China’s interests in Afghanistan

The dramatic images of the Fall of Kabul have driven rounds of recrimination and finger-pointing in the West. However, as the G7 countries prepare to meet virtually next week for an emergency discussion on Afghanistan, it would do well for them to consider the position of another of the region’s great powers – the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While the PRC’s state-owned media have already leapt on the event as ‘humiliating’ for the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US), and attempted to draw lessons for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party from the ‘abandonment’, it is also beginning to frame the event as something which will require a ‘deal’ with the US, a potential bargaining chip to reshape its current adversarial relationship with Washington without having to address US concerns or complaints. 

The G7 need not take this Chinese ‘discursive statecraft’ at face-value. It is indeed natural for the PRC to dress up its efforts to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan as a favour to the West, but American, British, and other allied leaders should understand the PRC’s equities in the country clearly. While the Chinese leadership itself has not yet decided whether to manage this crisis with or against the West, its own interests in the war-torn country are well-documented. G7 leaders should instead use the following baseline assumptions as they think through any attempts at a Chinese-Western settlement.

This begs the question: what are the PRC’s interests in Afghanistan?

The PRC has a strong interest in a stable border region: Preventing further unrest in the quasi-colonial territory of Xinjiang is a core interest for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as its gross violations of human rights there reveal. Given the fact that Afghanistan and Xinjiang share a border and the fact that the Taliban has maintained links with various international Islamic groups in the past, this is a serious concern. Over the past few years, Chinese intelligence networks inside Afghanistan and Chinese-Taliban diplomacy in Tianjin have spearheaded the effort to detach the Taliban from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement – a group with which it naturally aligns. In his meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Wang Yi, the PRC Foreign Minister, called for the Taliban to ‘completely sever all ties’ with the group. 

The PRC has a strong interest in Afghanistan as a source of minerals: Afghanistan is the world’s largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, cobalt, mercury, gold, and lithium, valued at US$1 trillion. Its rare-earth metals may be worth even more. In addition to owning the mining rights to the world’s second largest copper mine in Afghanistan – said to be worth US$1.2 billion in annual output – the PRC is already the Taliban’s largest customer for minerals, a trade that now represents the group’s largest revenue source (US$464 million), outstripping narcotics (US$416 million). This also represents a large chunk of total Taliban revenues, which are said to be around US$1.6 billion, a point made more salient by the freezing of Afghan government reserves held in US banks. Chinese state media has already made a point of stating that it can meet the anticipated fiscal shortfall (a predicted 20% fall from the previous pledge of US$15.2 billion between 2016 and 2020) in Afghanistan’s coffers through official direct investment as part of the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

The PRC has a long-term interest in incorporating Afghanistan into the BRI: Despite a recent focus on domestic infrastructure, the Belt and Road Initiative remains Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project. As long as he remains General Secretary of the CCP, that will continue to be the case. The BRI is a quasi-imperial project that seeks to offshore access to industrial capacity and labour, while also tying regional states closer to the PRC’s economy. Dual Circulation theory, the CCP’s current economic strategy, sees the PRC intending to create trade asymmetries between it and other trading powers, so that its domestic economy drives growth, while others remain dependent on Chinese trade and investment. No doubt, the use of infrastructure financing and a debated-but-still-relevant concept, ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, would also give Beijing direct influence over the Taliban’s leadership. 

The PRC has a strong interest in sidelining India in any settlement: Beijing may seek to sideline India from having a major role in Afghanistan, and there are two strong reasons why the G7 countries should again invite India’s leader Narendra Modi to any virtual meeting and any subsequent diplomacy with China. First, India has been developing strong links to Afghanistan over the past 20 years and sees it as a priority issue. Second, while Afghanistan is bound to become somewhat reliant on China for future economic and trade development, India and the Gulf states could and should provide enough economic diversity to soften China’s heft. 

Thus, when the G7 leaders meet next week, they should frame any cooperation with the PRC in terms of the mutual interest all parties have in a stable Afghanistan that does not harbour or export Jihadists. After they have established that, they will have to discuss how to balance cooperation with the PRC in Afghanistan within the greater strategic context of geopolitical competition. No doubt, the CCP leadership will be doing the same. The G7 will have to balance and prioritise their interests within the relationships with the PRC, with the Taliban, and with any resurrected non-Pashtu Northern Alliance group – should one arise. It is a fluid time calling for diplomacy and strategic decisiveness. 

Dr John Hemmings is an Associate Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, a regional centre for the US Department of Defence and Mission Partner to INDOPACOM. He is also a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He writes in a personal capacity.

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1 thought on “China’s interests in Afghanistan”

  1. Quite right, but you omitted one important consideration for China.
    China has just as much desire to suppress Islamic terrorism as do we. Before the situation in Xinjiang became widely known in the West,
    Chinese officials were remarking nervously about the revival of ‘fundamentalist’ religious identification among the diverse Muslim populations in China. The abuses in Xinjiang reflect an overreaction, Soviet-style, to the terrorist threat that emerged. China will be pursuing a policy in Afghanistan that encourages stability and development as the best ways to marginalise fanaticism; since Russia also has much to fear from Islamic terrorism they may well cooperate. We may find it galling, but we should welcome any progress they make.

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