On April 14, 2021, U.S. President, Joe Biden announced that he will withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The decision will keep thousands of troops beyond the May 1, 2021 deadline that his predecessor Donald Trump agreed in February 2020 with the Taliban in return for the Taliban’s commitment to preventing other armed groups from using Afghan territory as a base to threaten the U.S. or its allies.
Biden’s decision happens after U.S.-mediated peace talks have been counterproductive and the Taliban remains powerful despite two decades of multinational efforts to defeat the rebel group (Ryan and DeYoung, 2021). The Taliban largely relied on its power and exploited weaknesses inside the Afghan government to get a Vietnam War-like ending.
Many analysts view the U.S. withdrawal as an opportunity for China, Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor, to exert influence there. According to (General Frank McKenzie) from the U.S. Central Command, Afghanistan is a “place of interest” for China. China has said that it desires to expand its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) flagship program to Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether China will succeed by using trade and economic means where others have failed (Mehta, 2021).
Afghanistan’s Moniker as the “Graveyard of Empires”
Afghanistan is notoriously difficult to conquer by foreign powers, earning it the moniker “graveyard of empires”. This is due to three factors. First, Afghanistan is located on the crossroads of West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia and settled by dozens of tribes mutually hostile to each other and foreigners. Second, the area’s prevalence of tribalism and lawlessness caused many villages or houses to be built like fortress. Third, Afghanistan’s physical terrain is dominated by several of the world’s highest and rugged mountains, including the Hindu Kush, which runs through the center and the south, as well as the Pamirs to the east (Pillalamarri, 2017).
For more than four decades, the former U.S.S.R. and the U.S. have both failed to fulfill their ends in Afghanistan. China will never penetrate Afghanistan their way and has no interest in being a “third” nation (Global Times, 2021).
China’s Perspective on the US-Led War in Afghanistan
For the past 20 years, China has shown an antagonistic stance towards the West-led military intervention in Afghanistan by deeming it as the cause of regional instability. In addition, the war has long strayed from its initial aim of rooting out Islamic fundamentalism/radicalism and morphed into a secret intention to take over the heart of Asia (Sun, 2021). China shows the least interest in challenging the West’s political leadership in Afghanistan (Huasheng, 2012). It avoids overt involvement by refusing to send military forces as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
However, China also opposes a unilateral U.S. withdrawal which could leave Afghanistan in even more chaos and anarchy. In May 2021, in the wake of a school bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the U.S. announcement of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused a series of country-wide explosions, deteriorating security, and increased threats to stability (Babb, Gu, and Yang, 2021).
Bilateral Relations between China and Afghanistan
In 1950, the Kingdom of Afghanistan was one of the first nations to provide recognition for the People’s Republic of China, followed by the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1955. However, until 2001, bilateral cooperation remained negligible. It was only after the establishment of President Hamid Karzai’s provisional government in 2001, that China-Afghanistan bilateral relations began to grow (Pandey, 2019).
In 2006, both countries reaffirmed their 1960 treaty founded on principles of “good neighborly” relations in which China would engage Afghanistan and its neighbors to support stabilization (Sharan and Watkins, 2021). Afghanistan maintains its commitment to the One China principle and steadfastly supports China’s position on Taiwan and Xinjiang.
A bilateral economic and trade committee was established in 2015. Direct cargo flights were opened in late 2018. A cargo train corridor between China and Afghanistan was inaugurated in 2019, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Bilateral trade doubled from $338 million in 2013 to $629 million in 2019 (Yau and Pantucci, 2021). China is also Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor. However, the former’s investments there have been minimal, totaling $2.2 million by 2016 and $400 million in 2017 (Sun, 2020).
China’s activities in Afghanistan can also be linked to the former’s economic goals. Afghanistan’s strategic position gives it a competitive advantage over others, as it has huge potential to link the markets of the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia and encourage internal economic development (Pandey, 2019).
China’s Role in the Afghan Peace Process
China has been concerned about the so-called terrorist threat posed by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which uses its western neighbor as a staging ground for incursions on its territory. In response, China has increased border security by allegedly establishing a military base in Badakhshan Province and initiating quadrilateral security cooperation with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. At the same time, China has developed friendly ties with the Taliban by holding meetings with them several times in 2018 (Stone, 2019).
On June 3rd, 2021, Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi hosted the 4th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in Guiyang, China. Also present at the meeting were the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, and Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Wang puts forth five ideas for Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process. First, respect the basic “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” principle. Second, maintain the spirit of intra-Afghan talks. Third, return the Taliban to the political mainstream. Fourth, the United Nations and regional powers should provide full support. Fifth, strengthen China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral cooperation, as the latter carried out a significant role in facilitating the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement and commencing the intra-Afghan negotiations.
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Author: Raynor Argaditya (Department of International Relations, UPN Veteran Jakarta)