China has been critical of US policies such as drone strikes
in Afghanistan, considering them a threat to its regional interests and national security. Paradoxically, though, the presence of the US and Nato has benefited China in three distinct ways.
First, it has served as a bulwark against Islamist extremism while allowing Beijing to stabilise Xinjiang
through domestic counterterrorism efforts. The US exit will remove that buffer
China shares a 90-kilometre border with Afghanistan through the Wakhan corridor, which abuts Xinjiang
province. Greater instability on the western frontier when China is already concerned about border issues elsewhere will add to its worries.
Second, the US and Nato being in Afghanistan have allowed China to spread the reach of its Belt and Road Initiative
to Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province and Central Asia without having to worry about Afghanistan. This might no longer be the case.
Finally, the US presence in Afghanistan did not expose China directly to the jihadist threat. Jihadist warnings to China over its oppressive policies against Xinjiang’s Uygur community have remained rhetorical
. With the US exit from Afghanistan, this dynamic will change.
The Baloch and Sindhi separatist groups in Pakistan are already attacking Chinese nationals and investments for exploiting their resources through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
. In May, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targeted the Serena Hotel in a suicide attack
in Quetta, where the Chinese ambassador was staying.
In recent years, TTP-affiliated influential jihadist ideologue and propagandist Abu Zar al-Burmi has been a vocal critic of China. He has drawn attention to China
as the next significant threat to target after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Jihadist groups need a big enemy to justify their extremist narratives and violence. With the US exit from Afghanistan, China might just become that enemy.
A recent UN report asserted that Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, the Turkestan Islamic Party’s leader, is trying to create a channel to move Uygurs in Syria’s Idlib province to Afghanistan. That would be a major blow to China’s domestic counterterrorism efforts with potentially serious consequences for Xinjiang.
In 2018, following then-US president Donald Trump’s announcement of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan
, China invited a Taliban delegation to Beijing to discuss the matter. In their backchannel contacts, China has extracted guarantees from the Taliban not to allow the post-US Afghanistan to become a staging ground for Uygur militants, to protect Chinese investments and bring peace to the country.
In return, Beijing has offered to invest in roads and “in future, China also wants to look at energy projects like generating electricity and then transporting oil and gas from central Asia [through Afghanistan]”, one senior tribal leader in Pakistan with close ties to the Taliban was quoted as saying. The Taliban’s silence on the Uygur issue testifies to this.
If things go poorly in Afghanistan, knowing the fate of Russian and American interventions
, China is unlikely to put boots on the ground
. Even if Beijing had to join a peacekeeping role in Afghanistan, it would do so through the UN or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation platform.
However, such multilateral mechanisms will hamper China’s ability to secure its interests in Afghanistan. China will use its geoeconomic prowess to encourage the Taliban’s peaceful behaviour. Likewise, Beijing will accept help from Islamabad, which has tremendous influence over the Taliban
, to secure its interests.
The two-decade-long “war on terror” and six years of US negotiations have failed to convince the Taliban to give up on their demands of an Islamic government. Hence, the Chinese-led regional approach to Afghanistan will be better served to find ways of moderating the Taliban’s behaviour and improving border security management to minimise the coming blowback.
Abdul Basit is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher