Although China is talking about the future that the Afghan people will decide for themselves, Beijing is not happy with the departure of Western troops from Afghanistan. For China, only one thing matters and that is stability. In that regard, the tiny 76-kilometre border between China and Afghanistan has been a concern for China for decades.
After all, in addition to the most notorious terrorist organizations, Afghanistan is also a refuge for two virtually unknown groups that are violently opposing Beijing. It concerns the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), succeeded in 2008 by the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). These Uyghur groups see Xinjiang in China’s far west as their homeland and have claimed a handful of attacks in the past. Hoping for assistance in their fight against the Chinese Communist Party, they have loosely affiliated themselves with various terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, but also the Taliban.
No one knows exactly how many Uyghur extremists are in Afghanistan and who they are working with, but the power vacuum in Afghanistan threatens Beijing to lose sight of the extremists there. That is why China has been betting on two horses for some time: the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Beijing offers any potential Afghan ruler a prospect of economic development with Chinese aid, provided it does not openly harass the human rights of up to a million Uyghurs and other Muslims in Chinese prisons and re-education camps, and cooperate with Chinese requests for the extradition of alleged Uyghur terrorists.
At the moment, the Taliban, with whom China has had informal contacts since the late 1990s with the aim of isolating Uyghurs from co-religionists operating in Afghanistan, are promising everything: China is ‘a welcome friend’ who can come and extract Afghan raw materials. For the religious Taliban, an occasional friendship with the communist atheists in Beijing is the shortest route to international legitimacy and economic development. China is equally pragmatic: as long as extremist Taliban can be used to keep suspected terrorists out of Xinjiang, they are potential partners.
This does not mean that the Taliban and Beijing trust each other, so Beijing is stepping up consultations with Central Asian partners as a precaution. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, countries that have become increasingly close with China on security and economic development over the past decade. Tires that now serve as a kind of insurance policy in China if the chaos in Afghanistan spreads beyond its borders, so Wang Yi is already making sure everyone is on the same page. Beijing also hangs out with its good friend Pakistan in a three-country meeting with the incumbent Afghan government.
These diplomatic efforts are being labeled by US media as the Chinese kickoff for a “grand plan” to dominate the wider region including Afghanistan, in which, as some commentators in US news website The Hill sourly note, the Chinese and the Taliban are reaping the fruits of US efforts. in Afghanistan ‘handed on a silver platter’.
However, China does not worry about going too deep into the Afghan swamp like other superpowers. It’s about putting the future rulers in Kabul – whoever they may be – in front of the Chinese cart with stability in Xinjiang as the top priority. As soon as that is arranged, the Chinese ascendancy will come naturally, because then Afghanistan will fall neatly into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese economic master plan that stretches across the world, like the missing piece of the puzzle. East of Afghanistan, Pakistan is the largest recipient of BRI projects, to the west, China has significant BRI investments in Iran’s energy sector, so Afghanistan fits in well.
For that reason alone, China sees itself as a star in the moribund Afghan peace process. Whoever comes out as the winner can connect to BRI. However, Beijing is under no illusions about the chances of encapsulating Afghanistan smoothly with Chinese megaprojects. The country is too unsafe for that for the time being.