China Will Move Cautiously But Purposefully In Afghanistan

Map showing location of Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan

BEIJING HAS PROBABLY been as taken aback as the rest of the world by the speed with which the Taliban has resumed control of Afghanistan — and created an American-sized power vacuum in the region.

China will, however, be in no hurry to rush in to fill it, even as its leaders take private delight in what they will regard as further evidence of the global decline of the United States.

In the near term, Beijing will happily profess its philosophy of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs. At the same time, it will buy as much peace and stability from the Taliban as it can while keeping the Wakhan Corridor tightly bottled up.

The eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor, a remote mountain valley on the ‘roof of the world’, forms China’s short (less than 100 kilometres) horseshoe-shaped border with Afghanistan. An ancient trade route spilling into Xinjiang through the Wakhjir Pass, it has long been closed at the Chinese end for fear of the drugs, Uighur separatists or other extremists that might flow through it. Tajikistan and Pakistan, to the north and south, respectively, also provide a physical buffer between Afghanistan and China.

Beijing provided modest military and economic support for the now-collapsed Kabul government for the past several years — including training some of the police who melted away in the face of the Taliban advance. Yet, it will have no compunction about pivoting to deal with the Taliban.

It has probably already used its influence in Pakistan to build connections with the new regime. It can offer security and economic assistance in return for protecting Chinese commercial interests and assurances that the Taliban will not support Uyghur militant forces or allow them to use the country as a base or transit route.

As a secondary objective, it will also seek the use of the Taliban’s influence in assuaging its growing security concerns for Chinese citizens and interests along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The ‘March West‘ policy since the mid-2010s has led Beijing to be increasingly involved in West Asia and the Middle East, not only deepening its relationships with Iran and Pakistan but expanding engagement with other regional powers such as Saudia Arabia.

However, what should have been a serious complication for China’s regional relationships — its treatment of the Uighurs — has been notably buttoned down by Beijing. Few Middle Eastern leaders have spoken out publicly on this — a sign of the importance of the growing ties in other areas plus Beijing’s ability to use its economic clout to dampen international criticism of its domestic policies.

The March West is, however, a journey of influence and transactional relationships, not empire. Beijing knows full well that Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires.

The issue that Beijing will eventually have to face in Afghanistan is the one that has confronted other outside powers before it: it is difficult to maintain a neutral position in a part of the world where there are so many overlapping and longstanding rivalries and conflicts.

It will be even more challenging when the time comes, as it surely will, for Beijing to step up its diplomatic and security engagement beyond the purely mercantilist.

1 Comment

Filed under China-Central Asia, China-Pakistan

One response to “China Will Move Cautiously But Purposefully In Afghanistan

  1. Pingback: China Provides Afghan Aid Modestly And Cautiously | China Bystander

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