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China’s influence in Afghanistan

Dr. Syed Rifaat Hussain

21st Oct, 2021. 03:28 pm

Photo: Xinhua News Agency Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right

Taking advantage of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, Beijing has engaged in multi-faceted efforts to expand its links with the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. While remaining short of according de-jure recognition to the Taliban-led regime in Afghanistan, Beijing has done everything else to facilitate Taliban consolidate their control in Afghanistan.

Beijing has pledged 31 million U.S. dollars to Kabul in humanitarian assistance and has called upon the international community not to leave war-ravaged country “alone” in its greatest hour of need. It has used Security Council and other international fora to plead Kabul’s case for international aid and financial assistance to avert what the UN has described as an “impending humanitarian catastrophe”.

In his important address to the EU meeting held in Italy, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi called for “an open, inclusive path of development” in Afghanistan. “The international community should proceed from a rational and pragmatic perspective, engage in dialogue and contact with all parties in Afghanistan, support the Afghan people to independently choose a development path that suits their national conditions,” he said. He encouraged more financial support to alleviate poverty and infrastructure projects and said “unilateral sanctions on Afghanistan should be lifted as soon as possible.”

The top Chinese diplomat told the EU virtual gathering: “It is necessary to push the relevant parties in Afghanistan to make early decisions and take concrete actions to eradicate the cancer of terrorism,” he said, urging an end to “double standards and selective anti-terrorism efforts.” He went on to say that the international community should build “consensus and promote the formation of synergy among various Afghan-related mechanisms.” “It is necessary to maintain the status of the United Nations as the main channel for promoting peace and stability and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. The G-20 should base itself on the positioning of the International Economic Cooperation Forum, focusing on gathering wisdom and promoting cooperation from the economic perspective of humanitarian assistance and peaceful reconstruction.”

Beyond its “altruistic” motives, there are important geo-political reasons underlying Beijing’s emerging “softer” approach towards Afghanistan. First of all, Beijing is deeply concerned about prospects of stability inside Afghanistan. Beijing feels threatened by roiling chaos in the neighboring Afghanistan which can lead to reinvigoration of forces like ETIM with its separatist agenda to create trouble for China’s restive province in Xinjiang. Beijing is counting on Taliban’s promise made to Beijing last July to curb the activities of ETIM by not letting this terrorist outfit use Afghanistan’s territory to carry out its attacks against Afghanistan’s neighbors especially China.

Besides protecting Xinjiang from the spillover effects of subversive forces operating inside Afghanistan, Beijing strongly believes that by incorporating Afghanistan as part of the Belt and Road initiative, it can use that country’s critical geography for regional connectivity to promote trade and infrastructural development that can become a “win-win situation” for landlocked Afghanistan and its Central Asia neighbors.

Afghanistan is the only South Asian country that does not have well-developed railways, which is a big handicap for the regional mobility of goods and trade. By linking Afghanistan through road and railway links with Pakistan via CPEC, Afghanistan and Pakistan together can play the role of a regional hub for trade, investment and commerce across Central Asia, South Asia and beyond. But for that to happen legacy of forces of violent chaos and instability in Afghanistan need to be overcome.

That is one of the primary reasons why Taliban’s rule inside Afghanistan as a stabilizing force has been met with approval from Beijing. Even though there is no international consensus as to when the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will be accorded recognition, time does not seem too far away when the world community would be ready to embrace Taliban-led dispensation as the “new reality” that cannot be wished away.

It has been argued by many that by moving closer to Afghanistan, Kabul runs the risk of slipping under Beijing’s imperial control. Because of its heavy and growing dependence on China’s heft as a power next door, Beijing has been eyeing Afghanistan’s hidden mineral wealth estimated to be three trillion dollars.  Those who make this argument point toward Chinese 2.8 billion dollars investment in Ayenak copper reserves and the keen interest shown by state owned Chinese multinationals to further tap Afghanistan’s hidden mineral wealth.

While there is some merit in this argument, it overplays the fact that Beijing has too many options to invest its money and technology in many other Asian destinations and Afghanistan is only one such place. As a poor country, Afghanistan does not have too many options to seek international help to exploit its natural resources, which would be a capital-intensive venture.

To safeguard its potential investment in Afghanistan, Beijing has been seriously contemplating developing partnership with Afghanistan whereby Chinese security companies will be assigned a pivotal role in protecting Chinese foreign investment, workers and experts that would be sent to work in Afghanistan. As noted by Meia Nouweins “It is more likely that China will leverage a resource that is already active among the Belt and Road Initiative projects in high-risk environments – Chinese private-security companies (PSCs). In July 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hinted that China’s use of PSCs to protect construction projects in Central Asia could increase, expressing Beijing’s desire to provide the region with ‘traditional and non-traditional’ forms of security assistance.”

Beijing’s cautious attitude toward getting heavily involved in Afghanistan underscores China’s reluctance not to overplay its hand and be nimble-footed in its approach to Afghanistan. Given the fact that Afghanistan is an immediate neighbor of China through Wakhan corridor and it controls access to Central Asian states, there is little doubt that in the near future China’s footprint in its neighbor would grow. Afghan-Taliban have publicly stated that they would welcome Beijing’s penetration of Afghanistan as they consider Beijing as their true friend and look at Sino-Afghan ties as a “win-win” situation for both.

The writer is a political scientist and defense analyst.

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