Since the never completed withdrawal of NATO troops in Afghanistan, China has become more involved in one of its most conflictive neighbour’s affairs. It has offered to connect the country with its multi-billion dollar project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which includes the so-called Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor. AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig has found – after participating in a conference in Beijing, also appraising a public event with Chinese participation in Oslo, both in March 2018 – that, for economic and security reasons, Afghanistan is now higher up on China’s priority list but still far from being a top priority.
“China does not have a foreign policy. We only have a domestic policy, even in our relations with other countries”, said a Chinese scholar in the margins of a think tank conference the author attended in Beijing in October 2013. One aspect of it, he added, was to secure access to strategically important raw materials. He pointed to the copper deposits of Ainak, in the Afghan province of Logar, for which a consortium of Chinese state-owned enterprises had won a 30-year lease contract from the Afghan government in May 2008 (earlier AAN analysis here). The implementation did not go well, and the scholar blamed the Chinese state-owned companies. The companies, he said, take loans from the state to implement projects like these but do not expect that the state will demand that the loans be fully repaid. Such loans had accumulated and precipitated a small financial crisis. (See also these AAN dispatches about domestic Afghan problems within the project, here and here.)
“With my Afghanistan portfolio”, the scholar added, “I cannot even get close to the Zhongnanhai”, referring to the seat of the Communist Party and the government near Beijing’s Forbidden City. Afghanistan was only a fourth or fifth-rank problem, he said.
China forced into action
China’s foreign policy and the role it ascribes to Afghanistan have changed substantially since 2013. This became clear both during a conference in Beijing in late March 2018 in which the author participated, again as a member of a delegation of European think tankers, and on a panel some days earlier in the same month in Oslo. The first event was organised by the Asia programme of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the second one, titled “Chinese perspectives on Afghanistan“, was a part of the Afghanistan Week 2018, a collaboration between the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), all from Norway (you can hear a full podcast here). (1)
China sees itself developing into a “responsible regional power […] which moves closer to a position of global influence,” as Ji Zhiye, the president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), the influential think tank of the Ministry of State Security described in an article for his institute’s journal. (2) China does not yet call itself a “global power,” neither does it see itself matching the US on all levels. Ji calls his country a “world major country.” Other authors say that, at least in part, China is still “a developing country.” They also pointed out certain practical weaknesses that stand in the way of becoming more active on the world’s diplomatic scene. Insufficient “diplomatic capacity” was one example, as well as a lack of “understanding of the external world” that “think tanks should improve.”
The changing geopolitical situation has forced China to become more active, including in Afghanistan. In Oslo it was stated that this was “with some caution, in helping Afghanistan in reconstruction and peace and reconciliation, but in general under the UN framework and working together with other global and regional powers – in the hope that would help the Afghan people to work out a formula they feel that suits them the most.”
US scholar Barnett R Rubin said at the Oslo event, a “major reason for the China’s involvement in Afghanistan was its desire in identifying some common interest and potential cooperation with the US.” This motive has even become more important now with Beijing’s concerns about the ways in which a more isolationist US has started looking under President Trump. It is also clearly angered about new anti-Chinese measures, such as the new trade tariffs the US has imposed on certain export goods, a measure Beijing fears could result in a fully-fledged trade war harming everyone (see for example the Wall Street Journal here). The Chinese scholars participating in the Beijing conference said they were hoping the US “would not become a total trouble-maker”, also referring to the possibility that Washington might tear up the nuclear deal with Iran.
When it comes to Afghanistan, the scholars said “China wants to play a constructive role in Afghanistan.” Beijing became wary when the – never fully implemented and partly reversed – withdrawal of NATO soldiers from Afghanistan was announced while the security situation in the country was still far from resolved (this situation continues, see AAN analysis here). Urged by Washington under President Barack Obama to become more involved with Afghanistan, China joined the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US soon after President Ashraf Ghani took office in 2014 and visited Beijing on one of his first trips abroad (AAN analysis here). His aim was to pressure Pakistan into coercing the Taleban to the negotiating table. This initiative faltered, however (AAN analysis of this process here).
Since then, Chinese concerns have grown further. The scholars bluntly criticised the new US South Asia and Afghanistan strategy as “exclusive”, “misleading” and including “dangerous changes”, with its “increased emphasis on military means, less economic support and less nation-building”, despite lip-service to a “regional strategy.” It was “not smart […] to neglect the interests of regional countries” – a remark that could be both read with a view on Pakistan, on which the US is increasing pressure – and China itself. Also, as Rubin pointed out in Oslo, Pakistan itself is China’s “closest and most important ally, and this relationship is key to how China understands Afghanistan.” And likely also how China’s understanding of Afghanistan in the regional context and on its list of priorities should be understood. At the same time, as Prof. Wang Xu from Peking University’s Center for South Asian Studies added in Oslo, “we encourage the two countries to have at least crisis management” in their conflictive mutual relationship.
China’s security worries: “overspill”
The features of China’s Afghanistan policy are not so much dominated by the situation in the country itself, but of the potential for “overspill” of security problems in a number of neighbouring countries. (3) Officially, the government and the scholars speak of the threat of the “Three [Evil] Forces,” namely a combination of violent terrorism, ethno-national separatism and religious extremism. As laid out in another article in the CICIR journal, co-authored by Zhao Lei and Xu Huiying, professors at the Institute for International Strategic Studies associated with the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee, this includes South Korean Christian missionaries proselytising among China’s Korean minority, an overspill of illegal drugs from North Korea and of ethnic conflicts from Myanmar and northeast India, some of which are also spawning drug trafficking.
China’s gravest concern is Central Asia, including the five ex-Soviet republics and Afghanistan. This region is described in the CICIR article quoted above as “the forward position to launch separatist activities against China, to infiltrate into Xinjiang” – the region in China’s far west that has historically been dominated by Muslim ethnic groups – and “the frontline to split China.” (4) “Ideological infiltration” had intensified from “religious extremist forces of such Islamic countries as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as the Taliban terrorist groups from Afghanistan.” The local East Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM), the article said, had extended its “scope” to other parts of China where it had carried out a number of terrorist attacks (see AAN’s recent analysis here). The movement’s headquarters and recruiting hub was located in Istanbul.
But, as two western scholars wrote in a report for the Carnegie Endowment (see here),
… China mostly appears concerned with addressing direct threats to Xinjiang province [by creating] a zone of stability around it, (…) rather than increasing its security presence in Central Asia more broadly. (…) Part of this policy obviously also includes gaining leverage in neighboring countries to help Beijing influence their approaches to Xinjiang and the diaspora Uighur minority populations across Central Asia. In fact, regional governments across Eurasia have become loath in recent years to resist Beijing’s requests to monitor local Uighur diaspora communities, to restrict activities of local Uighur civil society groups, and to extradite Uighurs suspected of links to extremist or secessionist groups.
Economic mega-projects and regional connectivity
Economics also play a central role in Afghanistan’s increasing importance for China. Since 2013, China has pushed forward an intercontinental economic connectivity strategy that is officially called the Belt and Road Initiative or Yidaiyilu in Chinese. (5) It consists of a land corridor and even digital connectivity networks linking China and Europe through Central Asia, a network of maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean into the Mediterranean, as well as free trade areas with several countries, with the aim of supporting Chinese export flows. This is a Chinese version of the US idea to establish a ‘New Silk Road’ in order to solve the Afghan problem through regional economic integration and development. While the US version never really took off beyond diplomatic meetings under the ‘Heart of Asia’ label (AAN analysis here), China has allocated vast financial resources to it. The so-called Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor – only one of six planned corridors linked to the OBOR [One Belt, One Road] initiative – is a 62 billion USD project alone (media report here.
Of late, Afghanistan has come into sharper focus. After a first trilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan in Beijing in December 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “China and Pakistan are willing to look at with Afghanistan, on the basis of win-win, mutually beneficial principles, using an appropriate means to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan.”
The Chinese scholars who met in Beijing were less optimistic. According to them, Pakistan was not really in favour of connecting Afghanistan to this initiative, given the strained ‘Af-Pak’ relations (see report about recent Pakistani cross-border shelling here), and was resisting Chinese ideas of expanding regional trade routes leading through Pakistan such as the road links via the two official border-crossings at Torkham (between Peshawar and Jalalabad) and Spin Boldak (between Quetta and Kandahar). Beijing is now planning to access Afghanistan’s northern border by roads and railroads leading through Central Asia all the way to Europe, forking off from a main connection leading through Tehran and Istanbul (media report here). This includes projects for a Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Turkmenistan (TAT) railway line (more here) and road links with Kyrghysstan and Uzbekistan which, according to Wang Xu speaking in Oslo, “would be perfect for Afghanistan.”
At the same time, the problem with Chinese state-owned enterprises seems to have been overcome, as they are apparently “better positioned to invest in Afghanistan as there was no need for “immediate returns.” (6)
Beijing’s Afghanistan policy and the economy-security link
According to the scholars, “stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan is regarded by China as a crucial issue for the future.” But it is seen more as a regional problem than an ‘Afghan’ one. “How does China rate Afghanistan as a problem?” one of the scholars asked, rhetorically. “We first are concerned about an overspill from Afghanistan to Pakistan, then about one from Afghanistan to Central Asia, and only then about Afghanistan itself. […] “If the Afghan government collapsed, this would be a problem; but if the Pakistani government collapsed, this would be a catastrophe.” The new US strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan was simply “wrong.” China would like to impress the view on Europe that “Pakistan does not want to be cornered by the US” and that “the EU should help on this, vis-à-vis the US.”
The scholars in Beijing formulated two main aims for China’s Afghanistan policy: “preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for international terrorists again, for example from those coming from Syria and Iraq” after the partial defeat of IS there; and to “stop terrorist financing.” The latter might indicate some doubts about the Taleban’s role in it, also with respect to what is left of al-Qaeda.
“The bottom line is: to prevent the worst-case scenario” – ie a collapse of the Afghan government and the disintegration of Afghan government forces – a repetition of the events after the Soviet withdrawal in the 1990s. “That’s why our foreign minister was in Islamabad and Kabul the last time” in June 2017 (media reporting here).
On aiding Afghanistan, the Chinese scholars opined that “although there is assistance fatigue, assistance to Afghanistan must be kept up. There cannot be a turning the back to Afghanistan.” China was ready to help, and now “follows the US and EU in its aid model.” In tandem with the Belt and Road Initiative, it has established financing institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and, more recently, a new National Development and Cooperation Agency (background here and here). Furthermore, “military pressure [on the Taleban] is still needed.” Therefore China has a more favourable view of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan. But a political solution was key, and that “needs to include the Taleban.”
The scholars saw three levels of dialogue necessary for a peaceful solution: between the Afghan government and the Taleban, between the US and the Taleban, and between the Afghan and Pakistani governments. But a “lack of consensus on peace on three levels on peace” stood in the way “within the Taleban, within the National Unity Government, and among the regional and international players.” The challenge was “how to reach minimal commonality” between them. And “if the Taleban insist on talks with the US first, why not?”
Any agreement reached between the Taleban and the Afghan government should be “endorsed or guaranteed by the US, the EU and/or China.” It was “not the time to bring on new actors,” but the Trump administration, with his new South Asia strategy, had given a stronger role to India.
There was clear scepticism about the feasibility of attempts to start peace talks being successful: “Without a capable Afghan government, there is no use to any initiative. […] How can a peace process be Afghan-led, when the Afghan government can’t provide for itself” and “only reacts” to proposals after it consulted with the US?” The scholars noted that “everything is controlled by the US from behind. […] We need to tell the Afghan government that it is time to stand on their own feet.”
At the same time, in Oslo, the Chinese scholars spoke about the country’s “advantage” that it never has “supported any specific group in Afghanistan to oppose another specific group. That gives China leverage… The main factions in Afghanistan do not view China as an enemy, and so China was in a position “to provide a platform for different factions to sit down” for talks.
There was also scepticism about another domestic Afghan policy issue. In the short-term, the scholars saw another “challenge in making the forthcoming elections more accepted” to the main players, “so that history does not repeat itself and there is no winner or loser” as was the case in the 2014 presidential poll. They were also sceptical about the possibility of parliamentary elections still being held in 2018 although the Afghan election commission had just postponed the date to 20 October, what is seen as the last feasible date before the onset of winter. They also stressed that efforts were necessary to prevent tensions between President Ghani and (former-) Balkh Governor Atta Muhammad Nur from “developing into a disaster.”
The scholars also raised some points shared by certain colleagues in the West and in Russia, but which over-emphasise the ethnic factor, for example about “tribal federalism” as an “Afghan tradition” and that “Afghanistan never had a strong central government since 1747.” The latter overlooks the relatively successful development-oriented, foreign aid-financed rule between 1953 and 1978. The scholars also suggested that Afghanistan should recognise the Durand Line as a “ground reality.” This reflects less understanding of Afghan sensitivities than of those of Pakistan.
The issue of “border management” was mentioned repeatedly, signalling China’s worries about Uyghur militants resident in border areas or (possibly) returning from the Middle East. The Syrian ambassador to Beijing claimed in mid-2017 that there were 5,000 Uyghurs fighting alongside the regime’s opponents (AAN is unable to say whether this is an accurate number), and China is concerned about their possible return to the Central Asian region “through different countries.” Allegedly, some had travelled through Tajikistan up until 2007, later through Pakistan and then through southeast Asian countries; an “Iran corridor” was also mentioned, which might lead through Afghanistan and Pakistan or directly through Pakistan.
The Chinese scholars were sure there were between several hundred and a thousand Uyghur militants in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province (a number which might include family members). But they said they were “lying low” and not involved in fighting. (At least two districts in Badakhshan are under Taleban control – Warduj and Jurm – as well as others, although only in part. There are also conservative madrassas in other parts of the province which could provide support (more AAN background here). The scholars added that Chinese activity in Badakhshan, which had generated some media attention, was linked to this perceived threat: “this is about counter-terrorism cooperation.” They said they did not think that China would send troops to Afghanistan permanently or establish a base of their own. This activity was about “capacity building of the Afghan government – even of the local government – and part of our military diplomacy.” Similar measures had earlier been reported in Tajikistan (see one media report here).
China has signed a number of bilateral security agreements with both countries (see here and here). The International Crisis Group reported a Chinese “security presence” and the existence of “an installation in a remote corner” of Tajik Badakhshan.
At the same time, they confirmed recent AAN analysis that direct infiltration of Xinjiang from Afghan Badakhshan was unlikely: “The Chinese-Afghan border [in the Wakhan] is very difficult to cross. There is only a narrow road. The Wakhan is not a corridor.” The scholars confirmed that some Uyghur militants had earlier crossed from Xinjiang into Pakistan (where subsequent leaders were killed in 2003 and 2010, see here) but not the other way around. (7)
All in all, “China’s ambitions in Afghanistan are very limited.” The country “should choose its own way of development. We do not care who rules Afghanistan.” But, as Rong Ying, Vice President and Senior Research Fellow, China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) said in Oslo, China also thinks that outside powers “should not impose [on], not dominate and not manipulate Afghanistan.”
On the Taleban and Pakistan
The Chinese assessment of the general security situation in Afghanistan widely concurs with that of the West. The scholars summarised it by saying that despite the latest decline in the figure of civilian casualties and the fact that the Taleban had been unable, once again, to capture provincial centres in 2017, the situation was still “deteriorating.” They cited reports by UNAMA, the US Special Inspector of the Government for Afghanistan Reconstruction (better known by the acronym SIGAR) as well as the latest BBC research.
But China seems to be less concerned about potential threats to its current economic interests in Pakistan and its potential ones in Afghanistan by the Pakistani and the Afghan Taleban movements. One scholar remarked “We recognise now that there are some differences between the Afghan and the Pakistani Taleban” – the Afghan Taleban are allies of the Pakistani government, while the Pakistani ones want to topple it – “although there is some cooperation between them.” Another added, “the Afghan Taleban are no threat [for China], even the Pakistani Taleban are no threat.” If there was a security threat to China’s interests in Pakistan, then it would emanate from the Baloch movement in Pakistan. But even that threat was limited: altogether, they said, there were 320 terrorist attacks in Pakistan in 2017, with only five directed against Chinese interests or citizens. With respect to Afghanistan they said, “there are Taleban and Taleban; some Taleban are terrorists, some are a political entity,” even “an important political group in Afghanistan.” This overlaps with Pakistan’s position, and might even be the result of China’s view on Afghanistan shaped by what they described as “information sharing mechanisms with Pakistan.”
China’s interests are different from those of Pakistan, though: “We will do everything to prevent the Taleban from taking power by force, but if they gain power by political means, we would welcome this.” The scholars also described the Taleban as the lesser of two evils: “The Islamic State is the common enemy of the Taleban and the Afghan government. We should encourage the Taleban to defeat IS. There is a difference between the civil war [with the Taleban] and the anti-terrorism fight [against IS] in Afghanistan.” In Oslo, Peking University’s Wang Xu said “we should not exaggerate the Daesh factor” although it still was “a potential threat.” CICIR’s Li Wei wrote in an article on the tendencies of international Islamist terrorism after the defeats of the IS in the Middle East and its quasi-state “entity disintegrating,” that a reunification of IS with al-Qaeda was possible.
However, information sharing with Pakistan does not mean, according to the scholars, that China could easily influence Pakistan. “We have a leverage over Pakistan, particularly since [the large investments linked to] the OBOR initiative” but “China needs to be sensitive about Pakistan. Pakistan does not want China to become directly involved in Afghanistan.” Therefore, “China’s role [in persuading the Taleban to hold direct talks with the Afghan government] is overestimated.” At the same time, the scholars made no secret of the fact that China has maintained relations with the Taleban and continues to meet their representatives. No detail was provided but it seems that Xinjiang’s capital, Urumchi [Urumqi in Chinese], was a hub for such meetings.
Regional mechanisms: from multi- back to bilateralism?
The Chinese scholars were all but optimistic about existing multilateral regional mechanisms and peace initiatives. The latest Russia-initiated Moscow process “is not acceptable to US” while the US-China-Pakistani-Afghan Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) “has made Russia and India feel sidelined.” They even repeatedly called the QCG “a dying process,” despite latest attempts to revive it and China seeing “some potential” in it. (8) They also wondered whether it made sense to have Pakistan “representing” the Taleban in the group. The Istanbul Process (AAN analysis here) with its “confidence-building measures” was all “declaration, but no implementation.”
The same went for the Chinese-initiated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) established with Russia and the five Central Asian Republics in 2001 in order to create a joint regional security architecture independent of the West. The scholars said “China would like to promote the SCO’s engagement in Afghanistan, particularly in economic cooperation and the integration of Central Asia and Afghanistan” but “different perceptions on the US presence in Afghanistan” stood in the way. While China pragmatically considers it necessary to keep up “military pressure” on the Taleban, Russia was less positive, and since – on Russia’s initiative – rival south Asian powers India and Pakistan were brought in in 2017, all work has stalled as the organisation is based on the consensus principle and there was none on Afghanistan between the member-countries.
China also has pushed to create the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QDDM), a counterterrorism organisation consisting of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan—the first meeting of which occurred in Urumqi, Xinjiang in 2016 (see here). The scholars confirmed that joint Chinese-Afghan (also Chinese-Tajik) border patrols have taken place, but “not related to the Wakhan”, ie apparently elsewhere in Badakhshan. There was also “very good information sharing with Afghanistan on certain [militant] groups, such as the TIP [the Turkestan Islamic Party]”, and that they hoped “to extend this.” In Oslo is was said that China also has given Afghanistan “counter-terrorism equipment” since 2014.
Conclusion: A more important non-priority
Given the altered global balance of power, China sees itself on its way from regional to global power and, in its regional policy, moving “from the principle of non-interference to constructive engagement.” But, as one scholar put it: “What does this [constructive engagement] mean concretely, we don’t know.”
Bu Zhao Lei and Xu Huiying, quoted above, suggested that “[a]lthough China should abide by the basic principle of non-interference with other countries’ internal affairs, it must actively play the role of a major power [and] shoulder more international responsibilities.” But when it comes to peace initiatives, “for the most part, it only calls for restraint on both sides of [a certain] conflict and seeks resolution through peaceful means, rather then getting directly involved.”
The scholars confirmed that China’s role in Afghanistan has increased, but insisted at the same time that its “ambitions in Afghanistan are very limited.” In Oslo, it was stated that China still sees the US as the leading power in Afghanistan. They also said that it needed “some leverage in countries where it is investing.” This view will likely become more powerful when Afghanistan really becomes linked to the OBOR corridors through Central Asia. But the relationship with its ally Pakistan remains much more important than that with Afghanistan, and it will continue to look at Afghanistan from this angle.
For the time being, with what China sees as the failure of multilateral political stabilisation efforts, bilateral diplomacy on border management, security cooperation and information sharing is taking practical precedence again. Economic interests still dominate the agenda, both as an end for domestic development and a means, hopefully, for furthering regional integration and stabilisation.
Some hope and interest were expressed about concerted action with the EU, which had a “more realistic strategy” for Afghanistan than the US. China and the EU, as the “two forces to maintain world peace” as CICIR’s Feng Zhongping noted in another journal article, should work to “influence and persuade the US to modify its Afghanistan strategy. […] We want to work China and the EU in parallel, not jointly – then we sit together bilaterally [and compare notes].”
Edited by Sari Kouvo
(1) In the main text of this dispatch, the author focusses on the event he participated in himself (which was under Chatham House rules), with a few additional quotes and footnotes from the Oslo event and from Chinese think tank journals.
You also find the list of participants in the Oslo panel under the link given above.
(2) The article was published in the November/December 2017 of the journal of Contemporary International Relations (CIR) issue and is not available online.
In Oslo, the Chinese participants informed that a reorganisation of China’s think tank landscape was under way, so attributions of institutes to institutions given above might change or have already changed.
(3) China has 14 neighbours, and its border with Afghanistan is shortest with any of them, under 100 kilometers. The Chinese scholars in Oslo also stated that there were no bilateral problems between both countries, after the border was demarcated in a 1965 treaty.
(4) The largest of these ethnic groups are the Uyghur (who have, at various times in the past, declared independence for East Turkestan). Other, smaller groups such as the Kazakh, Kyrghyz and Tajik also live there, apart from the Han Chinese Muslims, called Hui. Due to China’s development and population policies, ethnic Chinese Han now constitute a majority in Xinjiang, which has contributed to tensions.
A (Mountain) Tajik Autonomous County is situated to the immediate east of the Afghan Wakhan corridor. It has less then 30,000 inhabitants, 84 per cent of whom are Ismaili Mountain Tajiks, mainly of the Sarikoli ethnic group. (Afghan Mountain Tajiks in Badakhshan include the Wakhi, Shughni, Munjani and others.) The ‘Afghan’ scenes of the movie The Kite Runner were shot in its administrative centre, Tashqurghan (Chinese: Taxkurgan). The Hui have their own autonomous region, Ningxia, in northern central China.
(5) Formerly also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR).
(6) Reportedly, China expects to lose up to 30 per cent of its investment in Central Asia, a margin that could also be assumed for projects in Afghanistan (quoted in this Carnegie paper).
(7) A new leader of the group in Pakistan vowed to take revenge in 2014 (read here).
(8) The rendering of this issue was somewhat more positive at the public events in Oslo where it was stated that the QCG had made “some kind of progress”, that there was an attempt to draft “a road map for a settlement” and that China was “still trying” on this front.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020
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