China’s Gamble in Central Asia: The Rise of Sino-Afghan Relations

BY ERIK KHZMALYAN

Chinese-Afghan relations have achieved new milestones over the past few years. Beijing’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan has been manifested both militarily and economically. To ensure a safe economic corridor in Central Asia, China has boosted its influence to mitigate security concerns, promote stability, and develop Afghanistan’s mostly unexploited vast resources.

At a recent event at the Woodrow Wilson Center titled “The Pakistan-China-Russia Relationship: An Emerging Coalition?”, the discussants evaluated the likelihood of such a coalition and the long-term goals of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).[1] As anticipated, Afghanistan was mentioned several times for an obvious reason: if China is serious about its economic corridor across Central Asia it cannot ignore the security threats emanating from an unstable Afghanistan. So, what is Beijing doing to solidify its standing in Afghanistan?

Realizing that an ongoing military conflict would further destabilize the country, China has initiated settlement talks between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. The Chinese believe that the situation will not improve, should the sides resort to a military solution.[2]  Despite the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the situation remains volatile. Kabul slammed Beijing for hosting a Taliban delegation in China in 2016 headed by Qatar-based Abbas Stanakzai.[3] Furthermore, Kabul’s mistrust towards Pakistan, which provides a safe haven for Taliban insurgents, hinders the possibility of future peace talks.

To understand China’s long term security strategy in Afghanistan, it is essential to consider Beijing’s commitment to CPEC. Claimed as a continuation of China’s One Belt, One Road development strategy, CPEC connects Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to the Chinese city of Kashgar. This multibillion-dollar project has faced numerous security challenges including suicide bombers that have killed dozens. The Pakistani military with its trained security force oversees the protection of infrastructure and Chinese workers.[4]

Although most attacks have come from Pakistan’s impoverished province of Baluchistan, the Chinese have become increasingly worried about rising activities of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations around the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Both Islamabad and Beijing know the potential threat this could pose to CPEC. Though it is true that the number of ISIS terrorists on the border is insignificant, Beijing fears that the ongoing eradication of ISIS in Iraq and Syria will cause terrorists to seek “refuge” in Afghanistan.[5]

Chinese authorities are concerned about the consequences that an influx of radical Islamists would produce vis-à-vis Xinjiang province, as this region is home to China’s largest Muslim population, the Uighurs. The contention between Uighurs and the Chinese has led to ethnic violence and terrorist attacks. Additionally, the Silk Road passes through Kashgar, an important town located in Xinjiang.[6]

Xinjiang shares a border with Afghanistan, and there have been reports of Uighur militants joining ISIS in Afghanistan in order to perpetuate their jihad against China.[7] Beijing feels compelled to contain radical influence in Xinjiang and has deployed troops to evade the possibility of Afghanistan becoming a platform for terrorist attacks. Currently, there are 20 terrorist organizations near the Afghan-Pakistani border that can halt CPEC operations.[8] Should Uighur militants succeed in creating a network between domestic militants and terrorists in Afghanistan, China will have serious security threats with unpredictable consequences. China’s top security priority in Afghanistan is to stop the flow of terrorists and prevent their cooperation with domestic jihadists.

Afghanistan’s vast resources are no less important to Beijing. It is well known that China is not self-sustainable and it constantly looks for resources abroad. American corporations have refused to engage in developing Afghanistan’s mineral wealth out of security concerns, counter to the Chinese who have wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity to invest in Afghanistan.  The country is known for its immense natural resources that are mostly unexploited. Driven by self-interest, the Chinese have invested billions to extract the nation’s mineral deposits. In 2007, Metallurgical Corporation of China along with Jiangxi Copper Corporation invested 4.4 billion USD to exploit what is believed to be the second largest copper deposit in the world, located in Logar Province.[9]

China’s lucrative deals did not emerge in a vacuum. The Chinese have been providing financial aid to Afghanistan for years and have a good reputation among the Afghan elites. Just in 2014, Chinese aid reached 80 million USD.[10]

To make the Silk Road more viable, the Chinese are working to increase Afghanistan’s role as a transit country. Aside from being the most important foreign investor, Beijing also initiated the expansion of railway networks in Afghanistan. In 2016, the first train arrived in Hairatan, Northern Afghanistan bringing commercial goods worth 4 million USD. During the opening ceremony, China’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Yao Jing stated, “Without Afghan connectivity, there is no way to connect China with the rest of world.”[11]

China’s goals in Afghanistan are clear. In order to secure a safe corridor in Central Asia, Beijing needs an Afghanistan that will not pose security threats to China’s Silk Road. The influx of terrorists from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan could develop networks with China’s Muslim extremists in Xinjiang region—something that Beijing wants to avoid at all costs. China will not engage in nation-building like the United States has. As long as it can have access to the country’s resources, keep the flow of goods through Afghanistan intact, and cut the connection between domestic and foreign terrorists, Beijing will keep its military involvement limited.

References

[1] “The Pakistan-China-Russia Relationship: An Emerging Coalition?” N.p., n.d. Web. <https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/the-pakistan-china-russia-relationship-emerging-coalition>.

[2] Michael Kugelman. “Happy to Play Second Fiddle.” Foreign Policy. N.p., 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2017. <http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/22/happy-to-play-second-fiddle/>.

[3] Ayaz Gul. “Kabul Slams China Over Reported Taliban Visit.” VOA. VOA, 31 July 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2017. <http://www.voanews.com/a/afghan-government-shows-displeasure-over-reported-taliban-china-visit/3442971.html>.

[4]Zofeen Ebrahim. “CPEC and Major Unanswered Questions.” The Third Pole. N.p., 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2017. <https://www.thethirdpole.net/2016/10/13/cpec-and-major-unanswered-questions/>.

[5] “Economic Corridor – CPEC Could Turn Pakistan into China’s ‘client State’.” Deutsche Welle. N.p., 14 Nov. 2016. Web. 23 Mar. 2017. <http://www.dw.com/en/economic-corridor-cpec-could-turn-pakistan-into-chinas-client-state/a-36384662>.

[6] “Why Is There Tension between China and the Uighurs?” BBC News. BBC, 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2017. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-26414014>.

[7] Parane, Rommel. “Chinese Military Now Operates in Afghanistan, Pentagon Fully Aware of Chinese Activity in Region.” Newsline. N.p., 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017. <https://newsline.com/chinese-military-now-operates-afghanistan-pentagon-fully-aware-chinese-activity-region/>.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Erica Downs. “China Buys Into Afghanistan.” Brookings.edu. N.p., 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2017. <https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/China-Buys-into-Afghanistan-Erica-Downs.pdf>.

[10] Zhao Huasheng. “What Is Behind China’s Growing Attention to Afghanistan?” Carnegie Middle East Center. N.p., 8 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2017. <http://carnegie-mec.org/2015/03/08/what-is-behind-china-s-growing-attention-to-afghanistan>.

[11] Eltaf Najafizada. “China Lays New Brick in Silk Road With First Afghan Rail Freight.”Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 11 Sept. 2016. Web. 23 Mar. 2017. <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-11/china-lays-new-brick-in-silk-road-with-first-afghan-rail-freight>.

Image source: www.afghanzariza.com

About the Author 

Erik Khzmalyan specializes in U.S. Foreign Policy, Eurasia, and Geopolitics. He is currently an M.A. candidate in Statecraft and International Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email