America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan prompted triumphalist thinking among some Chinese observers: If the world’s lone superpower possessed neither the will nor the capacity to stay for as long as was necessary to defeat a mere insurgency, the argument went, how could — and why would — Taiwan expect the US to defend it against an attack by a formidable nation-state, possessing the world’s second-largest economy and a rapidly modernizing military? Having left Kabul in ignominy, these observers continued, Washington could no longer assure its allies and partners that it would uphold its other security commitments.
Yet, a reduced US presence in Central Asia will not necessarily advance China’s national interests. Indeed, it is likely to introduce strategic challenges that Beijing did not have to grapple with much over the past two decades.
SOURCES OF CHINA’S CAUTION
If schadenfreude initially prevailed in China, it has increasingly given way to circumspection, for at least two reasons.
Until and unless it assesses that the Taliban is capable of establishing a stable investment climate, Beijing is unlikely to proceed quickly in expanding its Belt and Road Initiative in Afghanistan or setting up operations to mine the country’s rare earth minerals, estimated at 1.4 million tons.
First, having ended its combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US can now focus more squarely on its two principal competitors, China and Russia. In early 2010, journalist Steve Clemons related a conversation he had had several years earlier with an official in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When Clemons asked him to explain China’s grand strategy, the official replied: “We are trying to figure out how to keep you Americans distracted in small Middle Eastern countries.” Tensions in the Middle East have frustrated a bipartisan US push to rebalance eastward for the past two decades — Nina Silove documents that “the idea of reorienting toward Asia” dates to “early 2001,” at the outset of the George W. Bush administration — and one can imagine any number of developments in the region that could yet undercut it, including a failure to revive the Iran nuclear deal. And a growing crisis over Ukraine is currently Washington’s most pressing foreign policy concern — one that is reportedly delaying the release of the Biden administration’s national security strategy. Still, the administration seems unlikely to alter its regional focus (the Asia-Pacific) or its guiding objective (enhancing America’s strategic competitiveness vis-à-vis China).
Second, an unstable neighbor in the throes of a humanitarian crisis further complicates China’s external environment, one that had already been growing more challenging on account of the Quad’s momentum. International assistance, which once accounted for approximately 80% of Afghanistan’s budget, largely dried up after the Taliban retook power, and roughly $9.5 billion of the country’s central bank reserves remain frozen. In addition, the organization’s quest to achieve widespread recognition has foundered; while three countries recognized it when it took power in 1996 — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — no country has recognized it since it retook power last year.
China does not appear to be in any rush to be the first, though it has called for the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s assets and engaged in sustained diplomatic outreach to the Taliban out of self-interest. In addition to fearing an exodus of refugees from Afghanistan, Beijing worries about problematic scenarios, such as the Taliban once again providing sanctuary for terrorist organizations as well as lacking the capacity to prevent the re-establishment of terrorist safe-havens.
CHINA’S CONCERN ABOUT TERRORISM
China is particularly worried about the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement/Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIM/TIP), an Uyghur separatist group based in Xinjiang. A UN Security Council report published earlier this month cites expert estimates that there are 200 to 700 ETIM/TIP members in Afghanistan and notes that the Islamic State is exploiting the turmoil in Afghanistan by “recruiting ETIM/TIP fighters under the leadership of an Uyghur team, in an attempt to expand the organization and support the group’s cause.” A week after the report’s release, Chinese Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun warned that “passivity and negligence on counterterrorism” would have “serious consequences” and urged greater action to “cut off [ETIM/TIP’s] links with [the] Islamic State, eliminating the space in which it breeds.”
In a September 2021 interview with the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen claimed that many ETIM/TIP fighters had left Afghanistan at the organization’s behest. With the steady resumption of foreign aid and the unlocking of the country’s reserves predicated upon the Taliban taking a number of steps — establishing a more inclusive government and permitting women to participate fully in public life, for example — the organization has an incentive to cast itself as more moderate. Many observers are skeptical, though, pointing to the hardline composition of the government; notably, it includes Sirajuddin Haqqani, who, in addition to serving as interior minister, leads the Haqqani network, which maintains close ties to al-Qa’ida.
While China has long been wary of the Taliban, Beijing hopes to influence the organization to both crack down on ETIM/TIP and limit the influence of the Taliban’s principal enemy in Afghanistan, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK). Beyond regarding the Taliban as insufficiently Islamic, ISK rejects its focus on consolidating power in Afghanistan, arguing instead for the establishment of a global caliphate that disavows nation-states as the building blocks of the international system. ISK has lambasted the Taliban’s embrace of China, citing the “eradication of the Uyghur Muslims” and calling China one of the “biggest enemies of Islam.”
China’s foremost priority is arresting further upheaval in Afghanistan. Until and unless it assesses that the Taliban is capable of establishing a stable investment climate, Beijing is unlikely to proceed quickly in expanding its Belt and Road Initiative in Afghanistan or setting up operations to mine the country’s rare earth minerals, estimated at 1.4 million tons.
CHINA’S EYES ON CENTRAL ASIA
In formulating its approach to postwar Afghanistan — and, more broadly, to a newly unsettled Central Asia — China has to navigate not only a tricky relationship with the Taliban but also a tense balance with Russia. While the deepening of the Sino-Russian entente proceeds apace, Elizabeth Wishnick explains that Beijing and Moscow are not fully aligned in their visions for the region:
“Russia is engaging more with India on regional security, is cautious about recognizing the Taliban, and seeks to maintain its role as the primary security partner for Central Asia. This contrasts with China’s efforts to exclude India, increase its role in Central Asian security, and engage with Taliban in the interest of preventing security threats to Xinjiang.”
Though mainstream commentary sometimes suggests that China is poised to sweep into Afghanistan now that the US has left, Beijing would probably prefer not to deal with a new source of instability on its western border; it already has its hands full figuring out how to respond to an increasingly potent Quad. That judgment should offer some reassurance to the US at a time when US observers express growing concerns about China’s power and ambitions: Beijing does not automatically and invariably benefit when Washington reduces its presence in a given country or region. In fact, sometimes, that reduction can create new difficulties for Beijing’s foreign policy.
Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice. He is the author of the forthcoming book “America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing US Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition.”