For Beijing, growing Chinese influence in Afghanistan means growing its relationship with Afghanistan’s power brokers – including the Taliban.
This May was supposed to mark the withdrawal date for American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan. It appears that will not happen.
Last year, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement detailing the conditions for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Officials from Washington have declared that the Taliban have not met their obligations and the withdrawal will not occur in May.
Despite the likelihood that the US will miss its target withdrawal date, many US officials want to end America’s involvement in the nearly two-decade long war in Afghanistan. Even if the US does eventually withdraw, the war in Afghanistan will likely continue and possibly even intensify as Afghanistan increasingly becomes a geopolitical magnet for its neighbors.
India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and, most notably, China, have all taken an interest in the future of the nation. For Beijing, growing Chinese influence in Afghanistan means growing its relationship with Afghanistan’s power brokers – including the Taliban.
China and the Taliban
The Taliban have led delegations to Beijing to discuss China’s relationship with Afghanistan and America’s role in the region. Beijing has faced heavy criticism in recent years for what many believe to be China’s ethnic cleansing of its Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang – an accusation that Beijing, which is supported by most Muslim-majority governments, denies.
In mid-2019, 37 countries defended the Middle Kingdom, praising China’s human rights history and dismissing its alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. According to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), many of those 37 countries were Muslim majority nations such as Pakistan, Qatar, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Beijing claims that its policies in Xinjiang, which have come under heavy criticism from the West, are part of a counterterrorism program aimed at providing vocational training to the country’s Muslim population in Xinjiang.
Groups such as the Taliban are why China has approached Afghanistan with caution in the past. The two nations share a small border along the narrow Wakhan Corridor that is positioned north of Pakistan and connects to Xinjiang. The Afghanistan-Pakistan region is home to numerous Islamic terror groups including the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, ISIS-Khorasan and al-Qaida.
There are also separatist groups, such as the Balochistan Liberation Army, that have threatened Chinese projects in Pakistan. Beijing’s fear is that Chinese Muslims could join and be trained by these organizations and journey back to China to wage a terror campaign.
There have been reports that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has begun operating inside Afghanistan in recent years. Despite Beijing’s concerns, terrorism only plays a secondary role in its interest with Afghanistan and the Taliban. Its main interest is the execution of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – an interest that China may have in common with the Taliban.
China’s interest in Afghanistan
As part of the Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to grow Chinese economic influence across Asia, Beijing has explored investing more in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is home to natural resources that have been underexploited due to the near-continuous conflict that has engulfed the country for decades. Resources such as gold, iron, copper and lithium, which has become vital to Chinese economic strategy, can be found in the country.
As with many BRI projects, infrastructure is one of China’s top priorities in Afghanistan. Beijing has increased its relationship with Middle Eastern nations as it seeks to secure its energy future. One of China’s most important energy partners in the Middle East is Iran, which is geographically separated from China by Afghanistan.
Afghanistan could provide an overland route from China to Iran, thereby strengthening China’s energy security. Projects ranging from gas pipelines to railroads connecting China and Iran have been explored.
China looks forward
The success of China’s infrastructure project depends on the stability of Afghanistan. China could play a huge role in developing the nation’s infrastructure and, for its part, Afghanistan could play a valuable role for China as a conduit for the shortest route between the Middle Kingdom and the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.
Unlike Beijing’s projects in other nations – the greatest threat in many of which is political instability – open conflict in Afghanistan provides an even more daunting challenge to Beijing, as such conflict could put China at risk of becoming the target of militants.
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