The NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and blistering Taliban takeover mark the most pivotal moment in the country’s trajectory in almost twenty years. With the Taliban on the verge of retaking ultimate control, eyes have fallen on regional players and how they may manage or mediate the rapidly evolving situation. And China is not excluded.
China’s approach to the Afghanistan conflict is unique among great powers in its friendly relations with all major parties to the conflict and its potential as an honest broker without certain reputational challenges faced by the U.S. and Russia. Since 2015, China has increasingly hosted the parties on Chinese soil to facilitate discussion. Most recently, on July 28, in the midst of the Biden administration’s troop withdrawal, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a highly publicized high-profile official meeting with a delegation of nine Afghan Taliban representatives.
The current reality in Afghanistan is a key test for China’s ability to navigate the domestic conflict of a neighboring country. Can China help bring peace to the quagmire that ensnared the Soviet and U.S. militaries? What factors impact China’s ability to influence the Afghan dispute? Could Chinese engagement enable a more moderate Taliban? Understanding China’s behaviors in Afghanistan is essential to not only assessing how it approaches other conflict hotbeds but also its global standing in the era of great-power competition.
China’s interests in Afghanistan
China has three overarching and largely complementary national interests in Afghanistan. On the security front, China does not wish to see a war-torn Afghanistan become a haven for terrorism. It fears hasty decisions that add uncertainty and instability to the political process, such as a “hasty” U.S. troop withdrawal inviting a security vacuum without proper precautions taken. It also fears terrorism gaining a hold in Afghanistan, for example in the form of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), in the interest of its own homeland security and territorial integrity.
On the strategic front, Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires and as a quagmire demonstrating a failure of U.S. foreign policy represents a key arena within great-power competition. It is also strategically located within the Belt and Road Initiative, with Chinese ambitions of connecting countries from India to Iran via railways, energy corridors, and other infrastructure projects. Former ambassador to Afghanistan Yao Jing stated in 2016, “Without Afghan connectivity, there is no way to connect China with the rest of the world.”
On an economic front, China sees some potential in Afghanistan as a destination of investment, although currently it may not be a major incentive for China. This economic interest directly correlates with its security and strategic interests: for safe and fruitful investment, Afghanistan must be stable (as the Mes Aynak and Amu Darya projects’ failures demonstrate) and terrorist-free. The deteriorating security situation, however, has dampened Chinese hopes for profitable investment. Chinese investment in Afghanistan has remained minimal over the past decade.
China’s relationships with key parties to the conflict
Beijing emphasizes that the peace process be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, with minimal if any agenda-setting by outside parties. It has worked to facilitate discussions and engage in shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistan and has cooperated with the U.S., Russia, and others across bilateral and multilateral fora. As such, China is regarded more as a facilitator rather than a mediator in the Afghan conflict.
Beijing and Kabul had maintained a stable, state-to-state relationship since the Taliban government fell in 2001. Throughout the peace process, China has included Afghanistan in its mediation activities, both bilateral and multilateral, for example initiating shuttle diplomacy between Kabul and Islamabad in 2017. On a bilateral level, the China-Kabul relationship spans military and international assistance and diplomatic engagement. China has provided the Kabul government material and reconstruction aid since 2002. Several minister-level visits occurred between the two sides in the wake of the U.S. invasion and high-level meetings had increased in recent years, including the meetings between Xi and Ghani in 2017 and 2019. The two sides have also cooperated militarily to train Afghan security forces and construct a base in Badakhshan. China’s interest in aiding Kabul’s efforts to quash terrorism linked to the ETIM is central in its military cooperation and stabilization efforts in the country.
China also tried to mediate between political forces within the government before the Taliban takeover. China leaned on its non-interference principle in abstaining from voicing strong opinions on the contested election in 2019 between incumbent then-president-elect Ghani and then-CEO of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah. Nevertheless, in March 2020, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang implicitly supported Ghani’s government over Abdullah’s challenge. Chinese authorities feared that the parallel politics in the Afghan government would lead to instability or spawn spoilers in the peace process. Naturally, China’s longstanding relationship with the Ghani government had made Beijing prefer the continuation of that administration, yet the Taliban takeover has put China on high alert, and Beijing will potentially enter a crisis management mode to deal with further instability and its spillover effects.
Despite China’s historical dislike of the Afghan Taliban due to its ties with ETIM, Beijing has avoided alienating the group. Thorny issues in the relationship include Chinese fears of the Taliban government being a haven for Uyghur separatists in the 1990s and Taliban-sponsored violence against Chinese workers and citizens in 2007 and 2011. China has nevertheless maintained a working relationship with the Taliban before and since 2001. In 2000, China’s ambassador to Pakistan famously met with Mullah Omar to address concerns about Uyghur militants in Xinjiang.
While China’s relations with Pakistan have heavily influenced the China-Taliban relationship, since 2014 Beijing has worked to engage the group without the direct involvement of Pakistan. China recognizes the role the Taliban plays in maintaining stability and combating separatist groups with a foothold in China. Before this year, Chinese officials had hosted Taliban officials for bilateral talks on the Afghan peace process five times: November 2014*, May 2015*, July 2016, and June and September 2019.1*Reported meetings denied by some parties. Then on July 28, 2021, Wang Yi held a high-profile official meeting with a delegation of nine Afghan Taliban representatives. The meeting was unprecedentedly publicized by Chinese state media and garnered widespread attention, as the world speculated what it meant for the future of China’s engagement in the country after the departure of foreign troops.
China’s view of Pakistan as its “all-weather ally” extends to China’s approach to the Afghan conflict. The two countries have held high-level talks about Afghanistan more than three dozen times in the past since 2014, the most of any bilateral relationship. As Pakistan acts to secure its security and political interests along the porous AfPak border, China has occasionally engaged diplomatically to influence Pakistan’s actions. The combination of Pakistan’s support of the Afghan Taliban and a strong China-Pakistan relationship has been a key avenue for China to engage in the peace process. Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Afghan Taliban gives Islamabad the leverage to push them to the negotiating table. And China’s friendly relations with Pakistan and its promise of investment give Beijing the avenue to request that Pakistan use its leverage.
China and Pakistan share overlapping security and economic interests regarding Afghanistan. Both countries want to combat certain terrorist groups along the AfPak border, including Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). And both countries hope that economic development in the region will bring stability and prosperity. In China’s calculation, the planned extension of the $61 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan could be an essential solution to create a stable and terrorist-free Afghanistan in the long term. Like in many conflicts, China has emphasized economic development as a cure for the war in Afghanistan. In September 2019, the three governments agreed to officially extend CPEC into Afghanistan, including a highway between Kabul and Peshawar. Pakistan could be a key partner for China as it increases BRI investment in Afghanistan.
Key players in China’s mediation
The war in Afghanistan is unprecedented in Chinese foreign policy in that it is the first time China has assigned a country-specific special envoy. Since the post’s creation, there have been four Special Envoys for Afghan Affairs (外交部阿富汗事务特使): Sun Yuxi (孙玉玺, 2014–2015), Deng Xijun (邓锡军, 2015–2020), Liu Jian (刘健, 2020–2021), and Yue Xiaoyong (岳晓勇, 2021–). Yue’s appointment on July 21, 2021, came at an extremely momentous time for the future of Afghanistan and China’s engagement after the NATO withdrawal.
Other key players during meetings and conferences on the Afghan peace process include the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission (Yang Jiechi), foreign minister (Wang Yi), the director-general of Asian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Luo Zhaohui, Wu Jianghao), and both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. Wang Yu (王愚) has served as Beijing’s ambassador to Afghanistan since 2019.