Taliban fighters patrol in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood in Kabul on August 18. Photo: AP
Outside In
by David Dodwell
Outside In
by David Dodwell

Can China foster stability amid the Afghanistan catastrophe?

  • China’s Belt and Road Initiative is aimed at stabilising and improving living standards for the poor and marginalised countries of Central Asia
  • Out of the ashes, China’s efforts to build connections and economies through infrastructure can perhaps find new relevance

As the world watches aghast at America’s scramble to exit Afghanistan, leaving Afghans to an uncertain fate at the mercy of a historically brutal Taliban government, the rueful consensus among some foreign policy analysts is that there will be celebrations in Beijing and Moscow.

But the grim truth is that China and Russia have little to celebrate. This is a catastrophe from which no one gains, except perhaps the Islamist extremists clustered around al-Qaeda and Islamic State, who can now expect safe haven in Afghanistan’s many ungoverned spaces.
While some will undoubtedly celebrate the damage to US credibility, the prospect of an unstable, Taliban-led government ruling a country at the very heart of Central Asia sends shudders down the spine of all close by. Pakistan already has more than 3 million Afghans in exile along its western borders and massive challenges in containing threats from its own Islamist militants.

Pakistan’s challenges might be direct and immediate, but it is far from alone. With about 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, many now fear the worst – and we are not just talking about countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria or Turkey.

Whether it is Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia or African states such as Somalia, Tunisia or Sudan, the expectation is of a surge in radical Islam and of potential terror threats from widely scattered fundamentalist jihadi movements.


Taliban takes control of Afghan capital Kabul as President Ghani flees country

Taliban takes control of Afghan capital Kabul as President Ghani flees country
Afghanistan leaves very few smiles on Russian faces as they recall their own failures in hegemonic control through the 1970s and 1980s. Moscow is undoubtedly now reinforcing its borders, and those of its allies in Central Asia, against refugees.
China is also paranoid about the threat from radical Islam, most directly in the form of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) nestled in the Uygur community that makes up around half the population of Xinjiang province. As such, it should see little to celebrate.
The events of the past weeks provide a chilling reminder that Beijing’s massive and controversial Belt and Road Initiative is, above all else, a strategic initiative. It is aimed at stabilising and improving living standards to the profoundly poor and marginalised Islamic countries that make up Central Asia. Since the inception of the initiative, a founding objective has been to bring infrastructure, jobs and incomes to the region.

The United States and the Nato forces it brought into Afghanistan had no natural or geographical links or interests in the region except for the imperative to exterminate radical Islamist movements that were, after the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, bent on taking jihad to the world.

However, countries such as China, Russia and India were acutely aware of that huge space separating South and East Asia from Europe and the Mediterranean.


At least 3 people killed after shots fired during anti-Taliban protests in Afghanistan

At least 3 people killed after shots fired during anti-Taliban protests in Afghanistan

Few in the West could identify Kazakhstan on a map, even though it is almost as big as India in terms of square kilometres. Even fewer would know it has a population of just 18.8 million people, compared to India’s 1.3 billion.

Few would know that the other “stans” – Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan – are such small economies that, combined, they are smaller than Kazakhstan.

They are so empty, so poor and so ignored that they provide a natural breeding ground for fundamentalist Islamic movements and terrorists keen to take their grievances out on the world. For the US or Nato powers, this is an empty and inconsequential corner of the world, but for China it is next door and a logical target for pre-emptive attention.
Estimates suggest there are around 260 belt and road projects in the “stans”, including Pakistan. Kazakhstan’s oil and gas exports have been developed around China-funded infrastructure, and its West Europe-West China Highway is set to earn an estimated US$5 billion a year in transit fees.
Turkmenistan has China-funded gas pipelines. Kyrgyzstan has seen investment of more than US$4 billion since 2011. Tajikistan has China-funded roads, railways, pipelines and power plants. Uzbekistan, looking at routes to the Persian Gulf, signed more than 100 contracts for infrastructure projects during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in 2017.


Belt and Road Initiative explained

Belt and Road Initiative explained

Afghanistan has been conspicuously absent from this investment flow, though a fascinating study by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation has identified huge potential for a country it regards as “the heart of Asia”.

Recent meetings between China and the Taliban make it clear that China is determined not to follow the US into this “graveyard of empires”. Instead, it sees the Belt and Road Initiative extending its reach into Afghanistan, perhaps initially down the Wakhan Corridor that provides a narrow direct link between Xinjiang and Afghanistan, but also through extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
For Beijing, it has already made clear to the Taliban that cooperation will depend on stabilising the country and disassociating itself from terrorist groups. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “The new regime in Afghanistan must cut ties with all international terrorist groups, restrain and crack down on terrorist forces including the ETIM and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hub of terrorist and extremist forces again.”

This involves a huge leap of faith on Beijing’s part. Expecting a highly fragmented Taliban, in particular its on-the-ground leadership across Afghanistan’s wild and remote corners, to break bonds with jihadi groups that for decades have been brothers in arms must take a significant dose of wishful thinking.

But looking on in horror at the past week’s developments in Afghanistan, maybe wishful thinking is the only option we have. The balance of power in Central Asia has seismically shifted, and short-term turmoil is inevitable. But, out of the ashes, perhaps China and its Belt and Road Initiative may have new-found relevance.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view