Will Chinese policies in Afghanistan change after the US military withdrawal?
Afghan security forces in December dismantled an alleged Chinese spy network that was operating in Kabul and trying to infiltrate terrorist networks in the country.
The Afghan government has said little about the issue besides acknowledging the arrests. Beijing has publicly denied having any knowledge of the group’s activities.
But Afghan officials later told reporters the spy cell had been operating in the country for seven years and was seeking help from the Haqqani Network – a Pakistan-backed Islamist group linked to the Taliban – in tracking down Uyghur groups. operating. in Afghanistan.
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The incident offers a glimpse into Beijing’s complex political and economic interests in Afghanistan as it braces for the fallout from US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from the country. Other NATO countries will follow Washington’s lead and withdraw by September 11.
“China Fears Potential Instability In Afghanistan That Could Seriously Affect China’s Security [at home]Najib Azad, a former spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who currently heads the BAWAR movement, told RFE / RL. “But we saw China’s low profile vis-à-vis Afghanistan [take on] a more proactive stance. “
Most of Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan center on creating political stability and reducing violence in the war-torn country, but the prospect of an American withdrawal before the 20th anniversary of the 11 terrorist attacks. September places these two pillars in a stake.
China shares a 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan and has preferred a low-key approach to its volatile neighbor, although this has slowly changed in recent years as Beijing’s footprint in the country has grown more complex.
As evidenced by this spy network, which broke down at the end of last year, China fears that Afghanistan will become a safe haven for Uyghur radicals and other fundamentalists angered by Beijing’s repressive policy towards Muslim ethnic minorities in the country. Xinjiang to launch a cross-border insurgency.
Hoping to contain the country’s precarious security situation, China has formed an Afghan brigade near its border and also set up a military outpost in Tajikistan to monitor and gather intelligence on Uighurs based in Afghanistan.
Beijing has also stepped up diplomatic efforts by hosting official meetings between the Taliban and Afghan government officials and welcomed public visits by senior Taliban leaders.
Support for political reconciliation was reaffirmed on April 25 when Wang Yu, Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan, told reporters that the peace process was at a “critical moment” and that Beijing was determined to play a constructive role. in the stabilization of the country.
“China’s main concern is security, especially its own security,” Ayesha Siddiqa, associate researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told RFE / RL. “Beijing does not want to replace the United States in Afghanistan, but it is clear that a lot of chaos is about to emerge and that leaves it with very unattractive options.”
Afghanistan was not originally part of the plans for the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s multibillion-dollar global infrastructure project, with Chinese policymakers viewing the security situation as too volatile.
But that quickly changed as Beijing sought to tie Afghanistan to its broader plans for the region through the $ 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a package of Pakistan-based investment projects.
China has also found itself drawn to Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, with Chinese companies announcing multibillion-dollar investments in copper mining and oil exploration.
Afghanistan has vast mineral deposits, but since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 the sector has been seen as the potential backbone of a post-war economy – and still is by policymakers in Kabul. . But few large mining companies will risk venturing into this war-torn country.
Chinese state-owned Metallurgical Group Corporation won a $ 3 billion, 30-year concession in 2008 to mine Mes Aynak, a massive copper deposit south of Kabul, as well as oil and gas blocks in the north.
But those plans have largely stalled due to security concerns, and the dormant mine is believed to be a source of tension between Beijing and Kabul.
“[This] does not mean that China has forgotten the vast underground wealth of Afghanistan, [Beijing] just knows it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, ”Torek Farhadi, an independent analyst and former adviser on Afghanistan to the IMF and the United Nations, told RFE / RL.
Faced with consolidating its investments and protecting its long-standing security concerns, China faces a difficult road as it prepares for the departure of US forces from Afghanistan.
Raffaello Pantucci, associate researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Beijing will seek to exert increased influence in the country, but remains extremely cautious not to get too entangled in the chaos of Afghanistan, which Chinese policymakers consider. like a quagmire that will not improve. anytime soon.
“The general view is that Afghanistan is probably causing more problems than it is worth,” Pantucci told RFE / RL. “So unless things calm down, Beijing will seek to keep the country’s problems at bay.”
Still, Pantucci warns that China could find itself increasingly embroiled in Afghanistan’s future, whether it wants to play a crucial role or not.
“The problem is, China has a very different position in the world today than it was when the war in Afghanistan started, which means it has to be a big player in its backyard.” , did he declare. “They may find themselves absorbed in issues and problems and feel compelled to intervene.”
On tiptoe in the new Afghanistan
The withdrawal of US forces also opens the door for other powers to exert more influence in Afghanistan, particularly Pakistan and Iran.
Tehran has long hailed the departure of foreign forces from Afghanistan, while Islamabad has long played a dominant role in shaping its neighbor’s affairs and its intelligence services have close ties to the Taliban leadership.
For China, this presents both opportunities and threats. Beijing maintains close ties with Iran and Pakistan, but overlapping interests in Afghanistan complicate those ties.
Pakistan is believed to have a large network of spies and proxies in Afghanistan, and despite a generally warm relationship with China, Islamabad pursues its own independent policy, both wooing the Taliban rulers and cooperating with the United States.
Tehran might be more willing to work with its Chinese counterparts in Afghanistan than Islamabad, Siddiqa said. Pakistan remains suspicious of the Chinese authorities who lead their own action with the insurgents and develop its own power base in the country, which will let Beijing tread cautiously in Afghanistan.
“This means that China is not so confident in Pakistan,” Siddiqa said. “Depending on how the links with [Iran and Pakistan] to develop, China will be on tiptoe in Afghanistan. “