“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments in the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API; Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Downing College, University of Cambridge)
This article was posted to the Japan Times on October 5, 2021:
API Geoeconomic Briefing
October 5, 2021
The intentions behind China’s ‘friendly’ policy toward the Taliban
Ph.D, Senior Research Fellow, National Institute for Defense Studies
After Taliban militants took control of Kabul on Aug. 15, the official Weibo account of the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper People’s Daily issued a post along with a 60-second video clip, describing the Taliban as a group, formed by students in refugee camps, that expanded with the support of the poor.
The post, which in no way mentioned the group’s links to terrorism, prompted a huge backlash from users in China and was deleted about four hours after it appeared.
The move is one example of how Chinese media have repeatedly been reporting on the Taliban favorably, presenting positive images of the group.
Even after the incident, Chinese state media outlet China Global Television Network continued to report on the Taliban, emphasizing the group’s efforts to restore order in Afghanistan.
It appears that China is trying to go beyond just giving publicity to the Taliban, and instead move toward building a constructive relationship with the group.
“We are ready to continue to develop good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation with Afghanistan and play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s peace and reconstruction,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on Aug. 16.
On Sept. 8, China pledged 200 million yuan (some ¥3.4 billion) in aid to Afghanistan, including COVID-19 vaccines and food supplies.
On the same day, China skipped a meeting on Afghanistan hosted by Western nations and held a separate meeting on Afghan issues with foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan, Iran and a number of Central Asian nations.
China’s increasingly active diplomacy regarding Afghanistan was seen also on Sept. 17 at a joint summit meeting of the leaders of the China- and Russia-led defense-focused alliance Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states.
But certain questions do beg to be answered:
How does China intend to engage with Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops? Is it planning to lead efforts to build order in the region and create a China-centered order? What is the logic behind China’s Afghanistan policy?
For one, Beijing’s focus is on national security when it comes to Afghanistan issues.
This is because China believes stability in Afghanistan is closely related to the stability of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region.
China has been constantly vigilant to prevent the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement — a group of Uyghurs seeking to establish an independent state — and other terrorist organizations from connecting with foreign militant groups, especially terrorists in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
China’s biggest fear is that Afghanistan will become a hotbed for such separatist or terrorist movements. At present, Beijing seems overly alarmed by separatist movements, reinforcing oppression against Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the country.
China’s fears will increase if Afghanistan is destabilized, reinvigorating terrorist activities.
Stability in Afghanistan also means China may be able to extract mineral resources in the country or expand its Belt and Road Initiative projects there. It is often reported that China is hoping to build its influence in Afghanistan to secure mineral rights.
But things are not so simple.
China has been attempting to conduct business in Afghanistan to some extent, such as winning a bid to mine copper, but the projects have seen little progress so far due to security concerns and lack of infrastructure.
In the eyes of China, Afghanistan has economic potential but it will not be possible to gain profits there unless the country becomes stable.
Testing China’s diplomacy
How China can contribute to the stabilization of Afghanistan will become a litmus test for whether it can play a leadership role in constructing China-centered order. Until now, China has been hesitant in spearheading the move.
Although President Xi Jinping’s administration has been advocating the need to lead efforts to build international order, Beijing has not gone much beyond theories, having had little chance to date to practice such leadership.
In supporting international order, China has upheld the United Nations charter as diplomatic principles, as well as the five principles of peaceful coexistence jointly proposed with India and Myanmar in the 1950s that include mutual respect for sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
Beijing has constantly criticized Western nations for intervening in other countries’ domestic affairs by brandishing democracy and human rights. In turn, these principles have also given China the advantage of being able to engage in pragmatic diplomacy with any country — even those with repressive political systems.
China might think the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul mark the failure and decline of the United States.
In China’s eyes, the fact that the U.S. could not construct a democratic state through its intervention policy and ended up abandoning many Afghan citizens despite its belief in protecting human rights indicates the failure of its logic.
In that sense, the victory of the Taliban might be a welcoming development for China.
However, until now, Beijing has almost entirely relied on the U.S. to stabilize Afghanistan.
Now that the U.S. troops have completely withdrawn from the country, bringing about a power vacuum, who will be taking on the role of stabilization has become a major issue.
The issue is closely related to a major trend in China’s diplomacy — the increasing need to intervene in other countries.
China’s rise has led to expansion of its interests overseas which need to be protected. And concerns over national security are growing almost compulsively, creating higher incentives for the government in Beijing to interfere in other countries.
Discussion is ongoing in China on the need to play what Foreign Minister Wang Yi calls a “constructive role with Chinese characteristics” or “constructive intervention” in diplomacy in order to expand influence on other countries while maintaining an official stance of non-intervention.
Then how is China trying to engage in Afghan issues?
So far, the best scenario for China is the Taliban-led administration building a stable government by moderating their strict Islamic beliefs and not lending support to terrorist activities abroad.
Measures which can be taken by China would be to encourage the Taliban to become moderate, using economic assistance and diplomatic recognition as incentives.
China is promoting a positive image of the Taliban not only to convince the Chinese public of the need to create a friendly relationship with the new administration but also, in a sense, to send a message to the Taliban itself.
What is important to China is multilateral cooperation, especially with Pakistan, Russia, Iran and Central Asian countries.
On Sept. 8, Pakistan hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of countries neighboring Afghanistan — China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Iran, followed by an SCO summit and a joint summit of the SCO and CSTO on Sept. 17, which took up Afghan issues.
A day before the summit meetings, the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran held an unofficial meeting on Afghanistan.
In the meetings, the countries confirmed that they will cooperate on Afghan issues, call on the Taliban to develop an inclusive political structure, pursue moderate policies and work together to counter terrorism.
If China, with the cooperation of countries like Pakistan, can stabilize the region after the U.S. withdrawal, it may represent the first step for a China-led regional order.
However, there is a possibility that things won’t work as China envisages, as it is uncertain whether the Taliban can stabilize the domestic situation, and there is no guarantee that the group will moderate itself.
Furthermore, the Taliban might not necessarily be able to control all the smaller groups operating in the country.
In addition, there are concerns that the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan may actually revitalize terrorist groups. China’s Wang warned of international terrorist groups based in Afghanistan trying to enter neighboring countries.
Lack of trust
China has repeatedly urged the Taliban to completely sever ties with extremists and maintain a hard-line stance against them, indicating its distrust and anxiety toward the military group.
Destabilizing trends were seen in the region in July and August, with suicide bombings in Pakistan killing and injuring Chinese workers.
“All parties should step up intelligence sharing and cooperation in border control, timely arrest and eliminate terrorist groups slipping in from Afghanistan,” Wang said at the meeting of foreign ministers of countries neighboring Afghanistan.
But what will China do if the Taliban fails to become more moderate?
If there are heightened risks of extremists and separatists flowing into China and bringing instability to the Xinjiang region, it might prompt Beijing to intervene more in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
On the other hand, China is likely to avoid interfering too much in Afghanistan — often dubbed the “graveyard of empires” — so as to not repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union and the U.S.
What is important for Beijing will be to keep pace with Russia and Central Asian nations.
From Japan’s perspective, China’s increased involvement in Afghanistan is a mix of good and bad.
If China becomes active in stabilizing Afghanistan, it might lead to Beijing expanding its influence over the region.
Japan, however, should not reject China’s moves to become more responsible in stabilizing the region, considering that China had hardly contributed to maintaining regional order until now.
Moreover, if China starts to focus more on western inland areas rather than on the seas, that could lead to less pressure for countries facing conflicts in the ocean.
The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.