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As U.S. Prepares Exit from Afghanistan, China Seeks to Establish Stability and Secure Investments

Aug 12, 2021
  • Sampson Oppedisano

    Executive Assistant to the Dean, The Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy

After two decades, the United States’ war in Afghanistan is finally coming to an end in late August. Though he is defending his decision, President Joe Biden has received criticism for the quick withdrawal from the country. This has left those with ties and interests in the region to worry about the future of the country as Taliban forces begin to expand. Recently, the Taliban has claimed that it now controls nearly 85% of the country. 

Chief among the critics of the U.S.’s withdrawal is China. Though China often capitalizes on opportunities to criticize the U.S. far-reaching military actions and foreign policy, the withdrawal in Afghanistan has caused a shift in Beijing’s tone, warning that the U.S. will be responsible for any fallout or further instability that results from the swift exit. Though the U.S. withdrawal offers China an opportunity to further embed its influence in the region unimpeded, the resulting instability threatens existing investments and interests that China has in the region. For China, the cost of capitalizing on a U.S.-free Afghanistan will be stepping up engagement with regional actors and assuming some role as a steward for stability. 

China shares borders with several countries in the region that would be susceptible to an increase in instability, including Pakistan and Turkmenistan. It makes sense that China would seek to further its engagement with its neighbors so as to mitigate volatility, and prevent any spillover or at the very least, secure guarantees for the protection of its own interests, namely its Belt-Road Initiative (BRI) projects. 

Currently, China has a number of BRI projects and investments in neighboring countries, dozens of which are in Pakistan, and several of which have been the targets of terror-linked attacks. Most recently, an explosion on a bus left 13 dead, 9 of which were Chinese nationals. Initial reports released by Pakistani officials claimed the incident was due to a mechanical failure, though Beijing claimed it to be a terrorist attack. Shortly after Beijing’s comments, Pakistani officials acknowledged that it was indeed a terrorist-linked attack. This isn’t the first time either that China has been the subject of such attacks. 

In April 2021, a car bomb was detonated right outside a hotel in Pakistan where China’s Ambassador was due to arrive not long before. The attack, which appeared to be in response to China’s growing influence in the region, was allegedly the work of a regional Taliban off-shoot known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban. This has led China and Pakistan to work together to on counter terrorism and to combat the spillover. 

Despite these recent attacks, China has been working to position itself so that it could benefit from a potential Taliban-led Afghanistan. In 2019, a delegation of Taliban officials met with Deng Xijung, China’s Special Representative to Afghanistan, in Beijing to discuss the then recent peace discussions between the U.S. and Taliban. This was the first public engagement between China and the Taliban, though it’s very likely the private discussions have been taking place for much longer. 

Furthermore, officials from China, along with counterparts from India, Pakistan, and Russia and several other nations meet with representatives from Afghanistan via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to discuss the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Founded in 2005, the SCO was established as a means to work on addressing shared economic and security interests with Afghanistan. The move to address concerns via the SCO demonstrates China’s growing clout as a convener and player on the global stage, especially as it continues to try to paint itself as a proponent of multilateralism. 

As for the moment, it appears that Beijing’s efforts may be paying off. Suhail Shaheen, spokesperson for the Taliban, recently stated in an interview that China, along with the economic and infrastructure opportunities it could bring to Afghanistan would be welcomed as a “friend” and that, “If [the Chinese] have investments, of course we will ensure their safety.” Furthermore, in a clear move to alleviate any concerns Beijing may have in regard to relations between Taliban and alleged Uyghur militants in China’s Xinjiang region, Shaheen stated, “We care about the oppression of Muslims, be it in Palestine, in Myanmar, or in China, and we care about the oppression of non-Muslims anywhere in the world. But what we are not going to do is interfere in China’s internal affairs.” Beijing seems to be reciprocating such gestures through its state-run media, Global Times, as several recent articles indicate that China would be willing to acknowledge a Taliban-led Afghanistan as legitimate. 

While the exchange of assurances certainly offer some breathing room, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently called on the Taliban to make a “clean break” with terrorism if they should indeed move in and run Afghanistan’s future government. It is very possible that China will find itself assuming more of a mediator-like role if it hopes to see stability, and ultimately its broader interests in the region secured. While further involvement in the issue may seem contradictory to China’s noninterference policy, there is precedence. 

Previously, Beijing played a similar role during South Sudan’s civil war, which threatened Chinese owned oil interests in the country. During this time, Beijing worked to encourage and support peace talks between the two sides. Additionally, China brought in U.N. peacekeepers to the region to aid with mitigating violence. China is the largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions, and it has been suggested that China has not ruled out deploying peacekeepers to promote some level of stability and protect Chinese interests. 

At the end of the day, the role that China plays in Afghanistan is, at minimum, meant to secure its investments and larger interests. Having already informally exchanged assurances with the Taliban, this may be doable with minimal involvement required. However, due to the deep complexities that make up the present situation in Afghanistan, Beijing will likely find itself working in a mediator-like role with regional actors with the goal of establishing more formalized parameters for stability.  

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