China moves swiftly to exploit the void in Afghanistan

US military exit is likely to become Beijing’s strategic gain

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claps after signing a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in fighting terrorism, with Afghanistan’s then Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and in Kabul in December, 2018.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

China has long shielded Pakistan from international pressure over its harboring of terrorist groups, including blocking United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pakistani terrorists and opposing moving its close ally from the gray to black list of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, the global terrorist-financing watchdog. In fact, China has often praised Pakistan’s commitment to the fight against terrorism.

But after nine of its dam engineers were killed this month in a terrorist-triggered bus explosion in Pakistan, China changed its tune. It has demanded that Pakistan, in the words of Premier Li Keqiang, “use all necessary means” against terrorists and bring “the perpetrators to justice.” Beijing has squarely blamed America’s “hasty withdrawal” from Afghanistan for creating cross-border volatility and insecurity.

The U.S. must be stopped, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, from “creating more problems and dumping the burden on regional countries.” The U.S. effectively ended its 20-year Afghanistan War on July 1 when it secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Air Base, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country.

In private, Chinese officials cannot be unhappy with the exit of a defeated America. It not only opens greater space for China’s expansionism but also shows how U.S. power is in decline.

The bus explosion, however, has made China realize that the fallout from the deteriorating Afghanistan situation threatens its regional interests. Wang has proposed that Pakistan — the largest recipient of Chinese financing under President Xi Jinping’s marquee Belt and Road Initiative — collaborate with Beijing when it comes to Afghanistan and help “defend regional peace together.”

The fallout offers China a rationale for exploiting the void in Afghanistan — and the country’s vast mineral wealth. In addition, Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of Central, South and Southwest Asia makes it geopolitically attractive for Beijing, which wants to link Kabul with the Belt and Road’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Advancing such interests hinges on violence abating in Afghanistan, which explains why Xi has called for a political solution to the country’s long-standing conflict.

China’s strategic ambitions, however, underscore a jarring paradox. Beijing views Islamic extremism as a pressing threat and, in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi era, is holding more than a million detainees in a Muslim gulag. Yet it has built cozy ties with the Taliban, the marauding Islamist force created in the mid-1990s by Pakistani intelligence to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan.

Atheist, communist China has for more than half a century been close to Pakistan, the first Islamic republic of the postcolonial era. Likewise, it has become strange bedfellows with the Taliban, responsible for the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks. Such is the transactional approach that has long been a hallmark of Chinese foreign policy.

When the Taliban seized power in 1996 and declared an Islamic caliphate, China established a closer relationship with the regime than any other non-Muslim country, launching flights between Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi and Kabul. On the same day two airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, visiting Chinese officials signed an agreement for greater economic and technical cooperation with the Taliban.Security guards stand at the gates of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Huocheng County in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. © Reuters

After the Taliban was ousted from power by a U.S.-led military invasion, Beijing quietly maintained ties with the militia in Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership took refuge. To this day, the Taliban’s top leaders remain ensconced in Pakistan, even as their fighters make gains on the ground in Afghanistan.

Much is being made of the potential for the Afghan conflict to spill over into Xinjiang. But just as China’s secure borders have for years forestalled any trouble in Xinjiang from growing jihadism in Pakistan, intensifying conflict in Afghanistan is unlikely to affect stability in China’s far west. China’s short, 76-km frontier with Afghanistan comprises mainly impassable high-altitude terrain.

China already has thousands of its own troops in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir, which borders Xinjiang. It also has deployed its own military units in another potential corridor to Xinjiang, Tajikistan, including soldiers on the Tajik-Afghan border.

As the bus explosion illustrates, China’s concerns are essentially centered on its economic interests in Pakistan and Central Asia — especially resource-rich Tajikistan — and the safety of Chinese nationals working on projects there. The threat of terrorism, however, provides a convenient cover for Beijing to advance its geopolitical interests.

With the U.S. in retreat, China is likely to increase its strategic footprint in Afghanistan by leveraging its strategic relationship with the Taliban’s main backer, Pakistan, and its own long-standing ties with that militia.

To co-opt the Taliban, China has already dangled the prospect of providing the militia the two things it needs to govern Afghanistan in whole or in part — acquiescence to its rule, if not formal recognition, and much-needed infrastructure and economic development assistance. And the Taliban, rising to the bait, is going out of its way to assuage China’s concerns. Clearly, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan will not only be under Pakistan’s sway but also greatly aid China’s designs.

America’s exit has opened the path for an opportunistic China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”