The Chinese President urged the military to be prepared for a potential armed conflict and security threats on the border with Afghanistan.
The U.S. military exit from Afghanistan has predictably escalated internal turmoil and increased regional security concerns in neighboring countries like China. In the United States, though, there have been fears that China will step in to fill the gap left by Washington. Headlines such as “America departs Afghanistan as China arrives” summarize the prevailing narrative. The Daily Beast claims that China has a big plan for post-U.S. Afghanistan. Such claims are largely built on the back of the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan dialogue and cooperation program that launched in 2017.
But the idea that U.S. loss equals China’s gain is contradicted by China’s recent moves in Afghanistan. Since late May, the Chinese Embassy in Kabul and China’s Foreign Ministry have repeatedly urged Chinese citizens to leave Afghanistan. Beijing’s simultaneous criticism of the abrupt U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, as voiced by China’s ambassador to the U.N., Zhang Jun, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, actually reveals a deep-rooted Chinese view that the sustained U.S. military presence in Afghanistan aided in securing Beijing’s interests there.
During the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, China signed major investment agreements with Kabul, including the Mes Aynak copper mine deal and an oil deal. But the U.S. decision to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan has led to “explosive attacks throughout the country,” according to the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. In the face of the U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Beijing has been forced to bring its citizens home and scale down its presence amid the deteriorating security situation.
The Taliban’s speedy offensive campaign, and thus progress, in northern Afghanistan, especially in the Afghanistan-China borderland region of Badakhshan, has alarmed the Chinese government. Local officials have attributed the fall of Badakhshan to the presence of Tajik, Uzbek, Uyghur, and Chechen fighters. This seems probable given the fact that northern Afghanistan has hosted transnational militant groups. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jihad Union, Jamaat Ansarullah, Jundullah, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) all have a footprint in this region. Contrary to the Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) global jihadi ambitions, these other armed groups are largely driven by local politics, often in response to governmental religious oppression and political suppression.
Some Uyghur experts argue that ETIM is virtually nonexistent and that Beijing has exaggerated the threats posed by ETIM and TIP. However, the U.S. airstrike on a suspected ETIM training camp in Badakhshan in 2018, as well as a former ETIM leader’s interview, suggests the presence and operations of either ETIM or similar militant groups in Afghanistan.
Taliban control of the northern part of the country has compelled China to adjust its security arrangements and economic initiatives, which had gone through the Kabul government channel. Since 2001, Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan have been driven by a desire to prevent Uyghur militant groups from using bases in Afghanistan to launch attacks into China. Counterterrorism cooperation, therefore, constitutes the core of the Beijing-Kabul relationship. Chinese provision of financial assistance, troop trainings, mountain brigades, and border patrols is aimed at strengthening Kabul’s capacity to provide some level of security for China.
The Taliban have been certainly aware of China’s security concerns and, in following in Kabul’s example, have leveraged their relationship with Beijing to gain assistance and negotiate potential future investments. This is particularly true now with the Taliban’s advancement into Chinese borderlands. The Taliban recently reassured Beijing that they will ensure the safety of Chinese investors in Afghanistan and also not interfere in China’s internal affairs. The Taliban’s pledge to Beijing is consistent with stipulations in the Doha Agreement that the Taliban would not allow any individuals and entities to use Afghan soil against other countries, in the same way as the group has assured Moscow that it poses no threat to Central Asian states.