to attain some influence in Afghanistan”, referring to a popular view that after the American withdrawal, Pakistan would exert greater influence over events in Afghanistan given its considerable influence over the Taliban.
When the Taliban was formed in 1994, Pakistani intelligence threw its weight behind the new movement. Islamabad sees the radical Islamist force as integral in securing Pakistan’s political and security interests in the region.
Stimson Center’s Sun said that if Afghanistan was unstable, the onus of sending troops should fall on the United Nations “which has more legitimacy”.
“China does not have to carry the responsibility alone,” Sun said, adding that Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban and China’s influence over Pakistan were “factors that work in China’s favour”.