China has moved quickly to try and build influence with Afghanistan’s new government, headed by the Taliban. As early as July, as the war was turning decidedly in the Taliban’s favor, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, hosted the Taliban’s then political chief and now Afghanistan’s deputy prime minister, Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Tianjin. In early September, Beijing pledged $31 million in health and food assistance to its western neighbor. However, it is either unable or unwilling to carry out its policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan on its own, and is likely to recruit Pakistan into plans.
So far, China’s diplomacy appears to have been effective. In an interview to China’s state-run Global Times newspaper on September 10, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen claimed that Uyghur militants had already left Afghanistan and would be granted no haven in the country now that the Taliban are in control. The prevention of the use of Afghanistan as a training and recruitment center for Uyghur or Islamist militants is Beijing’s top priority for the country.
But Beijing’s renewed diplomacy comes despite a lack of significant interests in the country and minimal historical leverage over Kabul. Moreover, China has an inherent policy bias against entanglements overseas. Although this is being tested by the country’s growing overseas interests, there remains a restriction on intensive foreign engagements.
As such, for Beijing it may be less its relationship with Kabul, and more its relationship with Islamabad, that proves more useful in its Afghan policy.
For its part, Kabul certainly sees the benefits of wooing Beijing. When the Taliban were first in power in 1996-2001, China was a major regional economic power but far from being the global one it is now. Rapid growth over the past 20 years, facilitated by the country’s entry into the World Trade Organization, has meant that China is now a potentially lucrative trade partner, investment source and defense contractor for Afghanistan.
But China’s economic interests in Afghanistan are still very limited. Trade is minimal – reaching $550 million in 2020, a tiny fraction of China’s $5 trillion worth of total trade that year. A single flagship investment project exists – the $4 billion copper mine in Mes Aynak – but has failed to progress despite agreements being signed in 2008.
Although there are now signs that Beijing might be eager to restart the languishing project, the instability of the Taliban government and continued insecurity in Afghanistan raise risks. ISIS-Khorasan has already demonstrated its willingness and ability to launch attacks on international targets, after setting off a deadly strike at Kabul airport in late August.
Non-state violence is already a concern for Beijing in its investments in neighboring Pakistan, where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, an arm of the Belt and Road Initiative, has attracted attacks on Chinese citizens and pipelines. Despite the strategic benefits of investment in Afghanistan, there is likely to be wariness to engage deeply in one of the world’s least stable countries.
But another option exists. As in the 1990s, Beijing might prefer to utilize the much greater influence held by its ally, Pakistan, as a proxy.
While Afghan-Pakistani ties are complex and often riven with mistrust, Islamabad’s support for the Taliban provides a level of access and influence unrivalled among state actors. Demonstrating this fact, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, visited Kabul in early September to meet the Taliban leadership.
Pakistan has its own ambitions in Afghanistan, particularly the curbing of the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which resides in Afghanistan. It would be simple for Beijing to suggest to Pakistan that it should add Uyghur militants to its list of groups it wants eradicated. Similar pressure was exerted in the 1990s, leading eventually to a Pakistani operation in 2003 to kill the then head of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Hasan Mahsum, near the Afghan border.
China has already attempted to instrumentalize Pakistan’s leverage with Kabul through trilateral diplomacy. The first trilateral strategic dialogue between the three neighbors was held in 2015; the fourth iteration of the event was held in June 2021.
With the Taliban now in power, and Pakistan’s influence seemingly greater, such forums could prove even more useful. But Beijing’s proxy diplomacy is likely to proceed quietly and with less publicity.
China remains wary of rushing in to support the Taliban. Although it desires stability on its doorstep, the Taliban have yet to prove themselves able to govern, and particularly to rein in powerful autonomous non-state groups such as the Haqqani network.
All the more reason, then, for Beijing to try to garner its influence through Islamabad. For China, it is an attractive policy – keeping its hands clean while attempting to foster stability in a country that has seen more than 40 years of continuous war. The question is, what will Pakistan seek to extract out of its role?
Christian Le Miere is the founder of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London. Previously he was a senior advisor to an entity in Abu Dhabi and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. @c_lemiere.