Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the then- Kingdom of Afghanistan in 1950, engagement between the countries remained limited largely to the economic domain Beijing preferred to maintain a distance from political and security issues in Afghanistan and refused to recognise the pro-Soviet Communist regime in Kabul and remained officially inactive during the Taliban regime. Overall, up until 2001 the political and economic cooperation between Kabul and Beijing remained insignificant. Post- 9/11, when Afghanistan re-attracted the world’s attention towards itself, China preferred to be a mere spectator to the dramatic events that unfolded there. Only after an interim government was established, the bilateral relations began to assume some pace. However, in recent years China’s role has expanded rapidly in Afghanistan.
A series of factors influenced China’s low-profile policy in Afghanistan. Historically, China has regarded Afghanistan as a neighbour wielding little diplomatic significance. With the ‘War on Terror’, the United States (US) and its European allies entered into Afghanistan in a massive way and exerted substantial influence in Afghan issues. China expressed no inclination in joining US-led war efforts and remained detached from the military efforts, political reconciliation and economic reconstruction in Afghanistan, as it was not interested in playing any subordinate role “under the dominance of the West.”
With the imminent withdrawal of Western troops, the consequent security vacuum obviously implies a new situation. For considerations ranging from China’s geographical proximity to Afghanistan, its domestic compulsions, its track record of non-interference in Kabul’s internal affairs, Chinese transcontinental connectivity ventures in the region and most importantly its strategic leverage over Pakistan; China is increasingly being seen as an influential power with the potential of bringing some stability in the war-torn country.
Ashraf Ghani’s choice of China as a destination for his maiden state visit, barely a month following his arduous ascent to Arg (presidential palace), symbolised a re-sequencing of the regional geo-political landscape. Since the establishment of the ‘National Unity Government’ (NUG) in 2014, President Ghani wanted to graph a new road to peace by advocating greater Chinese involvement in the country both for peace negotiations as well as promotion of regional connectivity and economic growth. Beijing agreed to be the principle cartographer, proposing the setting up of “peace and reconciliation forum” This resulted in the formation of the ‘Quadrilateral Coordination Group’ (QCG) comprising of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and USA. The QCG’s formation can be seen as a significant shift as it provided the only platform for Sino-US political cooperation in Afghanistan. It marked a de facto realisation - albeit a delayed one- by China of the ‘Kabul Declaration on the Good Neighbourly Relations’ under which China pledged to support the peace process and reconstruction efforts.The current political dispensation in Kabul has attempted to use the “China Card” both for persuading Islamabad to bring Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table as well as to mobilise China’s cooperation on the issues of security, economic development and regional integration.
The arc of China’s Afghanistan policy over the years has therefore visibly evolved from “calculated indifference to active engagement”, as Beijing’s interests in the region are expanding at a fast pace. Seminal to sculpting of Beijing’s Afghanistan policy have been its own geopolitical considerations and security concerns. Foremost, China is wary of Afghanistan being a potential breeding ground for Uyghur separatists which will adversely impact its Xinjiang province. Secondly, there are concerns about drug trafficking from Afghanistan to China. Thirdly, China wants NATO withdrawal to be conditional to some political settlement in Afghanistan as it fears that otherwise chronic political and strategic instability in Afghanistan will adversely impact Beijing’s transcontinental infrastructure project, which aims to connect China with the countries of Southeast, South, and Central Asia; the Gulf region; North and East Africa; and Europe. Fourthly, China would like to ensure that Kabul is not antagonistic to its ally Pakistan and finally, China’s growing involvement in Afghan issues exemplifies the “Chinese aspiration to alter the global perception in favour of China as a powerful regional, and perhaps even a global player, which has the potential to resolve the problem of the longest-standing insurgency South Asia has ever witnessed”. However, despite its increasing engagement and interest in the country China does not envisage a physical military presence in the conflict-ridden country despite the escalation of insurgent violence post-2005.
On the economic front, China is the biggest foreign investor in Afghanistan having invested in copper extraction, oil and gas sector and road and rail infrastructure. State owned, China National Petroleum Corporation aims to build a new natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang, cutting across Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. Named the TACT –“Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China Project”, it is envisaged an alternative to Central Asia- China pipeline that transits through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Of the estimated US$ 210 billion spent on the BRI thus far, the bulk of it is concentrated in Asia- of this figure US$ 46 billion has been pledged to “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”(CPEC). China is linked to northern Afghanistan through the Sino Afghanistan Special Railway Transportation Project and Five Nations Railway Project and intends to reach out to southern Afghanistan via CPEC. China and Afghanistan have also initiated a fibre optic link via the Wakkhan Corridor in the Badakhshan Province of Afghanistan. Given China’s lack of commitment to the cause of managing conflict in Afghanistan by military means, it has been widely criticised for free riding on the stabilising efforts of the US-led forces while it expanded its resource exploration ventures in the country.
China’s profile continues to gain greater footing in the region and particularly in Afghanistan at a juncture when the growing disengagement of US and its allies in the region is evident. Beijing has on several occasions indicated that the resolution of the Afghan conflict hinges on the establishment of cordial relations between Kabul and Islamabad and has vowed to address the issue of terrorism collectively. So far, no concrete steps have been taken to achieve the latter; instead it seemed to have followed a discriminatory approach towards terrorism, by making sure that Pakistan cracks down upon East Turkestan Islamic Movement (which is accused of terrorism in Xinjiang) but not the Afghan Taliban.
It is a fact that Pakistan is a significant factor in ensuring long-term stability in Afghanistan. Because of its strategic leverage over Islamabad and Rawalpindi, “China is increasingly being touted as a credible way out of the quagmire”. Since the US is on the cusp of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, it welcomed the Chinese willingness “to facilitate and help” the Afghan peace process by hosting a meeting between Afghan officials and the Taliban, after President Trump declared the peace talks to be “dead” following the September attacks in Kabul.
China is capable of positively influencing the current trajectory of peace process provided it can convince Pakistan to lend its explicit support to talks between the Taliban and the Afghan officials. At the same time, it is important that China first lays down its strategic priorities in the region and take a holistic view of the security situation of the region and undertake determined initiatives to combat all sources of terrorism equally. Beijing’s westward march is likely to leave an obvious imprint on regional geo-politics, particularly with respect to Afghanistan’s largest regional donor India, which also shares concerns of the security threat originating from Afghanistan. China’s engagement in Afghanistan and its stakes in the region are likely to increase in the coming days, however it is unknown if it would be successful in stabilising Afghanistan.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Views expressed are personal.
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Shubhangi Pandey, “Understanding China’s Afghanistan Policy: From calculated indifference to strategic engagement”. Observer Research Foundation Issue Brief, Aug 2019.
 Zhao Huasheng, “China and Afghanistan: China’s interest, stances and perspective”. Centre for Strategic and International Studies, p.2, March 2012. Available at: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/120322_Zhao_ChinaAfghan_web.pdf, Accessed on: 4th November 2019
 Vivek Katju, “Ghani and India: Circles of Separation”. Gateway House, 29th April 2015.
 “Taliban Delegation touches down in China for Peace Talks”.RadioFreeEurope,28th October, 2019.Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/report-taliban-delegation-touches-down-in-china-for-intra-afghan-peace-talks/30239673.html, Accessed on: 5th November 2019