China’s Afghanistan Dilemma
What’s Bad for Washington Isn’t Necessarily Good for Beijing
Foreign Affairs. Seth G. Jones and Jude Blanchette. 13 September 2021
The hasty and tumultuous U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent military victory have occasioned more than a little gloating from China. According to Chinese state media, the U.S. withdrawal marked “the last dusk of empire.” China’s Foreign Ministry declared that the experience of the war in Afghanistan should teach Washington a lesson in “reckless military adventures.” And some in Beijing even claimed that China would succeed where the United States had failed. “Afghanistan has long been considered a graveyard for conquerors—Alexander the Great, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States. Now China enters—armed not with bombs but construction blueprints, and a chance to prove the curse can be broken,” Zhou Bo, a retired senior officer in the People’s Liberation Army, opined in The New York Times.
Beijing’s triumphalism has stoked fears in the United States that China will capitalize on the shifting strategic landscape in Central Asia. As John Bolton, who served as national security adviser to President Donald Trump, warned last month, “China and Russia, our main global adversaries, are already seeking to reap advantages.”
But for all their bluster, China’s leaders are deeply anxious about the emerging order in Afghanistan, which could threaten the region’s stability and enable jihadi terror to spill over into China’s restive western regions, which are home to large Muslim populations. Along with Afghanistan’s other neighbors, China must now depend on the Taliban to stabilize a fractured and violent country. Yet as Beijing well knows, the group’s governing track record is bleak, even in the rural areas it has controlled for the past several years. And to make matters worse, Afghanistan’s economy has cratered and will struggle to rebound without an enormous infusion of international aid, including from China. Such uncertainty will exacerbate Beijing’s long-standing fears about transnational extremist links between Afghanistan and Xinjiang, the autonomous region in western China where the government has interned more than a million Muslim Uyghurs under the pretense of counterterrorism and internal order. It will also heighten concerns about regional stability, especially in the lead-up to China’s 20th Party Congress next fall, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping will solidify his plan to serve a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Finally, the crisis in Afghanistan could test China’s relationships with Russia and Pakistan, as all three countries jockey for influence with the Taliban and struggle to deal with a collapsed state and attendant humanitarian crisis in their neighborhood.
As Beijing assesses the post-American landscape in the region, the risks associated with the U.S. exit outweigh the possible benefits. If China appears to be embracing the Taliban, that is because it has no choice. Beijing now faces a failed state in Afghanistan to its west, rising tensions with India to its southwest, a volatile and truculent partner in North Korea to its northeast, and escalating competition with the United States—most notably in the Taiwan Strait. Xi’s government craves stability and predictability, but after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it will likely get neither.
INHERITING A MESS
Beijing’s short-term goals in Afghanistan are relatively clear. At the top of the list is for the Taliban to establish an internationally recognized government that can begin to fulfill the foundational requirement of any sovereign state: a monopoly on the use of violence. Only once they control all of Afghanistan can the Taliban begin to meet Beijing’s expectation that they “make a clean break with all terrorist groups and live in good terms with other countries, especially [their] neighbors,” as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated earlier this month. China’s leaders have stressed that they expect the new government to be “inclusive,” but their more fundamental goal is consolidated governance, domestic law and order, and border security, irrespective of how the Taliban achieve these goals.
Beijing may also be eyeing Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion in mineral deposits, including iron, copper, and lithium. U.S. and Western companies mostly stayed away from extraction efforts because of the risk, but China might be able to leverage its vast army of state-owned enterprises and government-financing entities to tap these resources.
But before Beijing can realize any of these goals, it will have to address the threats emanating from Afghanistan. Chief among them is a potential jihadi sanctuary on China’s western border, where Beijing is already sensitive about terrorist threats. As Zhao Huasheng, one of China’s top Afghanistan experts, recently wrote, “To a great extent, Xinjiang’s security and stability are the starting point for China’s Afghanistan policy.” Indeed, concerns about transnational extremism had already led Beijing to unleash a campaign of repression that the U.S. government now formally labels as genocide. Of particular concern to Beijing is the presence in Afghanistan of several hundred fighters from the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, which seeks to establish a Uyghur state in Xinjiang. Led by Abdul Haq, ETIM operates in such areas as Badakhshan, a remote province whose mountainous terrain will make it difficult for China or the Taliban to conduct military operations. According to a UN Security Council assessment, ETIM operatives have worked with a broad range of jihadi organizations, including al Qaeda, Jamaat Ansarullah, and Jamaat al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad. All three of these groups will likely remain active in Afghanistan, providing ETIM with multiple local allies.
Beijing has already sought assurances from the Taliban that ETIM will not be allowed to operate in or from Afghanistan. But the Taliban may not be able to guarantee this in the midst of a war and a humanitarian crisis—and their close relationships with other jihadi groups could reduce their willingness and ability to try. Jihadis around the world celebrated the Taliban’s victory, raising the prospect that Afghanistan will attract the next generation of terrorists. The Taliban already have strong ties to al Qaeda’s core leadership, as well as to its local branch, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. The Taliban’s acting minister of interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has an especially strong relationship with al Qaeda, and the two groups are bound together by long-standing personal relationships, intermarriage, sympathetic ideologies, and a shared history of struggle. The Taliban also have close relations with other militant groups in the region, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Islam, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. This hodgepodge of groups worries Beijing because ETIM and other extremist organizations that threaten China may be able to thrive in a failed Afghan state.
Islamic State Khorasan, known as IS-K, has also threatened to attack China. An enemy of the Taliban, the group retains significant military capabilities, as evidenced by its attack on the airport in Kabul last month that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 others. The Taliban also face resistance from other groups, such as the one led by Panjshiri commander Ahmad Massoud and the former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, that could impede their ability to bring law and order to Afghanistan in exchange for Chinese recognition and development funding.
Although China’s intelligence services have grown more sophisticated and capable, Beijing still does not have the on-the-ground capabilities and networks needed to effectively operate in Afghanistan. As it pushes for the Taliban to live up to their promises, therefore, Beijing will also have to push Pakistan to get its proxy under control, to stabilize Afghanistan, and to conduct a more effective counterterrorist campaign against groups such as ETIM. But Pakistan’s ability to control the Taliban is limited, and its notorious Inter-Services Intelligence will struggle to deliver stability in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s worsening economic outlook will also impede China’s stabilization efforts. The country’s economy was floundering even before the Taliban regained power, and the group’s ascension prompted the international community to freeze Afghanistan’s assets and pause crucial foreign aid. Western countries, including the United States and Germany, postponed assistance to the country. The World Bank suspended funding for dozens of projects, citing questions over the legitimacy of Taliban rule, and the International Monetary Fund announced that Afghanistan would be ineligible for its loans until it has an internationally recognized government. Making matters worse, the prices for basic staples such as wheat, eggs, flour, and cooking oil have spiked, and Afghans have been forced to stand in long lines at banks to withdraw money. Beijing has promised—and the Taliban expect—significant sums of humanitarian and development aid. In September, the Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid bluntly noted that “China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us because it is ready to invest [in] and rebuild our country.” Given the dire state of the economy, however, even China doesn’t have enough money to prop up Afghanistan.
China will inevitably pursue new projects in Afghanistan as part of its vast infrastructure investment program known as the Belt and Road Initiative. But unfavorable political and security conditions have scuttled previous Chinese investment efforts, including a $3 billion bid to establish a copper mine beneath an ancient settlement near Kabul called Mes Aynak. Such failures underscore the conundrum Beijing faces in Afghanistan: major investments can’t succeed until the country has stable governance, but stable governance can’t emerge until the country receives more investment—whether from China or from other aid providers. Indeed, this dilemma explains why, despite the frosty relationship between the United States and China, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the United States must work with the international community to provide aid and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s collapse comes at an inopportune time for Xi, who is pursuing a third term as general secretary of the CCP in defiance of a long-standing norm that limits leaders to two five-year terms. Although Xi faces no real opposition, his path to a third term could be complicated by instability (real or perceived) on China’s western border. What Xi wants between now and the 20th Party Congress is an environment he can control, or at least be seen to control. Yet the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan creates new uncertainties. And it is unclear if Xi has the wherewithal to effectively manage the situation, as rebuilding Afghanistan under Taliban rule will require a degree of diplomatic finesse, pragmatism, and patience that Xi has not demonstrated elsewhere in the world.
The fact that Beijing faces new challenges as a result of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan does not necessarily mean that Washington will benefit. India, one of the United States’ most important partners in the Indo-Pacific, sees the Taliban’s victory as a major threat that will likely exacerbate its already fractious relationship with Pakistan. Having lost its ally in Kabul, India worries that Afghanistan will become a sanctuary for anti-Indian terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. As a result, it will have to focus more of its diplomatic and military bandwidth on its northwest border, limiting its ability to counter China.
The United States’ exit from Afghanistan has also strained relations with the European Union and NATO, since many U.S. allies took umbrage at the unilateral and disorganized nature of the withdrawal. These missteps will undoubtedly complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to enlist Europe in its China strategy.
Even so, it is China, not the United States, that confronts the greatest degree of uncertainty in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. In East Asia, the United States is preparing to increase its military posture and deepen relations with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s global posture review. As China confronts new and legacy challenges in every direction, it could soon find itself overstretched and overwhelmed. Far from offering any tangible benefit, the U.S. exit from Afghanistan could bog down Beijing at precisely the moment it needs to focus on escalating competition in the East. China’s post-U.S. honeymoon in Afghanistan, in other words, may end before it has begun.