By: Aqib Rehman, Research Analyst, GSDN
There is little doubt that China has been rising since last 40 years and now is presenting a formidable challenge to the United States of America with its rising economic power. Whether in the West Asia or in the Central Asia, America is facing significant challenge to its hegemony from the Peoples Republic of China.
In this case Afghanistan which is considered of great importance in the regions of South and Central Asia becomes more important for China to increase its presence in both the regions. After America withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, China found a window to promote its interests and started not only backdoor communication with the Taliban but also invited their leaders to China. Therefore, it becomes important to understand the China’s interests in Afghanistan and examine the geopolitical implications of China’s increased presence in Afghanistan. However, it is important to first look at the historical connections between the two countries.
History of the Relations
The ancient relations between China and Afghanistan were closely tied to the historic Silk Road, an extensive network of trade routes that facilitated the exchange of goods, culture, and ideas between the East and the West. The Silk Road was not a single route but a web of interconnected trade paths that spanned from China through Central Asia, the Middle East, and into Europe.
Taking advantage of this rute China exported silk, porcelain, tea, spices, and other luxury goods to the West, while Afghanistan and the surrounding areas provided valuable commodities like precious stones, metals, textiles, and agricultural products. This route also facilitated the exchange of culture, art, religion and knowledge. The spread of Buddhism in China from India was an important contribution of the Silk-Route. This route also provided the means of communication and diplomatic interactions between China and Afghanistan. This gave a strategic importance to this route.
After the successful liberation of China in 1949, Afghanistan was among the first countries to recognise China’s new government under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Both the countries established formal relations in the year 1955. Under the non-alignment ideology, both rejected the interference by major powers in the internal affairs of third-world countries.
The Sino-Soviet split during 1960s as a result of ideological differences posed a significant challenge to the Afghan rulers and they first sort to balance the relations between the two. However, as the tensions deepened, Afghans gravitated towards USSR. The communist coup of April 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 resulted in a decade-long war known as Soviet-Afghan war.
China strongly opposed the Soviet invasion and provided support to various Afghan resistance groups, including the mujahideen, through arms and other means.
China was deeply concerned about the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan for several reasons like Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was perceived as a direct threat to China’s security interests. Afghanistan’s proximity to China’s western Xinjiang region raised concerns about potential spillover effects of the conflict. China feared that instability in Afghanistan could spill over into its own territory, possibly inspiring separatist movements among its Muslim minority population in Xinjiang.
the Soviet Union’s military presence in Afghanistan also raised concerns about its expanding influence in the region. China viewed the invasion as part of a broader Soviet strategy to gain greater control in South Asia and the Middle East, which would have ramifications for China’s strategic interests.
After the fall of Taliban in 2001, China Afghan relations continued to evolve influenced by the regional developments and the global shifts in the international order. During the first two decades China focused its energy in the areas of security, economic engagement and regional stability.
Chinese companies were interested in the natural resources of Afghanistan and they invested heavily during this period in Afghanistan. Most notable investment was by the China national petroleum corporation in the exploration of oil resources in the Northern Afghanistan. China was also concerned about the regional stability and the spillover of terrorism from Afghanistan to the Xinjiang province. To counter this, China cooperated with the regional players.
Apart from engaging with the Afghan leaders, China during this period provided humanitarian, infrastructural and economic aid to Afghanistan. It also participated in the Afghan peace process and favoured the peaceful resolution of the conflict.
As the U.S. announced its plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014, China adopted a more pragmatic approach towards the Taliban. With the prospect of a potential power vacuum and concerns about regional security, China engaged with the group to safeguard its interests. However, it did not explicitly endorse the Taliban as a legitimate government in Afghanistan.
China in Afghanistan: Geopolitical implications
The first important geopolitical implication of Afghanistan is its location. It is located at a place where it connects two regions of Asia with each other. Afghanistan’s location makes it potentially important for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure and trade project connecting China with Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Afghanistan’s inclusion in BRI could facilitate better connectivity and trade routes for China.
Second geopolitical or geoeconomic importance of Afghanistan is its abundance in natural resources. It has rear-earth metals such as lanthanum, cerium, neodymium and veins of gold, silver and zinc. China, who’s economy is hungry of raw materials had maintained backdoor connections with the Taliban leaders is now seeking the exploration of these resources. The abundance of natural resources is of great geopolitical significance not only for the Chinese but some neighbouring countries are also concerned about the China’s growing influence in this region.
Third important geopolitical implication of China in Afghanistan is related to the regional stability and the counterterrorism. China is constantly worried about the spillover effect of Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. It does not want the separatists of Xinjiang province to be emboldened by this situation. Therefore, it is important for China to cooperate with the Taliban government to ensure stability in the Xinjiang province.
Another significant geopolitical implication of China’s involvement in Afghanistan is related to its dream of becoming a global leader. By engaging in Afghanistan’s affairs and actively supporting the country’s development and peace efforts, China seeks to present itself as a reliable partner and mediator in resolving international conflicts. China is aware of the fact that in order to become a global leader it first needs to be a regional leader.
By engaging with Afghanistan, China can demonstrate its willingness to take on a more proactive role in addressing regional challenges and conflicts. This engagement can also strengthen China’s ties with other neighbouring countries and enhance its influence in Central Asia. China also provides humanitarian aid to Afghans. This is considered as a tool to project country’s soft-power. By employing such steps China seeks to improve its global image of a benign and a responsible power.
One of the important geopolitical implications of China’s involvement in Afghanistan is that countries like India who have strategic interests in Afghanistan are witnessing significant decline in the kind of influence which they once enjoyed. China, which is seeking a global leadership will not allow any other regional country to exert influence in Afghanistan. Therefore, it is important for the countries like India to find suitable ways to engage with the Afghan government in order to protect their strategic interests.
China from the ancient times has had a cordial relation with Afghanistan. Silk-Route had been a primary means of communication between the two countries which is now being revived through the Belt and Road Initiative. China never involved itself in the Afghanistan by using its army. Therefore, it enjoys favourable conditions within the Taliban government and has been allowed to explore the natural resources of Afghanistan. This is of great geopolitical significance not only for the Chinese but also for the other regional players like India. Only the time will tell whether China will be able to sustain itself in Afghanistan or it will face the same fate as the previous global powers. After-all, Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.