American policymakers have become determined to retreat from Afghanistan and return to playing power politics. But while the US may want to leave, China is looking to enter.
In the remote mountains of the Wakhan Corridor, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan share a 47-mile border. It is here that the past and future of American foreign policy meet. For nearly twenty years the United States has been bogged down fighting a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the world watched China rise to become an economic and military giant poised to challenge American hegemony across the world.
Exhausted from the frustration of fighting an asymmetric war and alerted to the rising threat in the east, American policymakers have become determined to retreat from Afghanistan and return to playing power politics. While it may seem that Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and people have tallied another great power off their list, interest in that country hasn’t changed: while the US may want to leave, China is looking to enter.
Chinese investment in Afghanistan
Despite its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has yet to invest in Afghanistan as the overland belt of the BRI through Central Asia avoids the country.
The security situation in Afghanistan proved too volatile to merit Chinese investment and thus Afghanistan’s neighbors received the bulwark of Chinese overland BRI investment while Afghanistan itself was left in the dark.
However, this is no longer the case. Beijing has shown an increased willingness to spend on infrastructure and energy in its Western neighbor after years of reluctance. Energy pipelines and trade infrastructure are on China’s agenda in the country – though the Afghan government’s war with the Taliban presents a threat to the stability such projects demand.
While the Taliban is and will likely remain a substantial force in Afghan society, they have shown interest in working with China. Seeing the American withdrawal as a diplomatic opportunity, Chinese officials have increased relations with both the Afghan government and the Taliban. For Beijing, the hope is that playing regional politics right will protect Chinese economic ambitions. However, while China is known as the great investor, it is Afghanistan that has what China wants. Rich in minerals, Afghanistan can help power China’s economic rise for years to come.
What Afghanistan has to offer
There is around a trillion dollars in natural resources buried beneath the war-torn surface of Afghanistan. Copper, iron, gold, cobalt and, most importantly for China, lithium, can be excavated there. Lithium is required to make batteries, whether they be for cellphones, electric vehicles, or common household items. Some commentators have even compared lithium to oil in terms of the value it will have in an increasingly high-tech world.
Beijing has taken notice of this and is attempting to gain as much power in the lithium market as possible. The PRC already has lithium deposits and is investing in other countries, such as Bolivia, to monopolize the resource as much as possible. While the tech industry is currently led by the US, China is racing to develop products such as electric vehicles to become more competitive.
China’s security fears
Despite potentially expanding the BRI and extracting rare earth minerals, China has not established a strong presence in Afghanistan. The obvious reason for this is the instability associated with the war between US-backed coalition forces and the Taliban. But China has other security concerns in the region.
The Wakhan Corridor connects Afghanistan to Xinjiang, the home of China’s Muslim Uighur population and the center of much of the criticism directed at the PRC.
It is feared that the Wakhan Corridor could be used as a potential target for terrorists. China is acutely aware of the threat of terrorism. The increased security presence in Xinjiang, which includes the high levels of surveillance and the “education centers” often criticized as internment camps, are justified as a shield against Uighur separatist and jihadist groups.
As Afghanistan serves as a training base for global terrorism, the Chinese government does not want the Wakhan Corridor to serve as a highway for terrorists to enter China. As coalition forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased their presence along the border and within Afghanistan itself.
The cliché often attributed to Afghanistan is that it is the “graveyard of empires.” The British Empire, the Soviet Union and the US all have a long and complicated history in that country that impacted to some degree their global power – now, it’s China’s turn.
What differentiates China from previous world powers is that Chinese interest in the region is economic, while the British, Soviet and American interest was borne out of strategic necessity. Beijing does not want to be drawn into a protracted war and would rather trade then fight.
What is known is that Afghanistan will not, and may never, fall out of global headlines. Like the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the US before it, the history of Chinese power is likely to be intertwined with the fate of Afghanistan.
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