Will China get embroiled in the graveyard of empires?
| 18 Aug 2021
By VELINA TCHAKAROVA | 18 Aug 2021
Afghanistan is a complex geopolitical playground and remains one of the world’s fiercest battlegrounds. After the recent withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban immediately began claiming territory in various parts of the country. They now control more than 85 per cent of the country. The Afghan government may be overthrown in the next few months due to the poor preparation of the country’s security forces. Against this backdrop, the question arises whether China may be the next great power to get embroiled in the ‘graveyard of empires’.
Great powers have always tried and failed to turn Afghanistan into a hotbed for their geopolitical ambitions. America is the latest superpower to suffer a catastrophic defeat in the country after two decades of unsuccessful occupation and nation-building. Washington’s poor performance in delivering major energy, infrastructure, and connectivity projects has been one of its biggest failures over the past twenty years. Meanwhile, Beijing is carefully preparing to fill the void left by the US.
China’s position in Afghanistan
China is pursuing three main objectives in Afghanistan: avoiding a further expansion of the conflict and all-out civil war, promoting intra-Afghan negotiations, and preventing the rise of terrorist forces and activities. In this respect, China is relying on intensified relations with Russia (the Dragonbear), Iran, and Pakistan. Afghanistan is geostrategically located in a hotspot linking the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and Europe. China views the country as a major geopolitical puzzle piece between Pakistan and Iran, both of which have already deepened their ties with Beijing under the Belt and Road (BRI) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridors (CPEC) initiatives.
In this context, some specific strategic projects in Taxkorgan, Wakhan and Gwadar are of immense importance. The construction of Taxkorgan Airport on the Pamir Plateau in the northwestern Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang is a significant long-term investment, as Taxkorgan is “China’s only county-level city bordering three countries — Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan”. China and Afghanistan share an 80-km border with the Wakhjir Pass, which is the only potentially navigable pass. However, there is no road connection to the pass on the Afghan side. A potential investment would be to create a direct link to Afghanistan through Wakhan and Little Pamir as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, thus revitalising the Silk Road in Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor.
Perhaps that is exactly why the US is pulling out now — the move could possibly become an American trap if China enters the Afghan quagmire and fails.
A road project connecting Bozai Gonbad with the Wakhjir Pass is currently in the implementation phase and is being financed by the Afghan government without any Chinese involvement. Whoever is in charge in Afghanistan will soon have to decide whether to reconnect the country with China by building a 50 km highway, a project estimated to be worth at least 5 million dollars. The realisation of the transit corridor contains potential risks and challenges for China. Beijing considers the Wakhan a potential infiltration route for residents in Afghanistan, who vow to conduct terror activities in Xinjiang. Chinese interest in a direct connection to Afghanistan may grow with the changing situation on the ground as Beijing is seeking to gain a foothold in Afghanistan through the BRI with USD 62 billion in investments following the US withdrawal from the war-torn country.
The CPEC consists mainly of projects involving highways, railroads and energy pipelines between Pakistan and China; the port of Gwadar is a key strategic asset, which enables Beijing’s power projection into the Indian Ocean. Beijing could include Afghanistan in CPEC to provide economic incentives through a direct land connection with Pakistan. Concrete projects can be developed under the “Digital Silk Road, the Sino-Afghanistan Special Railway Transportation Project, the Five Nations Railway Project, and a Kabul–Urumqi air corridor”. Currently, China is Afghanistan’s second-largest trading partner (USD 1.19 billion), but it can significantly increase its trade volume through its direct land connection with Pakistan. Talks on the construction of a main road between Afghanistan and the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar indicate this may be the first major project within CPEC in the near future.
China is already working on building relationships with all relevant actors in Afghanistan and, if necessary, accommodate the Taliban to discourage their support for Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province. Currently, Beijing expects instability to spill over into the country’s immediate neighbourhood due to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Based on its concept of the ‘three evil forces’ of extremism, terrorism, and separatism, China is committed to cracking down on any activity that threatens to turn Xinjiang into a hotbed of Islamic extremism and terrorism, including the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan. Beijing is likely offering economic incentives to the Taliban to guarantee their support for its BRI in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Islamic State’s growing presence in the north of Afghanistan is another concern. China will seek Russia’s help to prevent IS from destabilising Central Asia, a common geopolitical goal shared by both the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Finally, Chinese economic investments in Afghanistan will potentially grow as Beijing seeks to get access to “its unexploited reserves of copper, coal, iron, gas, cobalt, mercury, gold, lithium and thorium”. According to a geological study, Afghanistan has reserves of rare earths and minerals estimated at up to USD 3 trillion. The war-torn country may have 60 million tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earths (lanthanum, cerium and neodymium), and deposits of aluminium, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium. Thus, it is logical that China is more than interested in expanding its trade ties with this part of the world. However, Beijing will certainly seek to secure and protect investments and major infrastructure projects in the future. Military presence in coordination with regional partners such as Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, or regional organisations such as the CSTO and SCO, may accompany the expansion of China’s BRI and CPEC towards Afghanistan. The role of private security companies in this corner of the world will clearly increase too.
The geopolitical stakes in Afghanistan
All relevant actors — Moscow, Beijing, Washington, and, to a lesser degree, Brussels — are interested in integrating South and Central Asia into various connectivity, transportation and trade corridors. Meanwhile, they are already competing for influence and presence in Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours. For Russia, the relationship with Afghanistan’s direct Central Asian neighbours is a logical continuation of the integration process within the Eurasian Economic Union, and for China within its BRI and CPEC. Moscow wants to promote a geoeconomic space between the southern ports of Iran and India, and the northern cities of Russia and the EU. However, while Russia views the emergence of the US presence and bases in its ‘underbelly’ as undesirable, Washington will seek to gain a foothold in the Central Asian region after its incomplete withdrawal from Afghanistan. In this context, the Dragonbear’s geopolitical goal is to keep the US out of Central Asia and prevent Washington from using the region as a springboard to contain Russia, China, and Iran. Therefore, coordinated actions and measures between Beijing and Moscow regarding Afghanistan and Central Asia are quite likely in the future, perhaps within the framework of the CSTO and the SCO or bilaterally.
The US has announced that more than 4,000 troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan while up to 650 will remain in the country. Thus, Washington will not completely pull out of the war-torn country. After the withdrawal, the US asked Central Asian countries to take in refugees from Afghanistan — mostly Afghans who cooperated with the US and NATO over the past twenty years. Russia, however, is wary of the potential risks and threats associated with using military bases and hosting thousands of Afghan refugees as well as any efforts to revitalise American presence in Central Asia. There are even allegations that Moscow has instead offered Washington the temporary use of Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
South Asia will witness growing competition between China and India over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the direct neighbours, including Afghanistan. Pakistan is preparing for the security vacuum in Afghanistan, as Islamabad expects the gap to be filled by China with Russia’s help. Given the poor relations of all regional actors with the Taliban, Pakistan seeks to capitalise on its good ties with them as a mediator. Since Islamabad holds sway over the Taliban, it considers its role as one of the main channels for future talks between them and Beijing. But Islamabad is also concerned about the risks of a new civil war in Afghanistan or the country’s takeover by the Taliban, which is why it will cooperate with other states such as Turkey or even the US to stabilise Afghanistan. The growing Chinese economic presence and ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ towards Pakistan will make Islamabad aware of the need to diversify its relations in the region. There might be even diplomatic efforts towards normalising trade relations between New Delhi and Islamabad in the future.
The close relationship between China and Pakistan, as well as coordination between China and Russia (the Dragonbear), are key examples of fluid regional formations that can help China manage Afghanistan and will have a major impact on India. Given that China and India will be the two major powers of the Indo-Pacific region, their relationship will increasingly be shaped by competition and confrontation in their quest for shaping this common geopolitical space. Current China-Russia and China-Pakistan close ties have created a significant geopolitical imbalance in the Indo-Pacific, which is detrimental to India’s interests. India is already facing growing tensions with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and is building a geoeconomic counterweight to the Silk Road through a terrestrial corridor across Iran and Central Asia to Russia and Europe (the International North-South Transport Corridor). The Indian-backed Chabahar Port is located on the Gulf of Oman in southern Iran and connects India to Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries, bypassing Pakistan. New Delhi remains the largest reconstruction donor of Afghanistan and seeks to coordinate with other like-minded partners through bilateral and multilateral channels regarding the volatile situation in the country.
Logically, the US regards India as a reliable partner to create a counterweight to China’s overwhelming presence in South and Southeast Asia. Current developments, such as the emergence of the Quad and other Anglosphere constellations are increasingly seen as US-led counterbalancing efforts against China’s geoeconomic projects such as the BRI, CPEC, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. China’s competing regional integration projects threaten to increasingly isolate the West from this part of the world, which will experience immense growth in global GDP and population in the coming decades.
The West has its own calculations regarding the worsening situation in Afghanistan. With the Quad’s increased focus on the Indo-Pacific, none of the four members — the US, India, Japan, and Australia — can afford to have “a blind spot in Afghanistan that encompasses both geopolitical and terrorist threats”. Meanwhile, Washington launched another Quad formation with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan to enhance regional connectivity. These US-led quadrilateral formations not only aim to contain the growing Chinese presence but also engage in Afghanistan and Central Asia on a range of geopolitical and geoeconomic issues, from counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance to infrastructure projects and reconstruction investment. The European Union fears another large wave of refugees due to the growing security vacuum and is therefore eager to promote economic stability and trade relations with and between Central and South Asia too (eg regional connectivity).
Finally, Turkey is supporting the regime in Kabul for now, as it is on a collision course with the Taliban. Ankara’s ambitions to guard the airport in Kabul are linked to geopolitical calculations, as the airport is important for keeping the US military presence in the country and creating opportunities for cooperation with the US and NATO allies in the future. For Ankara, “securing a role in Afghanistan in the post-US era will be an opportunity not only to be a step ahead of its regional rivals, such as Iran but also to guarantee a sustainable influence in the region”. If Kabul’s government can’t hold off the Taliban in the next few months, Turkish troops may face a precarious situation, where Turkey’s ties with Pakistan and China can prove to be very useful.
Turkey increasingly sees itself as part of China’s terrestrial connectivity to Europe through the Black Sea area, while its support for Azerbaijan in the recent war against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh has opened up a new geopolitical space for Ankara in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. Ankara has expanded its geopolitical and geoeconomic clout and enhanced its military presence in the immediate neighbourhood from the Middle East to North Africa. Increasing its military presence in Afghanistan can play a dual role for Turkey’s geopolitical interests: Ankara will boost its geostrategic importance to NATO and especially to the US amid strained bilateral relations, but it will also keep the door open for a possible rapprochement with China, Russia, and Iran on the future of Afghanistan if the situation on the ground deteriorates dramatically in the coming months.
Although Beijing is critical of the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is pursuing its own calculus on securing Afghan territory against possible terrorist encroachment and preventing the civil war-like situation in Afghanistan from spilling over into China’s Xinjiang province or neighbouring Central Asian countries. China will have to decide whether to manage Afghanistan through its current proxy Pakistan or by directly confronting the Taliban. In this regard, Beijing is unlikely to make the same mistakes as the US and the Soviet Union. Rather than removing or expelling the Taliban, Beijing is more likely to accommodate them to leverage the country’s resources and enable the necessary networks within BRI and the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan economic corridor. Connecting Iran and Afghanistan through Chinese energy, infrastructure, and trade routes will open vast geoeconomic spaces for Beijing. Ultimately, Russia occupies a central place in China’s efforts to stabilise the Central Asian landmass and incorporate Afghanistan in its plans for alternative transport routes, infrastructure and connectivity in the future.
Afghanistan is likely to become the next geopolitical quagmire after Syria. It will be interesting to follow how China will navigate this playground, as Beijing is likely to be the next great power to try and fill the void. Perhaps that is exactly why the US is pulling out now — the move could possibly become an American trap if China enters the Afghan quagmire and fails, as the Soviet Union did between 1979 and 89. This was indeed a major failure that put the final nail in the Cold War superpower’s coffin. Washington seems to have a plan to cause trouble for the newly emerging great power China. Obviously, Afghanistan will be an important geopolitical test for Beijing, but will it succeed where others have so far failed?
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The article first appeared in 9dashline
Velina Tchakarova tweets @vtchakarova