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The Afghanistan Power Vacuum: A Re-calibration of Chinese Foreign Policy

Across the globe, all eyes are fixed on Afghanistan. Following the withdrawal of US and coalition military forces from Afghan territory, the blitzkrieg Taliban offensive has resulted in the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Confronted with somber media reports and broadcasts of shocking scenes, the international community’s foremost concern will and should remain ensuring the immediate evacuation of Afghans and foreign nationals, and providing humanitarian assistance to those remaining in Afghanistan. Yet while the devastating human and social impact of recent events is of primary importance, the geopolitical consequences should not be overlooked. The global balance of powers has shifted once again; a regional security and economic power vacuum has been created, perhaps unwittingly, by the US’ withdrawal. The Taliban’s return to power: a timeline of events Honouring former US President Trump’s February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban which committed the US to withdrawing forces from Afghanistan by May 2021, President Biden announced his intention to reassess the US-Taliban Peace Deal and review the policy of US involvement in Afghanistan shortly after his inauguration (AFP, 2021). Confirming the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in April, he set the date for the complete removal of US military personnel from Afghan territory for August 31st. While the return to power of the Taliban was a predicted outcome, the effective timeline of said takeover was far from that predicted by US officials and policy analysts - the fall of the Afghan government occurred in the matter of a few months, rather than a number of years. Intensifying their military campaign from May onward, the Taliban launched a series of lightning offensives, resulting in the fall of Kabul on August 15th, and the flee of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani (Burton, 2021). While the world looked on in shock, policy analysts and politicians alike seemed ill prepared to address this new situation of major geopolitical flux. China’s response: the development of “friendly and cooperative relations” Not all nations, however, are ruffled by this shifting balance and apparent power vacuum. In the midst of turmoil and chaos, China appears to have discreetly stepped forward to adopt a position of strategic cooperation and regional leadership in Afghanistan. As it stands, Beijing is poised to re-calibrate its foreign policy in coordination with the new Taliban-led government of Afghanistan, and though it has not yet done so, will likely be among the first to offer it diplomatic recognition (VOA News et al., 2021). On July 28th, before the official fall of the Afghan Republic, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met the visiting delegation of the Afghan Taliban political committee in Tianjin. A discussion ensued where promises of Chinese involvement in the “Afghan peace and reconciliation process” as well as economic reconstruction were delivered, alongside commitments of non-aggression (Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, 2021). On August 16th, 2021, just hours after the fall of Kabul, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying expressed Beijing’s intentions to develop “good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation with Afghanistan” amongst a series of statements at a press conference (Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, 2021). While the extent of these promises and commitments is still ambiguous, the US’ withdrawal and Taliban takeover has triggered an evident drive to accelerate and intensify Chinese involvement in Afghanistan. But what exactly is the CCP’s main impetus in extending the olive branch? Is this seemingly new strategy driven by reservation or motivation? Historical connections: extended China-Taliban contact The first misconception to set straight is the idea that China’s pro-Taliban, pro-Afghan cooperative stance is a recent one. What may look like Beijing’s pounce on a sudden opportunity is, in reality, part of a strategy which is far from impromptu. In fact, China has maintained unofficial contact with the Taliban since the 1990s (CNBC, 2021). While this was mainly linked to Chinese concerns over Islamist extremists in the region, this facilitated the building of rapport between organization and government, and paved the way for rapid and smooth diplomatic acknowledgement of the regime change. In the months preceding the fall of the Afghanistan government, China has been working hard on a narrowly-focused diplomatic rapprochement with the organisation (The Economist, 2021a). Beijing has announced it is now waiting until the official formation of a new government to announce full diplomatic recognition, though this is arguably already the de facto case (Press Trust of India, 2021). However China’s ambitions in the region are yet to be explicitly defined. China’s motivations and reservations in cooperation with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan Over the past week, scores of policy analysis articles and media reports have debated the main motives for China’s interest in increasing involvement in Afghanistan and developing “friendly and co-operative relations” with a Taliban-led government (Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, 2021. China has a number of concrete objectives at the root of its long-term efforts to establish links with Taliban delegations. The most evident interpretation is linked to Chinese security concerns. In this sense, China’s involvement is driven by defensive priorities. China is first and foremost seeking stability in a situation of potentially undermined regional security (Buckley & Myers, 2021). Though limited in scale, China shares a border with Afghanistan through the narrow Wakhan corridor. The takeover of the Taliban could lead to both an influx of refugees and the spread of Islamic fundamentalists into China (CNBC, 2021). In the case of the latter, China is most directly concerned by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an international terrorist organization according to the UN, which was identified as a “direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity” during the recent Tianjin Sino-Taliban delegation meeting (Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, 2021). Beijing appears to want a guarantee that “anti-Chinese” groups will not be encouraged to strengthen their influence in Afghanistan, and that these militants will not try to enter Xinjiang through Afghanistan (Bo, 2021) Experts such as Zhu Longbiao, director of the Centre for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, argue that Chinese concerns over regional security should not be overblown, making the case that the Sino-Afghan border is small and wouldn’t be difficult to “lock down” in case of the outbreak of regional conflict (The Economist, 2021a). Another counterargument is that China is less vulnerable to extremist Islam movements than the US (Ibid). Yet the intensification of regional instability could trigger not only security risks which directly pertain to internal Chinese issues, but the indirect disruption of China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) program, a large-scale multilateral infrastructure investment plan which aims to develop connectivity across Asia, Africa and the Middle East (Buckley & Myers, 2021). Indeed, while the BRI has, until now, largely bypassed Afghanistan due to internal conflict, other surrounding countries in the region including Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, are all important pieces in China’s strategic economic project (Ibid). Any spillover of conflict in the region could have much more consequential an impact in terms of economic loss. Chinese interest in ensuring stability in Afghanistan therefore remains major. At the China plus Central Asia (C5+1) Foreign Ministerial talks held in May, Afghanistan was a theme repeatedly touched upon (Yau & Pantucci, 2021). China and other Central Asian states share the awareness that the consequences of a failed state would be dire (CNBC, 2021). They therefore want a guarantee that civil strife will remain minimal. While during the Chinese and Taliban delegation meeting, the head of the Afghan Taliban political committee Baradar promised that “the Afghan Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China”, the de facto outcome will depend on the strength of Taliban links with international jihadist groups, as well as the organisation’s ability to maintain control over Afghan territory (The Economist; 2021a).

China’s interest in Afghanistan is not simply driven by a defensive rationale. Another, more controversial interpretation of Chinese motivation is one of economic gain. Concretely, China has substantial gains to make from a strategic mercantilist or commercial alliance with a Taliban-led Afghan government (Tan, 2021). While as of yet primarily unexploited, Afghanistan constitutes a treasure trove of rare earths elements (REEs) and mineral resources. Its minerals and rare earth resources are estimated to be worth between $1 trillion and $3 trillion according to a 2020 report published by The Diplomat - this is thought to be one of the largest REE resources globally. These rare earth minerals are widely used in electronics, vehicles, satellites, and aircraft, and are as such are essential in developing strategic emerging tech and military industries (Press Trust of India, 2021). This makes them a critical political tool as well as a vital economic commodity - and a potentially very lucrative project for China.

Yet policy analysts have argued there are limits to the validity of this interpretation. China already dominates the global rare earths market - according to a Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Report, China is the current provider of 85% of global supply rare earths (Press Trust of India, 2021); a United States Geological Survey found that 35% of rare earth global reserves are located in China (Tan, 2021). While rare earth elements, and intentional restrictions on their availability on the global market can become a strategic trade weapon, and have already been used as such in the 2019 China-US trade war, the extraction of these resources from Afghan territory is considered so difficult a task that it would be virtually unrealistic to consider this the sole reason for Chinese economic investment in Afghanistan. Despite US interest in exploiting these resources during its 20 year presence on Afghan soil, a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report asserts that Washington failed to coordinate a unified and cohesive strategy for the development of extractive industries in Afghanistan (Katawazai, 2020). This failure was linked to both a lack of US commitment and internal Afghan problems, specifically weak infrastructure, largely absent institutions, and disruptive civil strife (Ibid). As emphasized by political scientist Ian Bremmer, China has a history of investing large sums of money in politically complex projects (CNBC, 2021). Investment in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will be no different. Once formally established, this will be a government with virtually no economic resources (the Taliban-ruled government will likely be barred from access to international funding or sanctioned by global institutions) and limited technocratic experience (Ibid). The Taliban will also likely struggle to maintain control over the territory, which has historically rarely remained under the control of a single organization. If China wishes to take up the US’ mantle, it will need to invest massively in a major strategic and economic partnership, coordinating closely with the Taliban to ensure the secure extraction of resources, the implementation of resilient policies with clear direction, and the development of a practical, comprehensive long-term strategy (Katawazai, 2020). Practically, this would involve reinstating control over the corrupt mining sector, reforming mineral laws, and establishing the basic necessary infrastructure (Ibid) - the cost-effectiveness of such a commitment remains unclear, as does, therefore, the likelihood of its taking off. This potential investment in mineral exploitation should instead be considered one bargaining chip in a larger, long-term economic partnership plan. Strategic patience is one of China’s biggest strengths as an investor and trading partner. Over the years, China has built close economic ties with Afghanistan through a number of projects. Establishing a bilateral economics and trade committee in 2015, China doubled its trade with Afghanistan between 2013 and 2019, becoming its second largest trading partner after Iran (Yau & Pantucci, 2021; World Integrated Trade Solution, 2021). China will likely continue to increase its pre-existing investments in roads, mines and other forms of infrastructure in Afghanistan (The Economist, 2021a), contributing to post-war reconstruction and development. China and Afghanistan signed an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2019 over mining industry cooperation - a copper mining project in Aynak, launched in 2019, was predicted to generate an annual output value of USD 1.2 billion (Press Trust of India, 2021). Despite this, Beijing has been repeatedly lambasted for avoiding full-blown commitment to such projects, with critics pointing to the suspension of the China National Petroleum Project and a lack of delivery on the Mes Aynak extractive project signed in 2007 (Yau & Pantucci, 2021). Policy analysts claim that “Beijing has not lived up to its economic potential in the country yet.” This statement is true, yet misses its mark as a critique. This lack of tangible delivery is intentional - and forms part of China’s plan of strategic patience. Afghan stability under a unified Taliban government, though arguably not a long-term guarantee, would allow China to step out from its waiting game approach and capitalize on tangible economic gains (Bo, 2021). Should all go to plan, Beijing stands a strong chance of realizing its long-term ambitions of incorporating Afghanistan into the BRI through the expansion of its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan, specifically with a “Peshawar-to-Kabul” motorway. This would allow it to develop land routes for more rapid access to Middle East markets and thus avoid dependence on India, which resists integration into the BRI (Ibid). Finally, the rationale behind China’s Afghan foreign policy re-calibration with Afghanistan lies in the development of global political influence and the promotion of a new diplomatic model. The withdrawal of the US has arguably been interpreted by Beijing as a confirmation of the rival power’s decline, and failure. A recent article by Chinese newspaper The Global Times convincingly emphasizes the Chinese perception of the Afghan government’s fall following US withdrawal as the realization of a long-awaited Thucydides Trap - the displacement of an existing power as a regional or international hegemon and simultaneous rise of a new rival power (2021). This idea is not unanimously shared conviction within the CCP, but is still a popular opinion held by an increasingly large faction of the party. A recent article in the Economist asserts China’s biggest win in the Afghanistan developments has been “seeing the US humbled” (The Economist, 2021a). Indeed, the rapid Taliban takeover marks a blow to the reliability of the US and the credibility of its foreign policy strategy. This loss of face is a win for China, which, without having to explicitly amp up threats on rival countries or regions, has leveraged public opinion abroad by ensuring that sworn US allies will no longer complacently rely on American security commitments in the future (CNBC 2021). On a broader geopolitical scale, the China-Afghanistan partnership also marks a significant challenge to and departure from the US-championed model of values-based diplomacy. In offering Taliban-ruled Afghanistan an alternative to meddlesome military and political involvement through its policy of ‘no questions asked’ political impartiality and limited interference in internal affairs, China promotes a new form of diplomacy. It is one governed by “coldly weighed security and economic interests”, according to the Economist, or simply by the realization that the guarantee of economic partnership through concrete investment and aid often promises a more reliable delivery than tenuous promises linked to historical security commitments. China has vehemently denied plans to develop a military force in Afghanistan - and this is undoubtedly true (Tan, 2021). China has no interest in imposing a regime model upon the country, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized in a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (The Economist, 2021a). Rather, China wants recognition that its focus on economic development and stability makes it a more reliable ally than the US. In so doing, it hopes to encourage partnerships with other middle powers and underline that the world should begin to orient itself towards a post-American age. Scope for US-China cooperation in Afghanistan - a common cause to work towards détente? Though some experts predict little to no US-China cooperation on the issue of Afghanistan, as the US effectively swore to a complete removal from the situation, there is still potential for a certain degree of coordination (Yau & Pantucci, 2021). Despite China’s reluctance to collaborate with the US due to embittered diplomatic relations and a conviction that the US style of foreign policy is inherently flawed, it has not completely closed itself off to the possibility of a collaborative approach. In his discussion with Blinken, Wang Yi stated that “China [stood] ready to work with the United States to ‘push for a soft landing of the Afghan issue’ (Bo, 2021). This would be in the interest of both great powers. Both the US and China want Afghan stability and regional security (The Economist, 2021a). The US’ withdrawal underlines support for Afghan self-determination, which aligns with China’s policy of non-interference in national affairs. Moreover, it is in the US’ interest that the power vacuum be filled to keep a “substantial presence” in the region following the drawdown (Yau & Pantucci, 2021). China and the US have already coordinated the joint training of diplomats and technicians in Afghanistan (Ibid); further cooperation in Afghanistan could create the common cause needed to facilitate a detente or non-confrontation between the rival powers, or at the very least scope for policy coordination on other issues of similar gravity, such as climate change or the Covid-19 pandemic.

As emphasized in the conversation between Wang Yi and Blinken, Beijing feels reluctance at the prospect of increased cooperation with a rival which attempts to “contain and suppress it” (The Economist, 2021a). Yet China must keep in mind that the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan was partially motivated by the objective of pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific; in freeing up funds by removing the US from a costly military presence in Afghanistan, Biden is allowing for greater focus on strategic priorities in the East, namely China itself (Ibid). If China displays diplomatic flexibility and develops an Afghanistan foreign policy aligned with the interests of the US and more broadly those of the international community, it may acquire leverage and create leeway for a less aggressive US approach as the West shifts its focus to China and the Asia Pacific. In any case, the ball is in Beijing’s court. It is up to China to decide where and how hard to hit it back.


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