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China Risks Being Pulled into Afghanistan’s Civil War

U.S.-China Relations
Chinese soldier guarding the southern entrance of the Forbbiden City in Beijing, dominated by a giant portrait of Mao Zedong.

On July 2nd, 2021, American troops abandoned Bagram Airbase, the last U.S. military base in Afghanistan, effectively ending 20 years of U.S. military influence in the country. Clearly, the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Afghanistan represents a major shift in U.S. foreign policy and has profound implications for the Afghan people. However, the U.S. withdrawal also creates a precarious regional situation for China. As Afghanistan descends into chaos, China risks being the latest power to be pulled into the country.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has intensified the civil war between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which has caused substantial anxiety amongst Chinese policymakers. This concern can be traced to two reasons: First, Afghanistan is an appealing target for Chinese investment. Already, China has invested billions of dollars into the infrastructure of countries surrounding Afghanistan through its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Afghanistan—due to its strategic location along the land route from China to the Middle East and Europe—has long been an appealing target for Chinese development. Afghanistan also has an abundance of resources such as gold, platinum, silver, lithium, and aluminum, which China’s vaunted mining industry would be well-poised to develop.

More importantly, China seeks stability in the Central and South Asian countries that border Afghanistan. Chaos in Afghanistan could spill over to these border regions and into China itself, imperiling Chinese economic and security interests.

Economically, Chinese investments in countries near Afghanistan—such as Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan—have increased in recent decades and are key to Chinese foreign policy. Chinese BRI investments in Pakistan, for example, have totaled nearly $62 billion dollars and intend to create an overland trade route from China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean. Importantly, many of these Pakistan-based projects run close to the Afghan border. Likewise, many key resources from Central Asia, such as natural gas, flow into China through Tajikistan, which shares an 850-mile border with Afghanistan. These investments help to ensure China’s energy independence and, via Gwadar, access to foreign trade.

As a result of these economic holdings, Chinese security interests in Central and Southwest Asia have increased. First, China has been concerned by the possibility of terrorism against Chinese workers in these areas. In Pakistan, Chinese investments have been accompanied by an influx of Chinese contractors. The killing of nine Chinese workers near the town of Dasu in northwestern Pakistan this July, which China has labeled a terrorist attack, underscores the vulnerability of these workers. Their protection is a high priority of the Chinese government.

Regionally, Afghanistan has long been a central field of security competition between India and Pakistan—a close Chinese partner, and is likely to remain so given Pakistan’s support of the Taliban and the Afghan government’s efforts to court Indian support. Given China’s recent clashes with India, preventing India from influencing Afghanistan will be an important avenue for China to maintain a balance of power in Southwest Asia favorable to Pakistan and itself.

Moreover, China has sought to prevent Islamic terrorism from spilling into its territory. Indeed, China treats the possibility of terrorism seriously; its notorious crackdown against the Islamic Uighurs of its western Xinjiang province—which has seen nearly a million Uighurs imprisoned and reeducated—was instigated by a series of terrorist incidents that occurred in Xinjiang in 2014. China’s brutal behavior toward its Muslims risks creating a vicious feedback loop, provoking anti-China sentiment and terrorism in places like Afghanistan and Xinjiang, leading to increased Chinese paranoia and harsher countermeasures. Notably, Xinjiang borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, and China has undertaken measures to prevent Uighur and other Islamic militants from entering the province through these border areas.

With these economic, regional, and security interests in mind, China has clear reasons to be concerned by the Afghan civil war. Moreover, without a centralized Afghan government to engage in counterterrorism activities because of the civil war, there is a strong risk that Afghanistan’s terrorist groups could multiply, threatening Chinese holdings in Pakistan, Tajikistan, and even the Xinjiang province. Alarmingly, Afghanistan is reported to harbor Uighur terrorist cells. Further, Afghanistan’s Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has criticized Chinese policies in Xinjiang and called for jihad against China. China may feel that it cannot stand idly by if disorder and extremism prevail in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, for China—and the world—disorder and extremism appear to be in the cards for Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws from the country. Since the U.S. announced its withdrawal from Afghanistan two months ago, the Taliban have conducted an offensive that has increased the number of districts under their control from 73 to 221. Last month, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that the Afghan government could collapse within six months.

These Taliban victories leave two scenarios for Afghanistan, neither of which are favorable for China. First, the rapid advance of the Taliban may slow, and Afghanistan could become mired in a protracted civil war. Already, there are reports of Afghan civilians forming militias to prevent Taliban takeover of their communities, a stumbling block to Taliban unification of the country. The Afghan government may also prove more resilient when fighting the Taliban around Afghanistan’s major population centers, which have thus far remained comparatively sheltered from the fighting. This scenario would result in a fractured Afghanistan with no single group being able to unite the country. In this chaos, militant groups would proliferate and could readily cross the Afghan border, posing severe headaches for China and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors.

Second, the Taliban might continue their sweep through Afghanistan and succeed in uniting the country under their rule. China appears to be preparing for this scenario and has offered the Taliban financial incentives and infrastructure in exchange for their good behavior. For its part, the Taliban have studiously avoided antagonizing China, pledging to not interfere with Chinese policies in Xinjiang and courting Chinese investment. However, China should be concerned by the Taliban’s ability and willingness to combat extremist threats.

Indeed, the Taliban have historically provided sanctuary to extremist groups, which may cause their relationship with China to run aground. For instance, a recent UN report noted that the Taliban had failed to take robust action against al-Qaeda as they committed to doing in last year’s U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. Beyond duplicity, this failure to act against al-Qaeda is indicative of a more structural problem: the Taliban have often struggled to act against their ideological affiliates, even when they desire to. This may be because the Taliban have previously experienced defections of their fighters to rival groups—potentially because of adopting ideologically unpopular positions—and aim to prevent further disunity. In short, whether a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan could contain international Islamic militancy is an urgent question whose answer has yet to be determined. If the Taliban prove unable to contain Afghan terrorism, China’s regional interests would suffer severe damage.

Under each of these scenarios, there will be heavy pressure on China to increase its role in Afghanistan to maintain its economic and security interests. Since the U.S. began scaling down its troop presence in the country, China has been increasing its own presence in Afghanistan as a hedge against disorder. In 2018, for example, it explored creating a small military base in Afghanistan’s northern province of Badakhshan—which borders China—and has conducted joint patrols with Afghan government forces to prevent the spread of Islamic militancy into Chinese territory. Similarly, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, announced last week that China would support Afghan stability and reconstruction through the building of roads and pipelines throughout the country. These steps are limited, but China is clearly growing its presence in Afghanistan to achieve its geostrategic aims. History is replete with examples of such minor escalations transforming into full-scale interventions.

China knows better than to plunge into Afghanistan immediately; it has already borne witness to 20 years of failed U.S. efforts to pacify the country. With that said, however, China has a vested interest in creating a stable and pliant Afghanistan—if instability and extremism persist in the region, China’s commitments in Afghanistan will continue to increase. Afghanistan has been called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ for a reason, from the time of Alexander the Great, great powers have been lured into the fractious country. As America vacates Afghanistan in defeat, China may soon find itself trapped in this timeless quagmire.

Ben Vagle is a rising senior at Dartmouth College studying international relations and economics. Ben is deeply interested in history and current events, topics which he has explored as Editor-in-Chief of World Outlook, an international relations journal, and as a War and Peace Fellow at Dartmouth’s Dickey Center for International Understanding. 

Chris Rice is a second-year graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, concentrating in U.S. National Security Policy. Chris is interested in the intersections of culture, government, and defense strategy. A former active-duty Army officer, Chris has overseas experience in South Korea and Afghanistan.