This year could see major shifts in China-U.S. interaction in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Despite worsening ties in other areas, Beijing and Washington have generally pursued harmonious policies regarding these regions. Meanwhile, China has cooperated more closely with Russia in Central Asia than in any other region. But the Trump administration seems prepared to take actions that could undercut Beijing’s favorable situation.
The United States, Russia and China are all worried by the recent spread of the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS) into Afghanistan and Central Asia. Though Russia and China both fear a “spillover” of Afghan disorders into the neighboring Central Asian states and even their own countries, they have shown no interest in replacing the U.S.-led Western military coalition in Afghanistan. They both prefer that the United States and its allies bear the economic and military burden of sustaining the war.
China’s security presence in Central Asia is growing due to Beijing’s expanding stake in the region as well as the overall growth in PRC foreign policy activism and security capabilities. In the past two decades, China has forged strong economic links with Central Asian countries that generally welcome the opportunity to diversify their commercial ties. China now imports much energy from Central Asia and the region is crucial to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project.
China’s regional security concerns have also risen due to continued instability in nearby Afghanistan, the expansion of Islamist extremism, and expectations of a NATO military drawdown in the region. The August 2016 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek is a recent example of regional terrorist attacks on Chinese targets in Central Asia.
China’s economic stake in Afghanistan have grown, but the main PRC problem is the potential for insecurity there to infect Beijing’s more significant economic and security stakes in Central Asia. As China has increased its economic projects in Central Asia and Afghanistan, moreover, Beijing has expressed concern about the safety of Chinese compatriots in the region since the importance of protecting Chinese citizens abroad has become a more prominent feature of the country’s
As a result of these developments, China has expanded its regional security engagement, especially with Central Asian countries bordering the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. These military relations have occurred both in and beyond the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China’s special operations, counternarcotic and counterterrorism exercises with its Central Asian neighbors occur regularly. Chinese military aid, though modest, now goes to all five Central Asian states.
Building on their earlier bilateral and multilateral initiatives, Russia, China, and Pakistan have recently been meeting to address Afghan security issues, particularly the ISIS threat in that country. The Afghan government has objected to its exclusion from the trilateral body. At its third, and most recent, session in late December 2016, the group agreed to invite the Afghan and Iranian governments to participate in future gatherings.
The Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, and Iranian governments have all sharply criticized the ineffectiveness of the U.S.-led international military operation in Afghanistan, which for more than a dozen years has failed to suppress the country’s anti-regime insurgency or its large narcotics trafficking network. They now worry that international forces allow ISIS a foothold in the country.
Moscow and Beijing have recently harmonized their policies regarding the Afghan Taliban. Both now engage in open talks with Taliban leaders and advocate removing some of them from the UN sanctions list, which limits their international travel and foreign financial activities, as a way to foster peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul. Russian officials have argued that they started the dialogue to share intelligence about the more extreme ISIS threat, to encourage the Afghan peace process, and to protect the lives of Russian hostages in Afghanistan. Through this engagement, Russia may also want to weaken the West’s influence in Afghanistan, limit the Taliban’s support for regional terrorism and drug trafficking, and hedge against a Taliban victory in the war.
In the past, Moscow has viewed the Taliban as an impeccable adversary. As the Taliban gained strength in recent years, Russian analysts considered establishing a buffer zone in northern Afghanistan. The rise of the more extreme ISIS, which unlike the Taliban has avowedly global ambitions, presented a serious challenge to Russian (and Chinese) policies in Afghanistan. Russian representatives have therefore followed their Chinese counterparts in considering the Taliban as a possible partner against ISIS.
Even before Russia switched its stance regarding the Taliban, China had already engaged in talks with various Taliban leaders, directly and in partnership with Pakistan, the United States, and other states. China likely uses its Pakistani contacts to press the Taliban to not support anti-Beijing terrorists and to respect Chinese regional economic interests. PRC and U.S. diplomats have led multilateral initiatives on Afghanistan, such as the Istanbul Process, a regional cooperation mechanism that includes more than a dozen Central Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern states promoting Afghan stability.
Despite their worsening ties in other areas, Beijing and Washington have generally pursued parallel policies in Afghanistan. Yet, the U.S. military opposes the Sino-Russian outreach to the Taliban, claiming it weakens Kabul’s legitimacy and denigrates the U.S.-led military operations against both the Taliban and ISIS. The Afghan government argues that it must decide which Taliban leaders, if any, can be de-listed from UN sanctions and demands that the Taliban agree to peace terms first.
Afghanistan presents the incoming Trump administration with a challenge more serious than even Syria. In Kabul, unlike in Damascus, the incumbent government is a longtime U.S. ally. In Afghanistan, unlike in Syria, thousands of U.S. ground troops (rather than Russian soldiers as in Syria) are in the battlefield. Moreover, while China is largely a bystander in Syria, Beijing is an active partner with Moscow in Afghanistan.
President-elect Trump may try to use Afghanistan as a wedge issue to strengthen U.S. ties with India or weaken the Sino-Russian security alignment. If the new Trump administration succeeds in improving Russian-U.S. relations, or cuts back on the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, China’s bargaining leverage vis-à-vis Russia in Central Asia will decline. Trump may simply divest the United States from the Afghan war and dump the problem on Russia and China, which have largely stood apart from the U.S. and NATO military efforts in Afghanistan thus far.