Why China is placing its pawns in Afghanistan

Qatar is no longer the go-to mediator for Afghan affairs. Traditionally essential in discussions between the Taliban authorities in power in Kabul and the major powers, Doha is facing competition from China, host of a third ministerial summit of Afghanistan’s neighbors which took place on Wednesday and Thursday. The list of guests was long: Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the head of diplomacy of the Taliban, Amir Khan Muttaqi, and the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, visiting the country. Meanwhile, China on Thursday held a “consultation mechanism” meeting on Afghanistan involving Chinese, Russian, Pakistani and even American diplomats, Beijing said. If China does play this role of platform for dialogue, which it normally prefers to leave to others, it is because its interests in Afghanistan are primordial and direct. This third meeting in the Anhui region in Tunxi is not insignificant and comes a week after the visit of the head of Chinese diplomacy, Wang Yi, to Kabul. A highly symbolic surprise visit. For the first time, a representative of a great power went to Kabul since the Taliban took power in August 2020. Because for Beijing, its interests in Afghanistan are above all security. “China’s greatest fear is that Afghanistan will once again become a refuge platform for Islamist and jihadist movements around the world”, explains Marc Julienne, researcher and head of China activities at the French Institute of Relations (IFRI). More specifically, Beijing fears that Afghanistan will turn into a fallback base for Islamist separatists within the Uighur community in the Xinjiang region, a vast autonomous province located in northwestern China.

On the national level, these fears are justified by the fact that the two countries share a short border of 76 kilometers at very high altitude, directly involving the security of the Chinese territory, particularly of its adjoining province of Xinjiang with a desire for independence, including the Muslim minority. Uighur is the victim of violent persecution. Historically, Beijing has been very concerned about the possible development of anti-Chinese Islamist groups in Afghanistan. At the end of the 1990s, the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan (MITO), an Islamo-nationalist Uighur group, established itself in Afghanistan with the aim of liberating Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) by carrying out violent attacks on its soil. “It is therefore imperative for Beijing to ensure strong political control in Afghanistan,” notes Marc Julienne. More generally, the stability of the country is decisive for the security of the region. In dialogue with the Taliban government, China seeks to secure Central Asia, which is not immune to potential spillovers from jihadist networks, and to respect its security cooperation commitments, particularly with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. .


For the Taliban, Chinese support is vital. Even today, no great power recognizes their government. This lack of legitimacy weighs heavily on the new authorities in Kabul and suffocates the country diplomatically and economically. Despite the largest ever appeal for funds for a single country and to “end the death spiral”, the United Nations mobilized only 2.44 billion on Thursday during a donors’ conference for Afghanistan. of the expected 4.4 billion, reports AFP. The country is therefore facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that Western economic sanctions are not helping. As early as last summer, Washington began freezing the assets of the Afghan central bank, causing a cash deficit and depriving the economy of liquidity. While the Taliban government has sparked international outrage, particularly following the decision by Islamist leaders to ban Afghan girls from secondary school, Beijing’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries offers in Kabul a way out. “China has always tried to have, over the past ten, fifteen years, a role of dialogue in the Afghan theater, in particular by organizing discussions between the former Afghan government and the Taliban. Several relatively secret dialogues were held in China and contact was always maintained after their fall in Kabul in 2001,” comments Marc Julienne. The withdrawal of American troops last August also plays in favor of Beijing, since it allows it to strengthen its anti-American discourse. A royal road for China which plays on the unreliability and volatility of Washington’s commitments to its allies.

Kabul’s priorities are clear: an imperative need for financing to develop and increase its trade, and international recognition by a country that can serve as an interface for dialogue with the major powers. Two elements that Beijing would be able to offer him. “China can become a very important economic ally for Kabul in exchange for full cooperation and security guarantees from Afghanistan,” analyzes Marc Julienne.

However, a double question arises. Is Kabul able to meet Beijing’s demands? And does he have the will? “While the Taliban government has always provided verbal guarantees to the Chinese, one can wonder about Kabul’s ability to control its borders, and more generally the whole territory, against the establishment of jihadist and separatist groups, given that the Islamic State is still present on its territory,” observes Marc Julienne. On the other hand, the question of Kabul’s will rests on the deep ideological opposition between the two countries. On the one hand, the Taliban, a fundamentalist religious group made up of an agglomeration of more or less ideological factions. On the other, an atheist Chinese communist government, repressing Muslims on its territory. “There will obviously be no ideological alignment between Kabul and Beijing,” said the researcher. But China’s strategic partnerships are rarely based on shared beliefs. “China always respects Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and is committed to supporting its pursuit of peace, stability and development,” Chinese President Xi said. Jinping, following the summit.

“A bridge for regional connectivity”

If the stakes of this relationship for Beijing are above all security, promoting bilateral relations with the Taliban also has an economic dimension. One of China’s major objectives is to open up its territory by integrating its western provinces (Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan) into its internal market. It is with this in mind that Beijing launched in 2013, at the Nazarbayev University in Astana, the Belt and Road Initiative (“Yidai, Yilu” in Chinese), a pharaonic investment and development project. infrastructure encompassing more than sixty countries to revitalize the ancient Silk Roads. “China (…) will endeavor to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, (…) to make Afghanistan, which is located in the “heart of Asia”, a bridge for connectivity region,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference last week.

While the question of investments is now on the negotiating table between Beijing and Kabul, “the very fact that Afghanistan is not part of this initiative which was launched almost ten years ago shows that the country was not in a position to accommodate such development projects due to its instability,” remarks Marc Julienne. According to him, any significant and long-term investment in large infrastructures seems largely premature. “If the economic interest is highlighted by many observers, it is a question of remaining cautious on this dimension as long as the country will not be secure and stable. But the challenge of cooperation for Beijing is also focused on obtaining operating rights for the mining sector of its neighbor, naturally rich in copper and lithium, essential resources for the energy transition.

Qatar is no longer the go-to mediator for Afghan affairs. Traditionally essential in discussions between the Taliban authorities in power in Kabul and the major powers, Doha is facing competition from China, host of a third ministerial summit of Afghanistan’s neighbors which took place on Wednesday and Thursday. The guest list was…

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