What will China do in Afghanistan?
26 Aug 2021|

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made comforting noises about China’s respect for the Taliban, but he’s also sent clear signals about what Beijing wants from Afghanistan’s new rulers and what Beijing worries about.

And a former senior colonel in China’s military, now an academic at the influential state-linked Tsinghua University, has written glowingly in the New York Times that China is ‘ready to step into the void’ and partner with Afghanistan to develop infrastructure and exploit its mineral reserves as an extension of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Prepare to be underwhelmed by what happens next, because of both Chinese interests and the nasty facts on the ground in a post-US Afghanistan.

The withdrawal of the US and NATO militaries after 20 years ends the period when China could free ride on US engagement with Afghanistan and operate at the margins as a critic.

We’ve seen Chinese state media use the chaos and speed of events in Afghanistan to reinforce its narrative about America’s decline and China’s rise. But the remaining US presence in Kabul is a time-limited exercise that will soon be overtaken by events in Afghanistan and by broader international debates about what others might do.

So, the US withdrawal is pretty much all bad news for Beijing as far as Afghanistan and China’s neighbourhood are concerned. That’s true despite however much hay Beijing’s propaganda machine wants to make right now (and despite the ridiculous attempts in Chinese state media to compare Afghanistan to the vibrant, successful global economic actor and democracy that is Taiwan).

And, as the US leaves, Afghanistan’s powerful neighbours—China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India—now have much more direct stakes and roles in that future than they had a few weeks ago.

The US administration is enduring all the criticism and pain that has come with a chaotic withdrawal. Given this, President Joe Biden is simply not going to assume new burdens in or on Afghanistan while others with very direct interests there remain inactive. Afghanistan is now a shared problem, not one addressed by a US and NATO presence, however flawed.

As critics of US power, Beijing, Russia and Iran are not well placed to insist that only the US address the humanitarian and security challenges that are likely to unfold with the Taliban’s attempted assumption of power across Afghanistan.

They all have histories and interests in Afghanistan and there aren’t a lot of clean hands among them.

So, what does China want? China has direct security interests in violence and instability not spilling over from Afghanistan into Xinjiang, stoked by the mass abuses China is committing against its own Uyghur and Turkic Muslim citizens there.

As one of the earliest friends of the new Taliban regime, Beijing has some complicity in what the Taliban do from here but little control—and we should expect pretty extreme levels of Taliban violence, particularly when the evacuation of foreign nationals ends over the next week.

The Taliban need cash because the billions of dollars of international aid that was being directed to the Afghan government is almost certainly not going to simply flow to the Taliban. Last year, international donors provided over 50% of the Afghan government’s budget, so the revenue hole is enormous just to fund day-to-day operations, even if people can be found with the skills and willingness to do so under Taliban rule. It’s hard to see Beijing stepping in as the Taliban’s new financier, and that will begin to calibrate any wild expectations the Taliban have of Beijing.

Beijing will play its ‘non-interference’ card to minimise its engagement in Afghanistan and seek to largely quarantine the Afghan situation from bleeding into China.

To the extent that the Taliban can deliver security, Beijing will seek to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, but we should have low expectations about the scale of that effort.

Over the next few months, we’ll see a demonstration of whether China means anything at all when it talks of ‘win–win’ outcomes as part of a common human destiny, or instead is a much more transactional, authoritarian actor.

I pick the latter: the Chinese Communist Party is not going to have anything but a nakedly transactional, wary relationship with a fundamentalist, sharia law–focused Taliban regime on China’s border.

If the US putting more than US$2 trillion into Afghanistan for security and development didn’t work, it’s hard to see how China extracting some of Afghanistan’s US$1 trillion in mineral wealth will create a markedly better future, except perhaps for particular winners in China’s economy.

For the CCP, Afghanistan is about risk mitigation and damage minimisation, not a glittering opportunity, and the Afghan people’s interests rank low on Beijing’s priority list.

Beyond China’s intent and approach, there’s a bigger complication to a China–Afghanistan partnership and that’s Afghanistan’s internal dynamics. The idea that, as senior colonel Zhou Bo claimed in the New York Times, Afghanistan is some kind of void for other great powers to fill given the US departure is absurd.

Afghanistan is not an empty space and the Taliban are well short of being in a position to first provide security and then deliver services to 37 million Afghans, if indeed that is even their intent.

Afghanistan’s reserves of lithium, copper and gold are still in the ground because of the country’s history of insecurity, lack of a solid legal framework and high levels of corruption. None of that seems likely to improve under Taliban rule with cashed-up mercantilist Chinese entities offering inducements to particular leaders.

Of more immediate importance, Afghanistan is awash with weapons and with men trained in their use—as Iraq was after the US coalition toppled Saddam Hussein and disbanded the Iraqi military. Some of that weaponry is brand spanking new, delivered this year by the US to the Afghan security forces as a statement of long-term support.

And some 300,000 former members of the Afghan security forces with skills, without jobs and income, but threatened by the Taliban might see a future in taking up arms in parts of the country that are difficult for the Taliban to control, as we saw ex-Iraqi military personnel do in the Iraq insurgency both before and during the rise of Islamic State.

Compounding this, Afghanistan remains an extremely dense patchwork of tribal and other networks. Any overarching Taliban cohesion across Afghanistan has been driven largely by the focus on the common foreign enemy.

Now that that adversary is gone, so has that driver of Taliban cohesion. We should expect fissures and pressures to erupt in the Taliban itself as the different armed and tribal groups it’s made up of attempt to move from insurgency to government.

And other groups within Afghanistan’s population matter too. That includes those who supported the vision of an Afghanistan where rights were protected in ways Australians understand from our own experience. It also includes warlords and former members of the security forces and Afghan government who might take advantage of the available weaponry to establish zones of influence and complicate any building of national governance by the Taliban in Kabul.

So, Beijing will know that the Taliban’s ability to deliver on promises is low.

The combination of Beijing’s nakedly transactional self-interest, the Taliban’s flaws and the violent fractures we can expect within Afghanistan add up, but only in adverse ways. The result is likely to be more a maelstrom than a void.

None of this makes for a beautiful friendship—or a happy future for the people of Afghanistan—despite the photo opportunities and grand narratives.