September 26, 2022
JAKARTA – 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 “ringmaster”.
On Aug. 15 last year, when 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.
For the last few years, the Americans’ presence in this territory has been withering away; virtually non-existent in Iran or the adjoining Central Asian states that have closer ties with Moscow and an increasingly clotted relationship with Pakistan.
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 tensions across the Taiwan Strait that have better prospects to stimulate his personal approval ratings and expand the Democrats’ vote bank in the forthcoming mid-term polls in November.
At the same time, Afghanistan watchers and analysts are predicting that Beijing will eventually fill this vacuum created by the Americans’ departure and will quickly replace the US completely.
But this is not exactly what has happened so far. China has certainly augmented its presence in Afghanistan but with no apparent intention or haste to replace the US.
However, al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri’s death in the drone attack has confirmed one thing that contrary to earlier perception about the Americans’ shrinking interest in Afghanistan, the White House’s umbilical cord with the region is still very much intact and the Americans are not ready to leave the 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 the different dimensions of the US long-term – and short-term – strategic intent in Afghanistan, which has extremely close physical proximity to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), 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.
The irony is that despite all their attempts to keep the Chinese out of the Afghanistan theater, 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 completely comfortable with its current rulers. Two major strategic compulsions 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 2050 Vision 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 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: the formation of an inclusive government and restraints on Uyghur militants, but so far the progress is quite disappointing on both matters. Despite several indirect and direct reminders from Beijing, with the intention of having 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 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 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 Balochi militias and other militants who are targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan. Although it has noticeably dropped down in the list of concerns compared to a year ago, the issue of the militants is a major thorn for both sides. China is seriously worried about the spread of instability from Afghanistan to the north into Central Asia and south into Pakistan.
Yes, violence has been significantly toned down in Afghanistan in the last year but it has found a new surge in Pakistan (where the Chinese projects are being targeted specifically), reportedly by groups with 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 has been palpated ever since the Taliban took over and while their links to Afghanistan are relatively limited and quite different from Pakistan, this is supplementing a wider Chinese fear for regional instability.
The Taliban needs to exhibit a paradigm shift in their approach, if they want to remain relevant in the coming days. Afghanistan is already in the grip of a massive food crisis and the cash-strapped Taliban regime is not in a position to tackle the looming humanitarian crisis on its own.