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China’s Coming Afghan Policy: a Window on China’s New Strategy

China’s Coming Afghan Policy: a Window on China’s New Strategy
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

On July 28, China widely broadcast official photos of China’s Foreign Minister greeting Taliban leader Ghani Baradar and his crew. They sat in the very spot where, 48 hours earlier, Wang had lectured US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on America’s mistakes in general. Evidently, Beijing presciently picked the right time to upgrade its relationship with the Taliban to near government recognition level. Only two months earlier, in response to the killing of more than 50 school girls in Kabul, China’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying had repeated China’s opposition to "violent extremism", reaffirmed its support for the Afghan government, and urged the U.S. to carry out its announced withdrawal "in a responsible manner": good advice, in fact. 
Since peace talks started between the Taliban and the U.S., under the Trump administration, and in Doha with the Afghan government in September 2020, there have been public Taliban visits to Iran and Russia as well - while India opted to receive Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the newly created Reconciliation Council. Talks between China and the Taliban are not new either - starting at least a decade ago with officious Chinese think tanks such as CICIR visiting Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas where the Taliban retreated every winter. Nonetheless, the speed and extent of China’s adjustment in its Afghan policy raises the question of China’s future Afghan strategy - an issue for both regional and global stability.
This question cannot be fully answered at this point: the intent, and the very extent of the Taliban’s recovered power are still unknown. China, which itself knows a bit about unkept promises, clearly cannot take for granted any pledge made by Taliban leaders - and will judge from their acts, as it usually does. The Talibans do have to contend with competing radical groups, and they are themselves organized on tribal or factional lines. China has no more direct influence than any other regional power, and in fact far less than Pakistan or even Iran.

China has no more direct influence than any other regional power.

Expert commentariat is therefore dividing itself currently along two lines: the Ancients and the Moderns. The Ancients like to recall geography and history. The Moderns - with which this author tends to side by intuition - invoke China’s fast increasing and forward-looking strategy and its will to face off America regionally and globally.

For the Ancients: China does not have a real usable border with Afghanistan. The Wakhan corridor - and much of the Karakorum Road to Pakistan - are no picnic ground. China has spent more energy sealing borders by basing troops in their upper reaches, extending even into neighboring Tajikistan and with reported patrol forays into the Wakhan corridor. Then there is the checkered story of China’s economic relations with Afghanistan - grand announcements regarding the Mes Aynak copper mine near Kabul, but never made operational; rail projects which have not happened, and even as recently as 2020 a road project with the Afghan government in the Wakhan corridor. Chinese investment and trade into Afghanistan in fact declined steadily after 2007 until very recently. A major agreement for pine-nuts export to China matters economically but has no strategic value. Above all, China is supposed to crave stability and is not a risk-taker. Historically, it has been slow - sometimes among the last - to recognize regime changes. In Pakistan itself, it fears the actions of radical terrorist factions against its workers and interests. For the build-up of the planned CPEC corridor that is meant to extend to the port of Gwadar, Pakistan has had to commit a special military detachment of more than 10,000 soldiers. Therefore, China is supposed to be reacting - if quite nimbly - and adjusting to what China’s Mofa euphemistically calls "major changes". One could even assert that it plans to use the issue of terrorism as one of common interest with the United States: on August 16, Wang Yi is said to have offered to Anthony Blinken a dialogue for a "soft landing", to avert "a civil war or a humanitarian crisis" and "a relapse into a hotbed and shelter for terrorism". 
In other words, while China clearly cannot but seek a propaganda benefit from what it calls America’s "hasty departure", its distrust of the Taliban and fears of repercussions in the region and inside China would dictate that it sticks to its cautious attitude.

But the Moderns have more up to date and better arguments. First, with the exception of Panshir, which is totally surrounded and where neighboring states are foremost intent on locking up borders, the Taliban have total control, and there cannot be another foreign intervention for a very long time. Second, China under Xi has decided on a frontal confrontation with the United States and more generally Western democracies - not shying away from decoupling, testing American resolve on many issues. It is openly practicing what Henry Kissinger called strategic linkage: for example, Wang Yi repeats on Afghanistan what a Mofa spokesman said in January 2021 about the climate issue: the U.S. cannot expect cooperation while it "works hard to contain and suppress China". 

And China, with its pitiless actions in Xinjiang and zero refugee policy, has far less to fear than the West from imported terrorism. As to the Taliban, to which Huawei pre-9/11 was busy selling a fiberoptic network, isn’t the best policy, as Xi Jinping has said more generally, to create path dependency through the economy? 

There is an alignment of interests that favors a forward Chinese policy into Afghanistan.

Any Western policy of isolation and sanctions is going to increase that dependency - as it did with Iran. China’s reluctance to invest inside Afghanistan, its justified fears of attacks on its interests in Pakistan, are not founded on direct hostility from radicals, but on the risk of becoming a pawn between radicals and their local enemies. That game is over if the Taliban control themselves.
If one looks at the map, one finds that the Taliban government’s hold on borders - vital to prevent external support - as well as its economic linkages depend on three states that have friendly relations with China: Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan. Major trade with China will not occur over the Karakorum, but either by sea (Gwadar and/or Chabahar) or via a future rail route through Tajikistan - easy to build. Under a unified government, Afghanistan is again a crossroad. Its other neighbors, like China, need stability and prevention of terrorism directly aimed at them. Both Pakistan and Iran increase their value to China if they help to make Afghanistan safe for Chinese economic interests. Pakistan has its own special reasons to fear the Talibans running loose and turning against their ISI coaches. 
None of the above arguments can preclude a trump card: that the Taliban factions act like the proverbial scorpio crossing a river on the back of a frog: it can’t refrain its nature, bites the frog and drowns with it. We have no intuition either on their ability to avoid implosion - what Joe Biden overconfidently predicted on July 8 as "never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history. Not in all of its history". But for the time being, there is an alignment of interests that favors a forward Chinese policy into Afghanistan, while it has no reason to contain or even discourage terrorist actions inside the West. And of course, that includes "systemic rival" Europe.


Copyright : Nicolas ASFOURI / AFP

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