China in Afghanistan: Not Ready for the Burden

An August 29 interview of China’s Special Envoy on the Afghanistan Yue Xiaoyong offers a useful overview of China’s views and concerns about the situation in the aftermath of the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

The Chinese envoy’s reference to “The irresponsible and hasty withdrawal of the troops of the United States as well as the NATO” indicates that the Chinese too have been caught in a situation where they are not prepared with options. The fact that the interview was conducted in English suggests among other things that they are not shy of letting the world know this.

China has at least two challenges before it with implications for its security. One, in managing the Taliban itself, and the other in terms of impact on its other neighbours. 

It should be clear that the Chinese are walking a thin, difficult line with the Taliban. While the Chinese interviewer’s effort was to ask questions in a manner that tried to call into question the impartiality of western news agencies — “Are [the Taliban] really scary people as we see from CNN or BBC, or are they normal people like you and me?” — it is noteworthy that the Chinese ambassador did not answer in the affirmative, but was guarded in his response. 

Yue called members of the Taliban political office in Doha “friendly” and always willing to “exchange views” even though there were “some sticky points” and went on to quickly underline that Beijing had emphasised the Taliban “should really pay attention to protect[ing] safety and security of Chinese embassy and other embassies there and protecting the lives and institutions and the companies of China there”. 

Indeed, Chinese talking points on peace, reconciliation and reconstruction, are frequently tied to their primary concern — ensuring Afghanistan is not used as a base for terrorism targeting China. Thus, Yue, repeatedly called for “the Taliban and other stakeholders to resolutely fight terrorism” and for the Taliban itself to “make a clean and clear break from any terrorist groups”.

Speaking specifically of Tajikistan and Pakistan as neighbours to both China and Afghanistan, the ambassador said China was “very worried about the stability of Afghanistan, how and whether there will be spilling over of the violence and chaotic situation”. Clearly, the Chinese worry about potential trouble in its other neighbours arising from the situation in Afghanistan. 

Beijing also appears extremely concerned about Afghanistan splitting up over the current situation. This must be read as another way of saying that the Chinese will not support anti-Taliban forces currently located in the Panjshir Valley, which could potentially be supported by the US and India.

Walking The Talk

There are two other big challenges China faces.

One will be for Beijing to make good on its talk of support for Afghanistan’s reconstruction. This will be hard given Chinese economic aid and investment will most likely be tied closely to the Taliban preventing Uyghurs separatists from using Afghan territory to target China. 

Thus, while the Chinese envoy talked of “promising and potential connectivity projects” and made the obligatory reference to the Belt and Road Initiative, he also quickly suggested that other “regional countries themselves have a lot of very good thinking” on economic projects with respect to Afghanistan. He highlighted that Afghanistan’s neighbours — there was no mention of India at all in the interview — were “ready to help both on the peace side process and on the reconstruction side”. He specifically referred to his Pakistani counterpart talking of sharing the benefits of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor with Afghanistan

Indeed, in as clear a sign as any that the Chinese are not interested in carrying the load by themselves, Yue called on the US to “redress” its mistakes and frequently attempted to make the situation in Afghanistan as a case “for common concern and common interests of the neighbouring, regional and international society at large.” Yue even called the US still an “important player and outside actor”.

Another challenge — perhaps, the most important — will be for China to look different from the US and other western nations and match its rhetoric of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs in practice.

While telling the US to henceforth refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states, the Chinese ambassador conveniently forgot how China itself interfered in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and undermined the democratically-elected government in Kabul by conducting parleys with the Taliban all these years. Indeed — and despite the Taliban’s military victory — he continued in essence to interfere by pointing out that there are other “stakeholders” inside Afghanistan and that a Taliban-led government had to be “inclusive”. 

While the emphasis on “inclusive” can be read to mean that the previous internationally-accepted and US-supported government was not inclusive, it is also just as much a sign of Beijing’s discomfort with the nature of the Taliban regime and the impact it might have on China’s own long-oppressed Muslim minority populations. 

Conclusion

China might find it hard to step back from its new habit of proffering advice unasked and to stay out of the “messy situation” in Afghanistan, especially if Chinese citizens are targeted in some fashion. In short, no one should get carried away by China’s apparent victory by default in the Afghanistan context. Any success or gain in reputation vis-à-vis the US (or India) is only notional at this point. The real challenges for China in Afghanistan lie ahead.

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Does China really have the upper hand in Afghanistan?’, Moneycontrol, 1 September 2021.  

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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