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China’s Afghanistan Dilemma

27 Dec 2016
By Dr Michael Clarke
Xinjiang. Photo credit: Limaiksiang (Flickr) Creative Commons

China’s approach to Afghanistan since the end of the Cold War has been shaped by the desire both for security in Xinjiang and for geopolitical advantage in Central Asia. Today this approach is manifest in the One Belt, One Road initiative. However, there remains a fundamental incompatibility with US interests.

According to some, no state has benefited more from the events of 9/11 and the subsequent decade of US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than China. These military commitments, and the war on terrorism associated with them, have distracted two successive US presidents from constructing consistent and coherent responses to the rise of China as Asia’s pre-eminent power.

To rub salt into US wounds, Beijing has been the consummate ‘free rider’ in both Iraq and Afghanistan, utilising the US (and NATO in the case of the latter) provision of security to invest heavily in those countries’ oil and resources sector while steadfastly refusing entreaties for Chinese engagement in the stabilisation of them.

However, China’s reticence to become involved in Afghanistan has been explained by others as driven not by malevolence, but rather by Beijing’s anxieties regarding its restive province of Xinjiang, which shares borders with not only Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. From this perspective, China’s anxieties regarding the potential spillover of Islamic radicalism from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia into Xinjiang, and its possible effects on the Uyghur population, offer an opportunity for greater Sino-US cooperation.

Opportunities and challenges of One Belt, One Road

Beijing’s approach to post-Cold War Central Asia, including Afghanistan, has been underpinned by a trilogy of core interests—security, development and energy—which developed in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Beijing’s desire to fully integrate Xinjiang into the People’s Republic of China.

The narrative that Beijing has constructed around New Silk Road initiatives such as One Belt, One Road (OBOR) purposefully envisages them as “a regulated, structural interconnectivity between Eurasian states with China usually playing a pivotal role due to its location, economic clout, insatiable thirst for energy, and increasing geopolitical leverage”.

Yet the core challenge for Beijing in constructing the OBOR strategy is that such transnational connectivity, while holding the potential to enhance China’s influence across its Eurasian frontiers and stimulate further economic development in Xinjiang, is also likely to create opportunities for the transmission of various unregulated currents antithetical to its core goal of consolidating its hold over Xinjiang. China’s evolving approach to Afghanistan most clearly illustrates this dilemma.

Central Asia and Afghanistan

Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell have argued that China’s global foreign policy is structured by a need to navigate through a “terrain of hazards” comprising four concentric “rings” of threat:

(1) threats to political stability and territorial integrity from internal and external foes (for example, disaffected ethnic minorities);
(2) threats derived from sharing borders with multiple neighbours;
(3) threats from China’s connection to six distinct geopolitical regions; and
(4) threats from the “world beyond China’s immediate neighbourhood”.

These rings of threat can usefully be seen as constituting a domestic–regional nexus (the first and second rings) and a regional–global nexus (the third and fourth rings) of challenges and obstacles that Beijing must confront. From Beijing’s perspective, Afghanistan has been (and continues to be) intimately connected to this terrain of hazards as developments in the country have the potential to impact either positively or negatively on China’s interests across the domestic–regional and regional–global nexuses, and thereby constrain or advance its rise as a great power.

The following sections map the evolution of two phases in China’s approach to Afghanistan. In the first 1991-2001 phase, Afghanistan was firmly embedded, in Beijing’s perception, in the domestic–regional nexus of security challenges. In the second 2001-16 phase, however, Afghanistan has transitioned in Chinese perceptions to the regional–global nexus of security challenges.

Domestic–regional nexus

In the decade between the end of the Cold War and the events of 9/11, China’s approach to Afghanistan was largely a function of its pre-eminent interests in securing Xinjiang and developing constructive relations with the post-Soviet Central Asian republics. As Afghanistan descended into civil war between the regime of President Najibullah and various mujahideen units into the mid 1990s, Beijing’s interest with respect to the country remained largely negative—i.e. to prevent any potential spillover into Xinjiang of radical Islamism and other non-traditional security threats associated with the country in this period, particularly weapons and drug trafficking.

The perceived growth of the threat of radical Islamist movements to the states of Central Asia, Russia and China, and the entrenchment of Taliban ascendancy in Afghanistan by the start of the new decade, resulted in the expansion and reorientation of the Shanghai Five to become the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Concern that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was becoming a source of major instability for the wider Central Asian region, and potentially for Xinjiang, had thus become embedded in Beijing’s regional foreign policy.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan in the late 1990s, claimed in his autobiography that China’s then ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin, met with Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar in December 2000 to obtain assurances regarding the harbouring of Uyghur separatists. According to Zaeef, Omar offered the ambassador the assurance that the Taliban would not “allow any group to use its territory” to conduct any such attacks on China, in return for Beijing’s recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and its assistance to blunt any potential United Nations sanctions against the regime.

Regional–global nexus

Beijing’s post-9/11 aloofness from Afghanistan—characterised by limited engagement in the economic sphere and a categorical refusal to become directly involved in the security sphere—has been dictated by a conflicted mindset that has simultaneously viewed the containment of the Taliban as a positive for the security of Xinjiang but the presence of US and NATO forces as a potential threat to the geopolitical thrust of its post-Cold War foreign policy in Central Asia.

Yet, since 2009, China has begun to take a more proactive role, which holds the potential not only to make it a more overt target for radical Islamists, impacting negatively on the security of Xinjiang, but also to damage Beijing geopolitically by bringing it into conflict with its ‘all-weather’ friend, Pakistan. Crucial to this shift in Beijing’s approach has been its perception of US policy changes towards Afghanistan since the beginning of the Obama administration and its enunciation of its “Af-Pak” strategy.

As the withdrawal of US and NATO forces has come ever closer, China’s anxieties about the threat of Uyghur terrorism in Xinjiang and its links to Af-Pak have remained at the forefront of Beijing’s attention. With respect to the wider implications of the US withdrawal, Chinese perceptions have remained mixed.

The Global Times (2014), for example, published an editorial in October 2014 which suggested that while greater involvement in Afghanistan “will bring huge risks”, Beijing has no choice but to “be there” and ‘bear the cost of being a major power’ as US and NATO forces withdraw. A commentary on China Military Online, meanwhile, suggested a growing apprehension that post-US Afghanistan may, in fact, lapse back into a condition similar to that of the 1990s and undermine security throughout Central Asia.

The Xinjiang calculus

China’s approach to Afghanistan since the end of the Cold War has been shaped by the desire both for security in Xinjiang and for geopolitical advantage in Central Asia. While Beijing’s Xinjiang calculus was ascendant from 1991 to 2001, since 2001 a broader geopolitical calculus has emerged. This latter factor has been encapsulated in President Xi Jinping’s OBOR strategy, which, at its core, is an outgrowth of Beijing’s decades-long agenda to integrate Xinjiang and utilise this region’s unique geopolitical position to facilitate a China-centric Eurasian geo-economic system.

While China’s Xinjiang calculus determines that it shares an interest with the US in combating radical Islamism in Afghanistan (and Central Asia more broadly), the geopolitical calculus of the One Belt, One Road strategy points to a fundamental incompatibility between US and Chinese interests.

Dr Michael Clarke is an associate professor at the National Security College, ANU. 

This article is an extract from Clarke’s article in Volume 70, Issue 5 of the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled ‘One Belt, One Road’ and China’s emerging Afghanistan dilemma‘. It is republished with permission.