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How realistic are China's plans in Afghanistan?

China’s newly-found enthusiasm to replace the United States in Afghanistan is not without some bluster. Contrary to the perception it projects as the Asian giant out there to play the arbiter of peace in the central- and south-Asian region, China is unsure of the practicability of its economic or strategic objectives in the war-torn country. Even the feeling of relief that the shadow of rival United States has finally abandoned the country may not be genuine.

17.09.2021 23:36
Piše: Valerio Fabbri
Ključne besede:   Valerio Fabri   China   Afghanistan   Pakistan   Talibans   Uygurs   Belt and Road Initiative   Asia   Europe   Beijing

Photo: Twitter

The Talibans are interested in having China on their side for two reasons – financial aid and recognition of their government.

On August 17th, two days after the Talibans formally claimed power in Kabul, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, lambasted the United States more than the Talibans: "Wherever the US sets foot, be it Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, we see turbulence, divisions, broken families, deaths and other scars in the mess it has left. The US power and role are destructive rather than constructive."

 

It goes without saying that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is acutely aware that without serious security commitments there is no possibility of interventions in other countries yielding concrete results. China is certainly not willing to put soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. However, Bejing has to contend with the fact that to achieve superpower status without projecting its military might is a difficult task. The Americans may come into Afghanistan uninvited and exit in haste, but there is no denying that China enjoyed the veneer of stability that the American military presence ensured in Afghanistan.

 

Its security concerns about the Uyghur Muslim "extremists" using Afghanistan to disturb the Xinjiang province nearly evaporated in all the 20 years of the American presence in Afghanistan. Having the United States disappeared from the picture, who will step into those shoes with enough military might to command stability inside the country? The CCP has no real answer to that. It must rule itself out because it is not interested in a military commitment, one of the main reasons for which China is suddenly realizing the benefits of a multi-lateral approach to the Afghan crisis. It has its all-weather ally Pakistan, Russia and former CIS nations all roped into a loose group in order to have the comfort of numbers. The underlying, overarching interest of all these countries is to exploit the economic opportunities that an unstable Afghanistan, rich in natural and strategic resources, presents.

 

A closer scrutiny, however, reveals some fallacies. It is an overstatement to claim that China wants to exploit Afghanistan’s massive mineral wealth. Deep mining contracts in the country’s inaccessible terrain are long-term projects which, should they become reality, will tie up billions of dollars for years together. China’s first attempt to grab a big mining contract in Afghanistan has turned into a disaster. In 2007, China secured a 30-year lease for two of its companies to mine and smelt copper from the Mes Aynak mine outside Kabul. The mine is said to have ore worth $88 billions, and the copper is supposed to be of a high grade. Over a decade has gone by and the mine has not yielded even an iota of the billions of dollars China has sunk in so far.

 

Intent on expanding its economic ambitions, China failed to consider the logistical nightmares in Afghanistan – the government could provide no road networks, no coal for the power plant, no infrastructure facilities of any other kind. Another topic of contention, for which China creates much hype, is a narrow corridor called the Wakhan Corridor, that connects Afghanistan and China across a 47-mile stretch. In its public entreaties to the Talibans, China has repeatedly asked them to make sure that Uyghur Muslims do not use this region to enter Xinjiang and spread unrest. The reality is that the terrain is difficult in normal times and inaccessible during winter, so any encroachers can easily be spotted by the Chinese army personal on guard. Rather, the threat from Uyghur factions, in terms of radicalisation of Uyghur youth, is likely to come from Pakistan.

 

 

"The Talibans are interested in having China on their side for two reasons – financial aid and recognition of their government."

 

 

Needless to say, China is looking at some long-term projects in Afghanistan that are tailor-made for achieving its objective of expanding its influence via Asia to Europe through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Tajikistan, which borders with both countries, has four border crossings with the Badakshan province in Afghanistan. They are the most popular haulage routes between China and Afghanistan. The Talibans control these crossings, which are also secured by security forces from China, Russia and Tajikistan. It is possible that this stretch of the trans-national route can be expanded to increase trilateral trade, but this won’t happen before sometime in the future. The other project that interests China is about extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Kabul that will stretch BRI connectivity from Afghanistan to China via Pakistan. 

 

All these projects are long-term commitments and cannot take off in the near future. The Talibans are interested in having China on their side for two reasons – financial aid and recognition of their government. They are willing to give any assurance that China wants, whether not sheltering Uyghurs or protecting China’s economic interests in Afghanistan, as they really cost them nothing. The leverage, if any, helps the Taliban more. When it comes to interests that matter to the Taliban – like their continued association with terrorist groups and giving shelter to them in Afghanistan -- they are unwilling to listen even to China.

 

That leaves China with Pakistan, an ally it has nurtured over the years. It is said to exercise control over Afghan affairs – terrorist or Talibani – through the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The one thing China will eventually do is lean on Pakistan to monitor the Taliban and ensure it does not go back to its 1996-2001 avatar. For all these reasons, China’s public utterances appear far removed from any strategic clarity on what it wants to do and achieve in Afghanistan.

 

Valerio Fabri is Ljubljana based Italian journalist. He writes for several international media outlets, including portal+.

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