Last month, in Xi’an, the second China + Central Asia (C+C5) multilateral meeting took place to discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues. The meeting was held in the “5+1” format with the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi as a host. Hence, the ministers of six states have achieved an eight-point consensus covering a wide range of bilateral agreements related to advancing connectivity and deepening cooperation within the Belt and Road Initiative, containing COVID-19 pandemic, promoting traditional and modern medical cooperation, strengthening the public health system, improving regional transport infrastructure and logistics, enhancing regional security and stability, fighting against transnational organized crimes, securing the counterterrorism cooperation, and finally, facilitating the political settlement of the Afghan issue.
Being one of the most significant commercial players in Central Asia, China has been taking a leading role in developing coordinated strategies and ensuring the steady progress of bilateral cooperation by actively assessing and evaluating complex issues of the region. Thus, in the midst of a pandemic, hosting foreign ministers of five countries reflects China’s commitment toward strengthening alliances and deepen comprehensive cooperation mechanisms that promote long-term peace, security, and prosperity in and around Central Asia. Following Biden’s announcement of a complete withdrawal of the US military and its NATO allies from Afghanistan in the coming months, the Afghan issue has become a priority in China’s foreign policy agenda and a core security concern for the entire region. Despite pursuing a relatively low-profile policy in Afghanistan in the past two decades, Beijing now intends to manage the political unrest, stabilize the current grim situation and maintain the economic growth by developing practical solutions, providing economic aid and financial assistance, and limiting avoidable risks which might cause widespread devastation.
Due to the geographic proximity and ongoing domestic armed conflicts, China views developments in Afghanistan as a geostrategic challenge and is demonstrating growing concern over the inability of the fragile Ghani administration to create reliable security forces and effective governance for stability in the country. Still, Beijing’s consistent strategies towards the region is based on an essentially security-oriented framework, as several potential menaces originate from Afghanistan, which might inevitably spillover to Central Asia and the Western borders of China, including drug trafficking, extremist ideologies, and terrorist activities. With the United States combat forces withdraw after two decades, China is paying closer attention to instability and thus seeks to support the domestic peace process to deal with internal political developments and domestic social issues, as it’s the only big power that has direct geographical access to Afghanistan, bordering the far West of the Chinese territories – Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in particular. The activities of major extremist organizations, namely, Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist forces are in sharp focus due to maintaining close connections with a number of regional separatist and jihadist groups, including the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the East Turkistan Liberation Organization.
As yet Beijing has maintained a close and friendly relationship with five Central Asian countries, namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan since the early 1990s, and they have been cooperating through the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and various of multilateral platforms since the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Nevertheless, the commercial partnership is therefore the major vehicle of China’s influence upon the Central Asian states, but the Chinese officials have consistently underscored the importance of working closely related to key strategic issues. In terms of security developments in the region, the SCO (est. 2001) has played an essential role in coordinating and eliminating transnational threats and risks by adopting and implementing effective measures and policies.
Since the inception of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) under the security framework of the SCO in 2004, the cooperation between China and Central Asian states on regional security challenges, so-called three evils: ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism have been assigned as highest priorities. Moreover, Afghan leaders have also regularly taken part in the SCO summits and thus Afghanistan holds an observer status since 2012. Prior to this, Beijing and Kabul already reached a series of agreements to promote cooperation and strengthen bilateral ties in a wide range of fields covering from common security and defense policies to cultural and academic activities, communication and economic relations by signing “The Treaty of Good Neighborly Friendship and Cooperation” in 2006.
Following the inauguration of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, the bilateral cooperation and the regional integration process between China and Central Asian countries has accelerated; on the contrary, Beijing had initially largely excluded Afghanistan from participating in the initiative, but in 2016 two governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding for enhancing the partnership within the BRI. Furthermore, in 2017, Afghanistan is granted permanent membership to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Chinese-led multilateral financial institution that mostly finances the infrastructure needs and other productive sectors of the BRI members across the regions of Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Accordingly, a range of national projects in Afghanistan was already funded through AIIB loans and constructed by Chinese companies.
In addition to improved economic relations, about three years ago, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan signed a trilateral agreement to further strengthen inter-regional cooperation to address transnational challenges under the framework of jointly building the Belt and Road Initiative and all sides agreed to prevent the Taliban to seize power by force, once possessing the mightiest military power in the country, it could pose a threat not only to Afghanistan but also to the regional countries. Based on the abovementioned intergovernmental agreements, both Chinese and Afghani authorities adopted an aggressive stance towards the regional threats posed by non-state actors, expanding their joint struggle to combat terrorist activities.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials acknowledge that there is a wide range of key issues where all regional actors, particularly Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan could work on improving their position with a positive contribution towardreconciling relations and reinvigorating the economic growth and social development in Afghanistan. In other respects, the possible chaotic situation in the country would lead to the rise of militant groups that jeopardize security and threaten sustainable social development with devastating consequences for the integration process of the region.
Most importantly, being the core region of the Eurasian continent, Central Asian countries are part of the comprehensive economic and transportation land corridor that China plans to develop to reach the wider European market, which is the shortest connecting link between China and the EU. In the meantime, China’s considerable efforts to contribute to the resolution of insecurity issues and political unrest in Afghanistan is one of the crucial factors within the broader framework of China’s both national and regional security priorities. On a geopolitical level, China is principally interested in preventing violent extremism and keeping Afghanistan from falling into a full-scale civil war that is already devastated some parts of the country. While it is obvious that political stabilization seems practically impossible in the foreseeable future due to the ongoing political tensions between the central authority and the most influential non-state armed actors. In this regard, after years of arguing against the American presence in Afghanistan, Beijing will vigorously push the BRI to become more multifunctional to fulfill its strategic goals and will increase its steady involvement by expanding trade and investment policies in the region. Similarly, China will keep encouraging its partners, primarily SCO members to facilitate joint-trade and economic activities and to play a more active role in contributing to the interconnectivity of the region, as well as the social development and security issues in and around Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the abovementioned strategies prioritize the achievement of inter-regional development and the solution of security issues that extend beyond national borders.
*About the authors: Vusal Guliyev is a Research Fellow at the Davis Center of Harvard University and a Ph.D. Candidate in International Politics at Shanghai International Studies University. He is also a non-resident expert at the Topchubashov Center, a Baku-based global policy think tank. email: [email protected]