Why is China engaging with Afghanistan?
As President Donald Trump positions himself to end the longest war in US history, China is deepening its role in Afghanistan. There are various global and regional imperatives that are shaping China’s growing engagement within the country.
The key driver of China’s Afghanistan policy, however, remains its securitized view of the threat that extremist organizations pose to its own Muslim-dominated territory of Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is home to the country’s Uyghur population, a predominantly Sunni Muslim, Turkic ethnic group, comprising approximately 10 million people. Xinjiang has been explicitly termed by Chinese authorities as the frontline for the “three evils” of separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism. The US military drawdown in Afghanistan, which began in 2014, has changed China’s security perceptions and has led to its deepening involvement.
Despite the recent focus on geo-economic dimensions of President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing continues to view Afghanistan from a terrorism lens.
If anything, China’s growing investment in the BRI and its CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) offshoot is making Beijing more interested in seeking stability in its neighborhood, as well as its own lesser, developed western Xinjiang region, which borders Afghanistan and Central Asia.
China views its growing economic, security, and political engagement with Afghanistan as a means to prevent the spread of insurgency and extremist ideologies into the increasingly-restive Xinjiang. This threat perception is driven by the recent history and current dynamics of war in Afghanistan.
A war-torn and unstable Afghanistan for the past four decades has enabled trans-border militant and terrorist actors such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh, and some Chinese Uyghur militants such as the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) to establish sanctuaries in transborder spaces such as along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and areas straddling the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.
Beijing fears further chaos in Afghanistan as the US prepares to reduce its military and economic involvement in the country.
China’s overall development contributions to Afghanistan since 2001 are minuscule when compared to those from other donors. Beijing provided roughly $240 million in development assistance and aid to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2013.
In 2007, China also becomes the largest economic investor in Afghanistan as its state-owned company ‘China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), signed a 30-year lease to build copper mines in MesAynak, in the Logar Province of central Afghanistan.
Although China moderately increased its engagement with Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal in 2014, a significant shift in Beijing’s stance on security issues in Afghanistan only came after Daesh established its Khorasan Province offshoot in the country.
China views its growing economic, security, and political engagement with Afghanistan as a means to prevent the spread of insurgency and extremist ideologies into the increasingly-restive Xinjiang.
Dr. Simbal Khan
In recent years a number of terrorist groups have expressed ideological support for the Uyghur cause. In July 2014, Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi said in a speech to rally global support that: “Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine.”
In 2013, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri endorsed the right of militants to fight the Chinese in Xinjiang. Chinese concerns were further validated when Daesh issued its first direct threat against China in February 2018, releasing a video in which Chinese Uyghurs vowed to return home from Syria and carry out attacks.
Daesh’s presence in Afghanistan has prompted a major change in Chinese policy as China has expanded both its political and security engagement with Afghanistan.
In March 2016, as part of efforts to strengthen its security relationship with Afghanistan, China dispatched Fang Fenghui, the-then head of its military, to Kabul. During the visit, Fang pledged around $70 million in military aid to the Afghan government’s counter-terrorism initiatives.
China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan launched a counter-terrorism cooperation initiative in August 2016 which initially focused on border control and has since developed to include other activities.
In December 2017, senior Chinese and Afghan military officials agreed to further increase their cooperation on counter-terrorism and other security issues, including border control. The group announced in April 2018 that they would carry out a joint counter-terrorism exercise and engage in combat training.
Additionally, reports emerged in 2018 that China was planning to set up a military training base in the Wakhan Corridor of Badakhshan Province in northern Afghanistan to train an Afghan counter-terrorism force.
The Chinese government denied the reports but in February 2018, US air strikes in the area — reportedly against Uyghur militant bases — gave credence to Beijing’s concerns.
Although there is scant information on the base, both Beijing and Kabul have confirmed that China has started to train Afghan counter-terrorism forces in China.
On the political front, China has intensified its efforts to find a political solution to the Afghan conflict. Moreover, over the years, China has also maintained contact with the Taliban in order to prevent the group from supporting Uyghur militants and preventing attacks in China’s mainland.
China has used several multilateral, trilateral, and bilateral channels to broker a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government and played the role of a mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Quadrilateral Contact Group (QCG) — Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China — which met for the first time in 2016, is one such example. The process was plagued by problems and was subsequently abandoned.
Today, China’s security concerns vis a vis its restive Xinjiang region and the stability of its BRI investments — especially in Pakistan and Tajikistan — means that it is likely to increase its involvement in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.
– Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South Central Asia and the geo-politics of border spaces. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad.