The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated greatly after Taliban takeover of Kabul, on August 15, 2021. The situation in Afghanistan has created an immediate humanitarian crisis, and has adversely affected security of the region. Further, with the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan, the role of China in this crisis would be important.
On July 13, 2021 Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that China supports and expects all parties in Afghanistan to follow the “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” principle. Without naming Taliban, he shared China's expectations for the future of Afghanistan: “a country that has a broad-based and inclusive political arrangement, pursues a sound (moderate) Muslim policy, resolutely strikes down on all forms of terrorism and extremist ideologies, and commits to friendly relations with all neighbouring countries”…. These expectations from China have been highlighted by its state media and experts in the recent past.
In this background, the paper seeks to analyse the current Chinese domestic discourse and its strategic objectives vis-a-vis recent developments in Afghanistan.
Debate in China on US withdrawal from Afghanistan
There is ongoing geo-strategic competition between China and the US. The Chinese state media and experts have highlighted ‘failures’ of the US in Afghanistan and have seen it as an example of humiliation of the US and its declining global prestige. Lan Jianxue, from the China Institute of International Studies, pointed out that “the US has completely abandoned the Afghan people, leaving only devastation and endless misery”. The Chinese media has highlighted that, “The US is confronted with a historic defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban. America’s longest war, which began in 2001, is ending in complete humiliation”. The US has sunk into a quagmire of the ‘graveyard of empires’. Further, China should not try to fill the vacuum left by the US in Afghanistan. Chinese strategic community advance the argument that the UN Security Council would need to send a peacekeeping force in Afghanistan if the country encounters a huge crisis in the future. Chinese experts suggest that China could constructively facilitate Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction.
The Chinese media has even tried to convey a message to Taiwan by arguing that the alliance that Taiwan has established with the US is nothing more than an empty promise like Afghanistan. It has also warned of the risks for US allies and partners in Asia. Such a narrative being espoused by China is being countered by experts especially from the US.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has also been used to highlight the ‘failure’ of American model of democracy by Chinese government and experts. On August 20, 2021, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated that “For us, a key criterion (for democracy) is whether the country can meet people’s expectations, needs and aspirations. In this sense, Chinese democracy is people's democracy while the US’ is money democracy; the Chinese people enjoy substantial democracy while Americans have democracy only in form; China has a whole-process democracy while the US has voting democracy that comes every four years.” Jin Liangxiang from Shanghai Institutes of International Studies highlighted that “Afghanistan is also proof that American-style democracy cannot simply be inserted into countries with different cultural backgrounds”. Such statements suggest that the Chinese government has an agenda to highlight the importance of the stability of the Chinese model of governance to its own people and the international community.
Therefore, it can be said that the current Chinese discourse emphasises the ‘failure’ of the US in Afghanistan amid its own rising status in international relations with the aim to forging a narrative of US decline and propagating the Chinese model of governance. By doing so, it wants to send a message to domestic audience as well as international community about ‘Chinese exceptionalism’ as well as its imminent ‘rise’. There are sceptics who are not convinced and maintain that it is an instance of strategic overconfidence for China. It considers that it is premature to announce China’s rise at the world stage.
China’s Strategic Objectives in Afghanistan
China’s strategic objective in Afghanistan is primarily linked with stability in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and its special relations with Pakistan.
Xinjiang and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) factor
Stability in Xinjiang is a subject of critical importance to China due to political, strategic and economic reasons. Xinjiang is the largest administrative region of China and occupies approximately one-sixth of its land mass. Xinjiang borders Afghanistan, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and India. It has vast mineral resources and is also home to China’s nuclear test site, Lop Nor.
The Chinese government has maintained that East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a big threat to China as it keeps sending members to China to plot terrorist attacks. Chinese concerns are significant as some reliable reports, especially from UNSC, have noted that ETIM has maintained close ties with the Taliban, Al-Qaida and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Further, sources from China suggest that some branches/fighters of the Afghan Taliban have joined ETIM as members.As per reports, ETIM has several hundred fighters in Afghanistan, primarily in Badakhshan and neighbouring provinces.
In the past, it has been reported that the ETIM and other anti-China terrorist groups have found safe haven in Pakistan–Afghanistan tribal regions. This is considered a grave threat to the national security of China. China’s promulgation of a series of laws, especially the new National Security Law (July 2015) and the country’s first Anti-Terrorism Law (December 2015) was aimed to counter such threats.
China is no stranger to the Taliban. Using the channel of Pakistan, it was in constant touch with its leadership. On July 28, 2021, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met a nine-member Taliban delegation led by Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin. In his statement Wang Yi noted that “Afghan Taliban is an important military and political force in Afghanistan” and hoped that “the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with all terrorist organisations including the ETIM and resolutely and effectively combat them to remove obstacles”. Abdul Ghani Baradar has been quoted saying that Afghan Taliban would not allow any forces to do anything harmful to China in Afghanistan’s territory. However, the statement released by China’s Foreign Ministry has not informed about the specific commitments made by Abdul Ghani Baradar on the issue of countering ETIM.
Questions over Taliban’s Assurances on Terrorism
There are serious doubts in the strategic community in China about the assurances given by Taliban to China on countering terrorism in view of their past atrocities. There are also doubts over the capacity and intentions of Afghan Taliban to stop terrorist activities targeting China. Qian Feng, Director of the Research Department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, argues that “If the security situation in Afghanistan doesn’t improve soon, terrorist activities may flare up in the country and threaten China’s Xinjiang and regional countries where China has interests”. Further, he notes that although the Afghan Taliban has stated not to allow any force to use Afghan territories to attack China, “it may lack real control of the complex power branches and remote mountainous areas.”
China has always been averse to the Taliban’s ideological and terrorist agenda. Further, the Chinese government is concerned about the probable inspirational effect of Taliban’s success in Afghanistan on militancy across the region, including the Pakistani Taliban. A Chinese expert from Shanghai Institutes of International Studies has noted that “As Afghanistan's neighbouring country that also severely suffers from terrorism, extremism and separatism...Beijing doesn't want Kabul to become the hotbed of those horrible acts and beliefs”.
As per recent media reports, Taliban released prisoners from Kabul jail allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda, IS terror groups, just after takeover of Kabul. This incident indicates that Taliban is not going to end their associations with terrorist groups.
While speaking at an emergency meeting of the UNSC on the situation in Afghanistan held under India’s presidency on August 17, 2021, Geng Shuang, China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to UN said that “Afghanistan must never become a haven for terrorists. This is the bottom line that must be held firmly for any future political solution in Afghanistan.” The statement sounds like a warning to Afghanistan (Taliban). Therefore, it can be said that China’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban might not be smooth and will be tested in future, especially on the issue of countering terrorism.
China’s Special Relations with Pakistan
It has been established that the China–Pakistan relationship gained momentum after the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. In recent past, China has used Pakistan to meet its broader foreign policy objectives including keeping terrorist groups out of China’s troubled Xinjiang region.
In 2017, China proposed and established a trilateral dialogue mechanism among foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. By establishing such mechanisms China acknowledged the important role of Pakistan and wanted to use Pakistan’s influence on Taliban in its favour. The fourth meeting of the trilateral dialogue was held in June 2021. During the meeting, all three sides agreed to strengthen joint efforts to combat the ETIM and other terrorist groups.
The fact remains that Pakistan is a source of terrorism in the region and it worked against the principles of counter-terrorism by sheltering, arming and training the Taliban and other terrorist groups. The irony is that China has seen the issue of Afghanistan through the prism of Pakistan. In these circumstances, any serious efforts to counter terrorism in the region might not succeed.
China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a telephonic conversation with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on August 18, 2021. Both leaders talked about enhancing communication and coordination on Afghan issues. The Pakistani Foreign Minister has been quoted saying that “The domestic situation in Afghanistan is moving toward stability and the people’s life has gradually returned to normal.” This is a premature statement on the situation of Afghanistan. A number of media reports and visuals from Afghanistan, including those coming out from Kabul airport, provide a totally different picture.
Role of India
Chinese experts have raised questions about India’s influence in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal and have even mentioned that India is in the process of adjusting its policies. It is noteworthy that a serious research done by Qian Xuemei, Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Peking University (in 2018) highlights a number of important conclusions. Qian appreciates Indian model to deliver major projects in Afghanistan. He notes: “In terms of concrete projects, India’s aid is more comprehensive and covers more widely than that of China”… Afghans valued that India had made greater contribution to Afghanistan than UN and NATO”. Further, he acknowledged that India has been more successful in winning the hearts and minds of the people. This is a correct depiction of India’s involvement in Afghanistan.
The current domestic debate in China needs to be understood in its proper context. Now, it is well documented that Deng Xiaoping’s “24 character guidelines” to keep a low profile in international affairs has been sidelined by President Xi Jinping. This suits Chinese interests in current moment of history where the debate related to the rise of China and so called decline of the US has dominated the Chinese discourse in the context of messy withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan. In March 2021, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, has been quoted saying to US officials (at a summit in Alaska) that they did “not have the qualification ...to speak to China from a position of strength”. This is in line with China’s call to enhance its strategic confidence. In China’s Central Conference on Foreign Affairs (2018) and at the 19th Party Congress (2017), the message came out that China has arrived on the world stage and Chinese model of democracy and governance proved to be effective.
China desires to play a larger regional and global role under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. But, it does not want to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the US in Afghanistan as there were serious risks involved. It wishes to achieve its strategic objectives in Afghanistan by cooperating with Taliban through the help of Pakistan. The domestic debate in China has raised serious concerns about China’s future relations with Taliban. There is hardly any doubt that the issue of countering terrorism will be a litmus test for their relationship.
*Dr. Sanjeev Kumar, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
 As quoted in Deepak, BR, “How China sees tha Taliban” New Delhi ,available at https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/opinion/china-sees-taliban?fbclid=IwAR3tkACpD0U8453m6XyOkAfxuVIo6ZE7flHdqX5DUpEvsqvNqBOaTLEf_L4
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