Butterfly Effect: Is China Ready to Step Up in Afghanistan?

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Because post-U.S. Afghanistan is China’s great opportunity to show it’s truly a big power … if it’s ready to seize the moment.

Afghanistan has long been a nest of spies, with American, Russian, Iranian, Pakistani, Indian and European spooks jostling for contact with the multiple warlords, militias and factions of the Taliban that control much of the country outside Kabul. Last December, that list got a fresh addition.

Authorities arrested and deported a group of Chinese spies who were allegedly working with the Haqqani network, among the Taliban’s most brutal allies, to track down Uyghur extremists sheltering in that country. The arrests caught the region by surprise since China wasn’t known to have invested in espionage in Afghanistan.

But the spy operation spotlighted Beijing’s growing sense of urgency around its future role in Afghanistan. Now with President Joe Biden announcing that the U.S. will withdraw all troops from the country by Sept. 11 and NATO following suit, time’s quickly running out for China. The moment represents an unprecedented opportunity for Beijing to establish its credentials as a modern-day great power. But is it really ready to assume that mantle?

America’s exit from Afghanistan will leave a security vacuum there that’s sure to spark a new tussle for influence between the democratically elected but weak government of President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban and other militias. Different sides in this battle for Kabul have overt or unspoken alliances with different regional powers: Pakistan, Iran, India and Russia.

There’s only one nation that wields influence with all sides: China. Beijing is now the largest foreign investor in Afghanistan, making it a critical partner for the elected government as it tries to build an economy amid a never-ending war. That includes a $3 billion lease for a giant copper mine in Aynak, some 20 miles southeast of the capital. China had originally omitted Afghanistan from its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a grand network of railroads, ports and highways connecting Southeast Asia and South Asia to Europe and Africa. But it has since pivoted, with plans now for branches that will extend out from the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the marquee project of the BRI, into Afghanistan.

At the same time, China has been cementing its relations with the Taliban and its friends like the Haqqani network. Those ties aren’t new: Chinese officials were signing deals with their Taliban counterparts on Sept. 11, 2001, as planes were smashing into the Twin Towers. However, relations haven’t always been smooth — Taliban militants murdered a group of Chinese workers in 2004. But in recent years, they’ve not only bonded but done so increasingly openly.

China has hosted Taliban leaders, including in 2019, when it helped broker a deal between the militant group and America. Like the Afghan government, the Taliban needs investments, infrastructure and jobs in the parts of the country it controls. China offers them that in return for a working relationship in which the Taliban ignores Beijing’s human rights abuses against its Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.

China’s influence isn’t restricted to the key players within Afghanistan. It is also the principal economic benefactor of both Pakistan and Iran, Afghanistan’s two largest neighbors. China has been by far the biggest foreign investor in Pakistan for a while. And earlier this year, it announced a $400 million investment in Iran, while also continuing to purchase Tehran’s oil despite U.S. sanctions. That clout will prove useful in Afghanistan too.

Pakistan’s military intelligence agency has long financed, armed and sheltered the Taliban, while Iran has cultivated the group more recently. Neither Islamabad nor Tehran can afford to upset Beijing, which can count on them to use their contacts and influence to pressure the Taliban and other militias to stay in line. In effect, China — unlike the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the U.S. since 2001 — might not need a large physical presence in Afghanistan to wield similar influence, because unlike those other powers, it isn’t seen as the enemy by any major player in the country.

Despite these advantages, Beijing is clearly hesitant, even anxious, about its future in Afghanistan. It responded to Biden’s withdrawal announcement by demanding that NATO and the U.S. pull out slowly, so as not to create an opportunity for terrorists to gain ground. By terrorists, China principally means the Islamic State group, which has a worrying presence in Afghanistan, and Uyghur separatists.

Afghanistan has long been a graveyard of empires, with the British, Soviets and now America all suffering military defeats or stalemates that seemed impossible on paper. And the Taliban has long shown that it’s unpredictable, at times even defying Pakistan. The militant group is almost certain to launch a violent push for full power in Kabul. However things look when the dust finally settles, that interim chaos and conflict won’t help China’s investments or its BRI plans.   

But the biggest reason for China’s ambivalence lies in its own recent history. Even in its emergence as an economic giant, it has eschewed the responsibility of ensuring peace beyond its borders, in another country or part of the world. Yet that’s a role that every major power throughout history has had to embrace at some point. We don’t know if Biden intended to do so, but he has presented China with its greatest “big power test” to date. This could be Beijing’s moment. Will China seize it?

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