With the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan on track to be completed by September 11, 2021, the country is experiencing a surge in violence. Emboldened by the evacuation of NATO forces from the country, the Taliban have been bringing large swaths of territory under their control, now occupying as much as 85% of the country according to their own estimates. Though these figures are disputed by the Afghan government, it is clear that the security situation of the country is deteriorating rapidly, with potential negative consequences for all surrounding countries. China, which shares a narrow border with Afghanistan, is closely monitoring the situation seeing as its interests in Afghanistan and the Central Asia region as a whole are far-reaching. Beijing has two main sets of concerns related to Afghanistan.
Firstly, China is concerned by security problems which might threaten domestic stability. The main fear is that an unstable Afghanistan could become a hotbed from which Uyghur dissidents could foment instability in the bordering Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). In particular, Beijing is concerned by the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). ETIM is a Uyghur separatist group whose goal is to establish an independent state in place of the XUAR. China considers the ETIM a terrorist organization and has used this rationale to justify its crackdown in Xinjiang. In contrast, the US dropped the designation of ETIM as a terrorist organization in November 2020, arguing that the group has not been active for a decade.
Due to its concerns about instability and international terrorism spilling across the Afghan-China border, China has stepped up its security cooperation with Kabul in recent years. To address these risks, China also directly supported Tajik and Pakistani border forces to ensure that these countries will not become a channel for Afghanistan’s internal problems to reach its own borders. Moreover, in December 2020 a network of ten Chinese spies was apprehended in Kabul by Afghanistan security forces. These Chinese nationals are believed to have attempted to collect information about Uyghur militants, revealing the deep level of anxiety China has about the matter as well as its commitment to rigorously addressing perceived threats across its borders.
Another security concern is the presence of US military bases in Central Asian countries. Reports have already surfaced that the US is eyeing Central Asian countries where it can establish military bases to keep terrorist activities in neighbouring Afghanistan under control. On the one hand, China fears that the US could use its presence in the region to foment instability within its own borders, while on the other, it has also recognized US military presence in the region as a positive force for quelling militants and reducing instability. However, the increasingly confrontational trajectory of China-US relations has made leaders in Beijing adverse to the presence of US troops near its borders. Thus, China is likely to leverage its economic ties with countries in the region to avoid this from happening.
Secondly, internal instability in Afghanistan is a threat to China’s economic activity and investments in the country. Although its investments in Afghanistan are small compared to those in Pakistan, Beijing is steadily increasing its involvement in the country and has expressed its willingness to invest in infrastructure and connectivity projects in the war-torn country. Bilateral trade flows between the two countries doubled from $338 million in 2013 to $629 million in 2019. Furthermore, China has floated the idea of integratting Afghanistan into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Despite these significant goals, China’s ambitions have been restrained due to the unstable security situation in Afghanistan. Yet the Central Asia region is particularly significant because it is the cradle of the BRI, which was launched in Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana). Therefore, a potential spillover of the Afghanistan conflict to neighbouring Central Asian countries - with consequent damages to BRI investments there - is a threat to Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions as well as its domestic stability. The failure of such mammoth investment plans in the Central Asia region would also be an embarrassing blow to Xi Jinping’s vision for China.
Due to its high stakes in the country, China has so far hedged against any possible outcome of the conflict to ensure that whoever will lead Afghanistan in the future will share its concerns about the perceived threat posed by militants and the security of its investments in the country. Accordingly, Beijing maintains contact with both the Afghan government and the Taliban, and has offered itself several times as a mediator of talks between the two. China has also engaged in several regional forums to further the peace process, and has even hosted the Taliban itself. In recent interviews, Taliban leaders invited Beijing to invest in the country, promising security for Chinese investors and workers and further guaranteeing that they would not host Uyghur militants.
Afghanistan has been dubbed the ‘graveyard of empires’, and for this reason alone any Chinese military intervention in Afghanistan might seem unrealistic. However, Beijing seems determined to take bold steps to guarantee its interests in Afghanistan and avoid domestic threats, as evidenced by the spy operation in Kabul and its increasingly proactive foreign policy in the region. Beijing has also been engaged in several meetings with countries from the region to strengthen cooperation focused on safeguarding regional stability after the NATO military evacuation. Should such soft power interventions be sufficient to ensure stability and prevent the conflict spilling over to its own borders, there will, hopefully, be no need for tougher measures.