What Is China's Special Approach to Post-Withdrawal Afghanistan?
Since the fall of the republic government in Afghanistan, we have witnessed the gradual importance of Afghanistan for China, and Beijing's special approach to Kabul. The clear message of Beijing’s recent behavior in Afghanistan is that China is taking "innovative" and "bold" actions in the country. This can significantly increase China's influence on the Taliban government. But it is necessary to understand that China will not be able to pursue its goals in Afghanistan without participating in a multilateral process (alongside Afghanistan's neighbors). If China can get some local and regional guarantees, it will probably play a stronger economic role in Afghanistan; In such a situation, a new opportunity will be provided for all kinds of cooperation between Iran and China in Afghanistan (bilaterally or with the participation of other neighbors of Afghanistan).
By: Seyyed Qasem Zakeri
Since the fall of Ashraf Ghani's government, we have witnessed the gradual importance of Afghanistan for China, and Beijing's special approach towards Afghanistan. The clear message of China's recent performance and behavior in Afghanistan is that Beijing is taking "innovative" and "bold" actions. This could significantly increase China's influence over the Taliban government.
Examples of China's special approach to Afghanistan
*The gradual change of China's positions in the UN towards Afghanistan, so that China's positions have become very similar to Beijing's positions towards the most important national security cases in the first circle of China's priorities (similar to North Korea and Myanmar). Among the most important actions of China (in cooperation with Russia) in the UN around Afghanistan are emphasizing the need to interact with the Taliban government, continuously asking the United States to release the frozen assets of Afghanistan, opposing the views of the US in exerting pressure against the Taliban, and Preventing the approval of harsh American resolutions against the Taliban in the UN Security Council. *In regional multilateral meetings around Afghanistan, China has repeatedly tried to help the Taliban government's tacit recognition. *On the second anniversary of the Taliban rule, the Chinese Foreign Ministry considered the return of the Taliban to power as a historic achievement for Afghanistan and as a "stable transfer of power", and stated that the future of Afghanistan is now in the hands of the Afghan people. *The handover of the Afghan embassy in Beijing to the Taliban government, the unique ceremony of handing over the credentials of the new Chinese ambassador in Kabul to the Taliban prime minister, and the release of pictures of the Taliban government's flag flying in the courtyard of the Afghan embassy in Beijing, have all created the perception that China has "implicitly recognized" the Taliban government. *There has been a relative jump in trade between Afghanistan and China after the fall of the republican government, including the cancellation of any tariffs for the import of all types of goods from Afghanistan to China, and the increase in the exchange of high-ranking economic and trade delegations between the two countries. *The signing of a contract between the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum of the Taliban government and the private Chinese company called Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company (CAPEIC) to exploit the Amu Darya oil field. It should be noted that the previous contract of the Chinese company for the exploitation of the mentioned oil field was canceled in 2018 during the Ashraf Ghani regime.
Signing a $310 million contract for gold mining in Takhar province. *Participation of Afghan companies in trade fairs in China, and the online speech of Mullah Baradar Akhund (Economic Deputy of the Taliban Prime Minister) at the 6th China-South Asia Exposition (November 2021). *China's willingness to open an office of The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Kabul. *The readiness of Huawei company to help the Taliban government in installing 60,000 security cameras in Afghanistan.
why Afghanistan has become so important for China? A: China and the government of the Afghan Republic
for many years, China's approach to Afghanistan has been purely security-oriented, and the country has never been of such central importance to China. The most important event in the bilateral relations between China and Afghanistan until 2023 was the signing of the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the two countries in 2012, that is, during the presidency of Hamid Karzai.
According to Chinese analyst Zhao Husheng, during all the years of the occupation of Afghanistan by the US and NATO, Beijing was satisfied that the burden of responsibility for security and stability in Afghanistan was on the shoulders of the occupying countries, and actually preferred to play a marginal role in Afghanistan.
In all the years of the republican government in Afghanistan, China deliberately excluded the country from the Belt and Road Initiative projects under the pretext of lack of proper infrastructure and insecurity in Afghanistan. During this period, the economic relations of the two countries were limited to the export of goods from China to Afghanistan, as well as China's $400 million investment in Afghanistan.
With the gradual reduction of American troops in Afghanistan from 2014 onwards (during the Obama era), China linked the increase in insecurity in Xinjiang with the increase in insecurity in Afghanistan. Since then (from 2016 until now), the Afghanistan case in China has been handed over to the People's Army of the country.
During the republic government in Afghanistan, China placed special emphasis on expanding and deepening relations with the central government in Kabul. But with the increasing weakening of the Afghan government during the presidency of Ashraf Ghani, China was forced to establish a relationship with the Taliban movement in order to achieve some goals. The most important of these goals included pursuing a new ground to compete with America in Afghanistan, responding to Pakistan's expectations, and most importantly, helping to strengthen security in the Xinjiang region and Central Asia
The relationship between China and the Taliban angered Washington, so that in 2018, the Afghan government entered into various tensions with the Chinese government under the pressure of the United States - including the suspension of bilateral security cooperation, such as stopping the process of extradition of Uyghur militia prisoners to China. In 2020, the United States removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from the its list of terrorist groups!
B: Afghanistan's position in the Sino-American competition
Like other rivals and enemies of the United States in the region and the world, China considered the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan as a failure of US and NATO military intervention in Afghanistan. However, the Chinese were seriously concerned about the security implications of an irresponsible US withdrawal. The Chinese, like Iran and Russia, were both concerned about the escalation of instability and insecurity in Afghanistan, and were clearly concerned about organized Western conspiracies from Afghanistan against China's stability and national security. In other words, because of the security vacuum created in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, China has found itself forced to play a role in Afghanistan to contribute to more stability in the country.
As the competition between China and the United States has reached a peak at the global level, most observers have considered Afghanistan to be another main field of strategic competition and battle between China and the United States. These analysts believed that all of China's neighbors, including its neighbors on land and sea, will be at the center of conflicts between China and the West. As a result, most of the Asian regions will gain special importance in the strategic competition between China and the United States.
Hal Brands, in his recent article in Foreign Policy entitled Russia, China, and America: The New Battle for Eurasia, has justified all geopolitical events in the world (including the current war in Ukraine) within the framework of the battle of world powers over Eurasia. According to this theory, Central Asia and other regions in the Asian continent, as subsets of the Eurasian region, are among other centers of conflict between great powers.
In short, evidence is gradually being seen of China's tendency to withdraw from the strategy of neutrality and isolation (especially in its peripheral environment); Accordingly, immediately after America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, some observers predicted that China's role in Afghanistan would change from a marginal, weak and observer role to an active, necessary and inevitable one.
Thant Myint-U, a famous Myanmar historian who was an advisor to the former president of Myanmar, clearly stated that by abandoning conventional and cautious approaches, China will be forced to act in Afghanistan just like Myanmar and North Korea in order to fill the vacuum caused by the US withdrawal. Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center Yun Sun also predicted that China will be forced to intervene actively in Afghanistan due to security concerns. Many analysts and think tanks in America, Russia and even China predicted that after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the costs of Afghanistan will fall on the shoulders of the country's neighbors, especially China.
Perhaps the relative success of the Taliban in governing over the past two years has somehow made China confident about finding a reliable partner in Afghanistan. Other factors have also contributed to this view, such as the continuation of the hostile approach of the United States and the West towards the Taliban government, as well as the fulfillment of China's expectations regarding the containment of Uyghur separatists in Afghanistan.
In addition, there has been a bitter reality regarding Afghanistan's political economy for more than 150 years: Afghanistan's dependence on foreign aid! In Afghanistan's political economy, there is still no substitute for foreign aid. Therefore, in the current situation, only China is able to fill this gap.
Many may believe that Afghanistan is a heavy burden on Beijing's shoulders, but one should not neglect the value and importance of intelligence-security as well as geopolitics of Afghanistan. Therefore, contrary to the opinion of most analysts who believed that China would enter more in economic activities in Afghanistan, the security, political and geopolitical areas of Afghanistan have become more important for China. Afghanistan as a part of the Greater Central Asia (or, according to the natives of the region, as an important and influential part of the Greater Khorasan) has gained great geopolitical and geo-economic importance for China.
China's need to attract the cooperation of Afghanistan's neighbors
Without participation in a multilateral process (with the presence of Afghanistan's neighbors), China will not be able to pursue its goals in Afghanistan - as it has advanced its position on Afghanistan in the United Nations with the help and cooperation of Russia.
China's influence and large investments in Pakistan and Central Asia will be important supports for China's future plans in Afghanistan. As a result, Afghanistan has the capacity to become the scene of China's cooperation/conflict with other countries in the region. If China can get some local and regional guarantees, it will probably play a stronger economic role in Afghanistan; In such a context, a new opportunity has been provided for all kinds of cooperation between Iran and China in Afghanistan (bilaterally or with the participation of other neighbors of Afghanistan).
Considering China's performance in Afghanistan for the past two years, we have witnessed Beijing 's special approach to post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The clear message of Beijing's recent behavior in Afghanistan is that China is taking "innovative" and "bold" actions in the country. This can significantly increase China's influence on the Taliban government. Afghanistan has gained more geopolitical and security importance for China than economy. The main reason why Afghanistan has become so important for China is Beijing's competition with Washington and the West at the global level. In this context, suitable opportunities have also been provided for new cooperation between Iran and China in Afghanistan.
Seyyed Qasim Zakeri, is an International Relations expert