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Title: Assessment of Increased Chinese Strategic Presence in Afghanistan
Date Originally Written: September 15, 2019.
Date Originally Published: December 2, 2019.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article is written from the Chinese standpoint, with regards to U.S and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member country (NATO) presence in Afghanistan and the pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Summary: Afghanistan is important to Chinese strategic interests. To ensure stability in its autonomous region of Xinjiang, expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and counter a perceived “encirclement of China” strategy, Afghanistan holds the key for China. Therefore, China is consolidating its interests in Afghanistan through “economic diplomacy”, facilitation of peace talks, and working with other regional players.
Text: As a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is establishing multiple economic passages, across Eurasia, Africa, and Southeast Asia. A total of six economic corridors are designed to connect China with most of the major markets of the world. To consolidate her direct access to these markets, it is pivotal for China to maintain regional and political stability, especially in areas that directly pertain to these economic corridors. Two of these six corridors, namely CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and China-Central Asia and West Asia economic corridors pass through the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. This network of railroads, energy projects, and infrastructure is meant to connect Beijing with Central and Western Asia, along with the Middle East. Xinjiang is not only one of the most impoverished and underdeveloped regions of China, but is also home to almost 10-12 million Uighurs Muslims. In the past few years, Muslims in Xinjiang have caught significant media spotlight, due to growing sense of discontent among the local population with the Chinese administration. While the official Chinese narrative depicts a few Uighurs groups to be supportive of terrorist activities, the opposing viewpoint highlights internment camps and over-representation of police force in the region. Nevertheless, the geo-economic importance of Xinjiang is paramount, which is why China is willing to use aggressive measures to restore stability in the area.
The militant factions of the Uighur community are supported by various group operating from Afghanistan. The Turkestan Islamic Movement, which was formerly known as East Turkestan Islamic Movement, is considered to be the primary organization undermining the Chinese sovereignty in Western China. In the past, this group has primarily operated from Afghanistan, with alliances with the Afghan Taliban (Taliban) and Al-Qaeda. However, since 2015, China has another reason to be cautious of protecting its economic interests in the region. The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) chapter of the violent extremist organization the Islamic State was established that year, with an aim to create its terror network in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Apart from tacitly supporting the Uighurs militant factions, IS-K has openly threatened to attack the ongoing CPEC projects, not only inside Pakistan but also in Western China.
The encirclement of China strategy advocates for constant U.S military and political presence in Chinese proximity. With forces in Afghanistan the United States and NATO have opened up a new pressure point for China, a country that is already coping with the U.S forces in South China Sea and Japan, on the eastern front. After almost 18-years of non-conclusive war in Afghanistan, the U.S and Afghan forces have failed subdue the Taliban. As the Kabul administration is facing financial and political turmoil, the U.S is considering reducing military presence in the country, and leaving a friendly government in Afghanistan. China seems to be aware of the political vacuum that awaits Afghanistan, which is why it presents an opportunity for it to find new allies in the country and work with other stakeholders to bring in a friendly government. This government vacuum-filling may not only allow China to neutralize U.S encirclement from Afghanistan, but will also help suppress terrorist organizations operating from Afghanistan. The latest developments in lieu of U.S-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar indicate that China is enhancing ties with the Taliban. A Taliban government in Afghanistan may be suitable for China, at least in consideration of the available options. Not only have the Taliban declared war against IS-K, an entity that has openly threatened to disparage Chinese interests in the region and support militants in Western China, but also remained silent on the alleged persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. This war declaration may be regarded as a major milestone in the China-Taliban relations, since the late 1990s when the Taliban government in the country allowed militant groups, such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
For the first few years of the Afghan war, China passively supported it. However, as the United States, under the Obama administration started to hint a military withdrawal from Afghanistan, China assumed a more active role in the country. Since the initiation of BRI, Chinese exports to Afghanistan have increased significantly. For the first time in modern China-Afghanistan relations, China has offered military aid to the Afghanistan. The Chinese foreign minister also expressed a desire to expand the ongoing CPEC into Afghanistan as well. Another aspect that is often discredited is the natural resource potential in the country. Afghanistan incorporates some of the largest Lithium reserves, which are particularly essential for the manufacturing of most electronic products. As per the American Geological Survey, Afghanistan holds approximately $3 trillion worth of natural resources. This alone makes Afghanistan an area of interest for major world powers.
In conclusion, China’s approach towards Afghanistan may be best deciphered by a paradigm shift. From a strategic limited involvement to active leadership, China has now become one of the key stakeholders in the Afghan peace process. With an apparent failure of the Afghan peace talks between the Taliban and U.S, the situation is deteriorating quickly. The Taliban, since then, have vowed to double down on militancy. From a Chinese standpoint, continuation of U.S presence in Afghanistan and the anticipated increase in violence would be the least desired outcome. China, over the years, has strategically played a balancing act between all the internal stakeholders of Afghanistan, from offering aid to the national government to hosting a Taliban delegation in Beijing. Therefore, any political settlement in the country, whether it is the creation of a new “national government” with the Taliban or a truce between the fighting forces within the country may suit the Chinese in the long-run. As the BRI initiative enters the next stage, and threats of terror activities in the Xinjiang loom, and the race to tap into Afghanistan’s natural resources intensifies, China is now in unchartered waters, where any significant development in Afghanistan will directly effects its regional political and economic interests. It seems that, in coming times, China may assume the central role in organizing new peace initiatives, ensuring that whoever comes to power in Afghanistan may not thwart China’s ambitions in the country.
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