China Is Well Poised to Defend Its Interests in Afghanistan

President Xi Jinping
Credit: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The fourth round of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign minister’s dialogue was held via video link recently to address the “new uncertainties” posed by the “unilateral withdrawal of US and NATO forces at a critical stage,” said the Chinese foreign ministry. The joint statement pledged to expand cooperation on all critical fronts. China made clear its willingness to play a role to help improve relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and most importantly, the statement denounced the “double standards” in counter-terrorism and to “redouble joint efforts against the ETIM, TTP and Daesh and any other terrorist group.”

The US is withdrawing from Afghanistan, and China is worried about the potential fallouts. It is stepping up its diplomatic efforts to ensure stability in Afghanistan. After the US announced its plans for complete troop withdrawal, China offered to host peace talks between the warring factions. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “China is ready to facilitate intra-Afghan talks and will provide necessary conditions for negotiation in China.”

A narrow corridor connects China and Afghanistan called the Wakhan corridor, the machination of an 1895 agreement between Russia and Britain to keep a buffer between their two respective empires. Afghanistan was among the first countries to recognize Mao Zedong’s China. But relations moved slowly, with Chinese attention focussed elsewhere. Afghanistan was largely Peripheral and barely got a mention in Beijing. Despite being ruled by a communist party, Afghanistan had chosen non-alignment, the party received little support and interest from China.

The Border conflict between China and Russia following the Sino-Soviet split in the 60s changed the shape of the Cold War. While Afghanistan was always thought to be closer to Moscow, the 1979 invasion transformed the region’s security dynamics.

China feared it was a strategy of “encirclement” by the Russians. The fear was compounded when the Russians built an airbase on the sparsely populated, mountainous Wakhan corridor. The prospect of a two fronted conflict with Moscow set off alarm bells in Beijing. Mirroring the Chinese sentiment at the time, Chinese Vice-Premier Geng Biao said, “If the soviet’s barbarous aggression goes unchecked, the next target is Pakistan.” The solution would be to massively support Afghan rebels, against the Soviet Union, through money and arms.

In the initial days of the Mujahideen, the US made sure to keep their involvement to a minimum, not to generate a response from the Russians. Such constraints would eventually cease to exist towards the end of the insurgency. It was China that provided the bulk of the arms and ammunition supplied to the Mujahideen till 1984. Most of it was paid by the US and Saudi Arabia but was provided by China through Pakistan.

China did try to establish direct contacts with some factions of the Mujahideen like Ahmed Shah Masood, but the Chinese largely dealt a free hand to the Pakistanis to distribute the weapons to whomever they wanted. This arms sale also helped the Chinese make “huge profit margins” when they were desperate for cash.

China did not have a long-term vision for Afghanistan, and their policies were rather ad-hoc. After the Mujahideen fell and Russia’s threat resided, the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, and the Chinese were faced with the new challenge of terrorism.

China’s northwestern province, Xinjiang, is a volatile place. The majority of Uighur Muslims have been in conflict with the Chinese state for a long time, so much so that the Chinese identified the militancy in Xinjiang as the greatest threat to its “internal security.” The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) had been operating in Xinjiang under a different name, intending to establish an independent state of East Turkestan to replace Xinjiang. Killing the movement is China’s top priority.

The movement used to operate out of Central Asia, but after the Central Asian countries declared independence post-1991, China found reliable allies in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, although the civil war in the latter complicated matters. But the Central Asian dictators were themselves very wary of Islamic extremism and provided active support to China to contain ETIM.

After the Taliban takeover, ETIM began shifting operations to Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban. Uighur training camps began springing up in different locations, even in Kabul. From this point on, to this day, the highest priority for China in Afghanistan is to prevent ETIM from operating out of Afghanistan.

With the help of the Pakistanis, China began informal talks with the Taliban. A group of Chinese diplomats flew into Kabul in 1999 to meet with the Taliban. Afterward, trade ties and flights were opened between the two countries. The Chinese ambassador Lu Shulin even flew into Kandahar to meet directly with Mullah Omar.

Omar was the leader of the Taliban who made it a point to never meet with non-Muslims but made an exception for the Chinese ambassador. During the meeting, the ambassador raised the issue of the Taliban assisting Muslims in Xinjiang. But Mullah Omar reassured the ambassador that the Taliban had no interest in meddling in China’s internal affairs and would not allow such groups to use Afghan territory.

The Taliban was isolated globally and had become a pariah state. They hoped ties with the Chinese would improve their global standing. What they really craved was diplomatic recognition, although Beijing was never going to grant it. The Taliban also sought Chinese help to fend off UN sanctions, but China merely abstained. After all, the Taliban had not expelled the Uighurs but only restrained ETIM. More interestingly, the Taliban wished to reduce their complete dependence on Pakistan. So from the Taliban’s perspective, it was essential to keep good relations with China, which meant preventing ETIM from operating out of Afghan territory.

Before many of the agreements between them could come to fruition, 9/11 happened. China pledged its wholehearted support to the US war on terror and provided the US with significant intelligence support.

When the US invaded Afghanistan, it entered into agreements with the Central Asia countries of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to host US bases. US bases in Central Asia made China uncomfortable and the old fears of “encirclement” came back. It made its apprehension clear in 2005 when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, then a grouping of China, Russia, and four Central Asia countries, issued a joint statement calling for a timetable for the closure of US bases in Central Asia.

However, China was relieved it did not have to deal with the Taliban to ensure its security. What followed was a period of relative Chinese disinterest towards Afghanistan as the US took up the mantle for the fight against terrorism. But the informal ties with the Taliban continued. In 2002, the Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani paid a visit to Beijing. It was not outright support for the Taliban but a middle ground between the US and the Taliban.

The agreement that the Taliban would maintain their distance from the Uighur militants in exchange for China recognizing the Taliban as a political outfit and not a terrorist group continued. The Taliban would also not attack Chinese infrastructure projects and Chinese nationals working in Afghanistan.

Inevitably, the Taliban made a resurgence while the US and NATO declared in 2010 that they would start the transition process and hand over security matters to Afghans by 2014. This would leave a power vacuum, and China was concerned the region would fall into anarchy again. Previously, China toed the Pakistan line when it came to Afghanistan, but after 2011 China began taking up a very active role and started diverging from the Pakistani position.

Pakistan shares an uneasy relationship with the Afghan government. The Afghans accuse Pakistan of supporting the Taliban. Further, the Afghans do not recognize the Durand Line – the Pakistan recognized border drawn during the colonial era by Mortimer Durand, accusing it of being a colonial construct that divides the Pashtuns. Pakistan is not going to stop meddling in Afghan affairs and will try to keep its influence intact. The Haqqani network, which forms a significant part of the Taliban, is said to be firmly in ISI’s hands. The excellent relations between China and Pakistan have allowed China to force Pakistan to use its influence in Afghanistan to make sure Chinese interests are protected.

But China wishes stability in Afghanistan more than anything and is even willing to include India in talks, something that is anathema to the Pakistanis. Afghanistan has significant natural resources, which will be an enticing proposition to Chinese businesses if security can be guaranteed. Meanwhile, the Afghans hope Chinese investment can help bring a steady stream of income for the government.

Whatever happens, barring an outright civil war, China is well entrenched in Afghanistan. It has good relations with the Afghan government and the Taliban and is hopeful it can harness the good relations to mete out an agreement between the warring factions.

Ajay P. Karuvally is a master’s student at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Pondicherry University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.