China increases influence in Afghanistan
IS China going to play the role of big brother in Afghanistan? The answer to this question is partly “yes”.
China is certainly emerging as the most influential player in the Afghanistan imbroglio, but it will never replicate the United States as the “ring master”.
On August 15 last year, when the US forces officially withdrew from Afghanistan and handed over the reins of this war-torn country to the Taliban, it appeared that the Biden administration had decided to ostensibly abandon the Central Asian region as a low strategic interest territory.
With virtual non-existence in Iran and adjoining Central Asian states that have closer ties with Moscow, and increasingly clotted relationship with Pakistan, for the last one year, the Americans’ presence in this territory had been withering away.
There is a feeling that US President Joe Biden is implementing a complete disengagement strategy in the region because of other more “glamorous” issues like the simmering Ukraine crisis and the escalating tension across the Taiwan Strait that have better prospects to stimulate his personal approval ratings and expand Democrats’ vote bank in the forthcoming mid-term polls in November.
At the same time, the Afghanistan watchers and analysts are predicting that Beijing would eventually fill this vacuum created by the Americans’ departure and will quickly replace the United States completely.
But this is not exactly what has happened so far. China has certainly augmented its presence in Afghanistan, but with no apparent intention and haste to replace the United States there.
However, on the other hand, Al Qaeda leader Zawahiri’s death in the drone attack has confirmed one thing that, contrary to the earlier perception about the Americans’ shrinking interest in Afghanistan, the White House’s umbilical cord with this region is still very much intact and the Americans are not ready to leave this region ‘unattended” that has the potential to ‘slip’ into the folds of Chinese influence.
The Zawahiri episode has given birth to many picking questions about different dimensions of the United States‘ long-term – and short-term – strategic intent in Afghanistan, which has extremely close physical proximity to CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) – the integral part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
There is no doubt that in recent years China has silently assumed the role of the most influential “external” player in Afghanistan.
To the utter disdain of the US, the fingerprints of Beijing are becoming quite visible in the infrastructure development of Afghanistan.
But the irony is that, despite all their attempts to keep the Chinese out of the Afghanistan theatre, Beijing has been quite successful in carving out a tangible role there.
Beijing is absolutely not in a mood to swap Washington as the chief patron of the Taliban government – still it has not yet extended diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government.
Afghanistan is certainly a minefield and, it seems, China is not yet completely comfortable with its current rulers.
Two major strategic compulsion have compelled China to indulge in the Afghan imbroglio: to protect the BRI route and to stop the infiltration of Uyghur militants into China from their bases in Afghanistan.
The BRI is perhaps the most vital part of President Xi Jinping’s Vision 2050, and he is eager to ensure that the BRI is executed without any impediments.
The continuous instability in the vicinity of the BRI route is likely to hamper this ambitious project.
China is keen to ensure that the peace and stability is realized in Afghanistan, owing to its closeness to the CPEC, which in turn is the most crucial component of the BRI.
The Chinese were expecting two assurances from the Taliban regime – formation of an inclusive government and restraints on the Uyghur militants – but so far, the progress is quite disappointing on both the matters.
Despite several indirect and direct reminders from Beijing, with an intention to have a stable central government, for the formation of a broad-based government whose inclusiveness would bolster the stability in Afghanistan, a single faction is continuously dominating the current government.
Similarly, on the question of the Uyghur fighters, the Taliban regime has ostensibly not delivered anything tangible – failing to control them and restrict their activities.
Beijing wants the Taliban to expel Uyghur fighters as well as to curtail the activities of other militant groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which are aggressively trying to emasculate the Pakistani government.
Reportedly, the TTP is involved in offering training to Baloch militias and other militants who are targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan.
The issue of militants is a major thorn for both sides. China is seriously worried about the spread of instability from Afghanistan to north into Central Asia and south into Pakistan.
Yes, violence has been significantly toned down in Afghanistan in the last one year, but it has found a new surge in Pakistan (where the Chinese projects are being targeted specifically) – reportedly by the groups that have deep connections with Afghanistan.
China is very heavily invested and has lots of personnel in Pakistan and Afghanistan and there are genuine worries in Beijing about the security and safety of its assets.
Similarly, in Central Asia, a lot of anxiety and instability is being palpated ever since the Taliban took over, and while their links to Afghanistan are relatively limited and quite different from Pakistan, but still this is supplementing a wider Chinese fear for regional instability.
So, the Taliban needs to exhibit a paradigm shift in their approach if they want to remain relevant in the coming days.
Already Afghanistan is in the grip of massive food crisis, and the cash-strapped Taliban regime is not in a position to tackle the looming humanitarian crisis.
China is perhaps the only country in its neighbourhood that has enough economic muscles – and sincere intent – to salvage the situation and build the much-needed infrastructure in Afghanistan.
—The writer is political analyst, based in Karachi.