But China might find it hard to operate in Afghanistan despite dangling the carrot of development projects
By saying that the US is not in Afghanistan for “nation building” but only to protect itself from Islamic zealots based in that country, President Joe Biden may be handing over the economically devastated Afghanistan to China on a platter when he withdraws American troops from there in August.
China is waiting in the wings, offering Afghanistan attractive developmental projects under its multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is making its way across the world with its infrastructural development schemes under the BRI. It sees Afghanistan as a potential client with a critical role to play in its economic expansion plans in the Central Asian region.
Biden has washed his hands off the responsibility to help war-devastated Afghanistan recover economically. He has explicitly said that the US has not been in Afghanistan to help build it economically or politically against the depredations of the Taliban, but to protect itself from the Taliban, the Al-Qaida and the ISIS. Therefore, the US cannot be expected to help the devastated country build itself up after the troop withdrawal.
Kabul, under the Taliban or any other group, will have no option but to turn to China for infrastructure development which will be its priority given the scale of destruction in the past decades of regime changes through war and terrorism.
Western warnings that the grandiose BRI projects will drag the poor recipient countries into a Chinese “debt trap” have fallen on deaf ears mostly because these countries are yearning for infrastructural development denied to them by the West since decolonization.
The West, led by the US, has failed to match or outbid China in the new economic contest and has concentrated on meeting a military threat from Chinese-funded economic projects like ports, airports, roads, and rail lines, a threat which the recipient developing countries do not envisage.
China has been waiting to do BRI deals with Kabul for the past five years. It is said that the Ashraf Ghani regime is already considering tying up with the China-funded US$ 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. One of the projects envisaged is a road between Kabul and Peshawar in Pakistan. The Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, had confirmed that China was having discussions with Afghanistan on various projects. If Afghanistan comes under the ambit of the BRI, it will provide China economic and strategic access to the Middle East and Central Asia.
“Washington’s departure from Afghanistan gives Beijing a strategic opportunity,” said Michael Kugelman, an expert in South Asian affairs. “China could well bring the Taliban on board with BRI. The insurgents have said they will support development projects if they serve Afghan national interests,’ Kugelman added.
Bradley Bowman, a China defense expert for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an Afghanistan veteran, agrees. He is quoted as saying that the US pullout will be a boon for China’s regional interests. “It’s really ironic,” Bowman told Voice of America, “we’re reducing our deterrence of China by facilitating a withdrawal that people said we had to do to increase our deterrence of China.”
However, one should not overstate China’s capacity to fill the vacuum created by America’s departure, Kugelman warns. “With Afghanistan’s security situation sure to spiral out of control, there’s only so much China will be able to do to deepen its footprint. It will depend in great part on whether China reaches an understanding with the Taliban, which will see its influence continue to grow, whether it holds power or not. If the Taliban is okay with China building infrastructure and other projects in Afghanistan, Beijing will be in a much better place,” he said.
Additionally, the Taliban will not be the only source of violence in Afghanistan. The ISIS, which is opposed to the Taliban, has its own ambitions. Then there are tribal militias opposed to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban which could get activated with help from interested foreign powers.
Russia is another interested party in Afghanistan, having played a role in bringing the Taliban and others to the negotiating table for the establishment of stability and peace. Both Russia and China will have to contend with issues after the US withdrawal. Both are mindful of the possible rise of the ISIS and Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, as these groups are wedded to a transnational Islamic ideology. Unlike the Taliban, these outfits are eager to promote Islamic rule the world over. As Ariel Cohen told VOA, China and Russia have ironically benefited from America’s presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban, al Qaida and ISIS were all constrained by Americans in Afghanistan. The Chinese face the possibility of the ISIS trying to weaken China’s hold over its restive Muslim-majority Xinjiang province.
Russia and China could, however use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to restrain Afghanistan. SCO includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The SCO focuses on combatting terrorism, separatism and extremism as per its charter.
However, the Americans think that Russia and China have different interests which might clash. Russia fears that China might use its deep pockets to buy off the Central Asian republics denying Russia’s traditional claim on them. According to Nikkei Asia, Russia is the Central Asian region’s largest arms supplier and has thousands of troops stationed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 2002, a year after the SCO’s founding, Russia established the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance with membership overlapping that of the SCO members.
Given the complexities and challenges of the area, both Russia and China are expected to be cautious in taking up responsibilities in Afghanistan. The Russians would remember that they had occupied Afghanistan earlier only to be driven out by the Islamists aided by the West. The Chinese are also wary about terrorists and have always sided with governments which take a hard line against terrorists as in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan too they have been pressing governments in Islamabad to give armed protection against terrorists in CPEC project sites.