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The new Great Game

US withdrawal from Afghanistan could push China to the centre stage, which would have implications for India

May 21, 2021 6:05:42 pm
China’s main concern post-US withdrawal is Taliban-led Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for Uyghur separatists and the East Turkestan Movement (ETM). (AP photo)

Written by Ameya Pratap Singh

China has responded to news of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with some anxiety. While it has historically held US presence in the region and manipulation of Afghan politics to be disruptive, and also celebrates the “embarrassing withdrawal” as a marker of failed US policymaking and intervention, the withdrawal creates more problems than opportunities for Beijing. China’s development aid for the Afghan government and growing economic investments were only made possible by free-riding on US-led stabilisation efforts. Now that this will no longer be the case, China’s policy towards Afghanistan is likely to face a dramatic revision; invariably, also affecting India’s national security and wider regional equities. Afghanistan will become a vital theatre of engagement as Asia’s two Great Powers negotiate the terms of their rise.

China’s main concern post-US withdrawal is Taliban-led Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for Uyghur separatists and the East Turkestan Movement (ETM). These groups desperately seek to undermine China’s territorial integrity in the region of Xinjiang. As Chinese scholar Zhao Huasheng argues, since its rise to power in 1996, the Taliban — with the help of Al Qaeda — has been a “spiritual agitator and material supplier” to the ETM. This has included training their fighters, provision of military supplies and equipment, as well as refuge and fundraising. Two most prominent activities of the ETM include the riot in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, in 2009, and the attack on a police station in the Southern City of Hetian in 2011. The Taliban also massacred numerous Chinese construction workers in 2004. Once US forces leave the region, not only will risks posed by the ETM and Taliban increase, instability in Afghanistan, in terms of both radicalisation and refugees, is also likely to spill over.

Secondly, instability in Afghanistan could negatively impact China’s premier transcontinental infrastructure project: The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As per a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2016, Afghanistan was to jointly cooperate with China under the BRI, mainly through the development of the Wakhan Corridor, Badakhshan Province, and the linkage of Southern Afghanistan with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan has tremendous untapped natural reserves of Cobalt, Copper, Gold, Iron, and Lithium. In pursuit, Chinese companies have invested heavily in Afghanistan’s mining and energy sectors. Although somewhat secondary to India and Pakistan, China is also a major trading partner for Afghan goods. These Chinese infrastructure plans and investment may unravel quickly if the Taliban were to overthrow the Afghan Government.

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Thirdly, US withdrawal from Afghanistan may have major ramifications for the emerging US-China geopolitical rivalry. Afghanistan is often referred to as “the graveyard of empires” and the fate of US intervention in the region reaffirms this epithet. But for Beijing, as another Chinese scholar Yun Sun notes, continued US involvement in Afghanistan provided “a golden window of strategic opportunity”. The endless war in Afghanistan deteriorated US moral exceptionalism and bogged it down with costly military commitments, allowing China to rise uncontested post-2001. Now, not only will US withdrawal end the corrosion of its national wealth and allow a refocussing of energies towards China, China fears the US will use its considerable network of private security forces, defence contractors, and patron-client arrangements with political elites in Afghanistan to complicate China’s position in Xinjiang.

China voted in favour of UNSC resolution 1373 after the 9/11 terror attacks to sanction the US’ war in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. However, it has, so far, avoided any type of serious military presence in Afghanistan. China wanted to contain the Taliban’s security threat but was unwilling to play second fiddle to the US’ military efforts or overtly antagonise the Taliban. Lately, Beijing has accepted that the military annihilation of the Taliban is infeasible, and therefore the best alternative is to bring them into a “legal” framework under the Kabul process. After US withdrawal, China’s policy could go one of two ways.

First, the Chinese could partly take up the mantle of the post-conflict reconstruction process in Afghanistan. Already, there are reports of China sending a peacekeeping force to Afghanistan. Moreover, there have long been unconfirmed reports of the presence of PLA troops in Afghanistan. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Quadrilateral Group Cooperation could be useful institutional tools for Beijing to push for reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. How useful this approach will be remains to be seen as the Taliban recently refused to attend a China-backed peace conference in Istanbul on April 16.

An alternative approach would be for Beijing to strike a deal with the Taliban and partly yield its support for the Afghan government. There have been reports confirming China’s outreach to the Taliban. In late 2020, Afghan security forces intercepted a Chinese intelligence cell (around 10 to 13 people) that was gathering information on Uyghur operations from the Taliban with the help of the Pakistani terror organisation, Haqqani Network. By blocking the UNSC statement condemning the military coup in Myanmar, China has already shown its willingness to sacrifice its long-term relationship with civilian governments for the preservation of its security interests. If Pakistan and the Taliban can reassure China that they will cease support for Uyghur separatists, Chinese support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan could be bought. Indeed, Taliban leaders have stayed silent on the “brutalisation of their fellow Sunnis in Xinjiang and promised not to shelter Uyghur separatists”. But, the Chinese cannot overestimate Pakistani ISI’s and the Haqqani Network’s influence over the Taliban. The Ummah (Universal Brotherhood) powerfully binds the Taliban to the ETM’s ideological cause. After all, Pakistani elites have been unable to stem protests by extremists such as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party on their own soil.

India also faces two choices. As Pakistani Senator Afrasiab Khattak suggested, since it wants stability in Afghanistan, it could throw its weight behind Chinese efforts at reconciliation. However, this stance is complicated by the souring of India’s own relations with China on the border issue as well as China’s preference for Pakistan’s prominence in stabilising Afghanistan to counter India’s influence. India cannot remain indifferent to this. A China-Pakistan-Taliban alliance might become an insurmountable national security challenge. At the same time, if China is able to integrate Afghanistan into BRI and CPEC and fully exploit its natural resources (estimated to be worth $1 trillion), India’s leverage in the region will worsen.

The other option is for India to rethink its commitment to Afghanistan and closely collaborate with US’ local networks, which still carry considerable heft, when engaging the Taliban. The US has also shown an appetite for India’s increased role by recently inviting it to the latest rounds of Afghan peace talks. Any extended military commitment to Afghanistan is beyond India’s appetite and capacity. But it cannot be a silent spectator to crucial developments in the region. In particular, India should strive to ensure the continuance of the Kabul process so that counter-terrorism, women’s rights, and democratic values (i.e. an Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled and Afghan-owned process) stay on the agenda. This may entail bringing the Taliban into a “legal” process of governance and simultaneously supporting the rise of civilian leaders who have legitimacy and clout beyond Kabul. Since these were China’s preferences too prior to US withdrawal, building consensus with Beijing (and asking it to reign in Islamabad) on these lines may not be entirely unrealistic.

Finally, India also needs to rethink its wider linkages with the region, especially with partners such as Iran, who can help establish closer ties with Afghan trading centres in Herat (eastern province). Under the Trump administration, India-Iran relations regressed, leading to stalling of key infrastructure projects such as the Chabahar Port. In fact, India recently also lost the contract to develop the ONGC Videsh-discovered Farzad-B gas field in the Persian Gulf to a local Iranian company. If the Biden administration’s attempts to revive the nuclear deal in Vienna succeed and US sanctions are eventually withdrawn, New Delhi must not lose the opportunity to get the India-Iran economic partnership back on track and strengthen its economic foothold in the region. Such a policy can weave India’s interests with the aspirations of the Afghan people.

The writer is reading for a DPhil (PhD) in Area Studies at the University of Oxford

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