As the US exits Afghanistan, Beijing is preparing to swoop into the war-torn country and fill the vacuum left by the departed US and NATO troops.
China is poised to form an exclusive entry into post-US Afghanistan with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source on the brink of officialdom in Afghanistan told The Daily Beast that Kabul authorities are growing more intensively engaged with China on an extension of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—the flagship project of BRI, which involves the development of highways, railways and energy pipelines between Pakistan and China—to Afghanistan, reported international media.
American troops exited the most and final US military base in Afghanistan on Friday, and though the initial withdrawal date was slated for Sept. 11, security officials British news agency that the bulk of troops would be out by Independence Day.
According to another source aware of conversations between Beijing and Kabul, one among the precise projects on the table is that the construction of a China-backed major road between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, which is already linked with the CPEC route. “There may be a discussion on a Peshawar-Kabul motorway between the authorities in Kabul and Beijing,” the source told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. “Linking Kabul with Peshawar by road means Afghanistan’s formal joining of CPEC.”
In other words: The Afghan government, behind the scenes, is welcoming China immediately after saying goodbye to America.
China has been keen on extending its BRI to Afghanistan and has been asking Kabul to hitch it for a minimum of half a decade. But the US-backed Afghan government was hesitant to hitch BRI for fear it could raise eyebrows in Washington. “There has been continuous engagement between the Afghan government and therefore the Chinese for the past few years but that made the US suspicious of President Ashraf Ghani’s government,” the source said. He added that now, the engagement is growing “more intense,” as US forces are leaving, and “Ghani needs a unite resources, clout, and skill to supply military support to his government.”
After US President Joe Biden announced plans to completely withdraw American forces by Sept. 11, Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson Zhao Lijian confirmed last month that China was indeed having discussions with third parties, including Afghanistan, on the extension of CPEC.
Under its BRI strategy, China wants to attach Asia with Africa and Europe through land and maritime networks spanning some 60 countries. The strategy wouldn’t only promote inter-regional connectivity, but would also enhance China’s influence across the planet at an estimated cost of $4 trillion. By virtue of its location, Afghanistan can provide China with a strategic base to spread its influence across the planet, ideally located to function as a trade hub connecting the center of East, Central Asia, and Europe. “The Chinese have very carefully cultivated many political leaders to shop for political support for the projects in Afghanistan at an equivalent time,” the source said, adding that “the Chinese government can ill afford to ascertain Afghanistan not webbed through the BRI.”
He continued: “Certainly, the investment that might be injected into the economy will employ many of us and within the absence of other economic activities people may welcome it. But the political landscape in Afghanistan stands divided, and there’ll be some ethnic leaders who will oppose BRI, not because they see disadvantages, but because external actors want to prevent it.”
According to the source, a senior officer in Afghanistan’s Foreign Service had told him that Chinese officials had engaged with the secretary of state Salahuddin Rabbani about five years ago, to debate the extension of CPEC and BRI. The minister was interested—that is, until an Indian ambassador went on the offensive to keep off on the deal. The Indian ambassador to Afghanistan even approached the US ambassador in Kabul to precise his concerns, the source said. Ultimately, the American ambassador allegedly pressured Rabbani into backing far away from further talks on CPEC with the Chinese.
In another instance, “an emotional diplomat openly accused President Ghani of siding with the Chinese and offering them Afghan resources,” the source said, and therefore the project was stalled.
But now, in light of the US exit, Beijing could be in a good position to select up where they left off and push Kabul to hitch the BRI, especially if an American withdrawal results in the installation of the Taliban regime. Since last February, when the Trump administration signed a peace affect the Taliban, the Chinese officials have reportedly been in frequent contact with representatives from the militant group.
“The Taliban certainly offers a more unified partner to Chinese. But other regional countries are trying to compile warlords to consider resistance instead of peace with the Taliban,” the source revealed to The Daily Beast.
As a part of its homework strategy for Afghanistan, China has launched some strategic projects, including the development of Taxkorgan airport on Pamirs Plateau within the northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Afghanistan. China is additionally the builder and operator of Gwadar seaport in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, also bordering Afghanistan. Both Taxkorgan and Gwadar are being developed under CPEC.
“Washington’s departure from Afghanistan gives Beijing a strategic opportunity,” Michael Kugelman, the deputy director and senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington told The Daily Beast. “There will definitely be a vacuum to fill, but we shouldn’t overstate China’s capacity to fill it. With Afghanistan’s security situation bound to spiral out of control, there’s only such a lot China is going to be ready to do to deepen its footprint.”
As China’s strategic partner, Pakistan could prove a trump for China within the Afghan endgame. “I think China could achieve more success than the US in Afghanistan given its close ties with and massive leverage over Pakistan,” Sudha Ramachandran, an India-based analyst on South Asian political and security issues, told The Daily Beast. “China wants to make sure that instability in Afghanistan doesn’t impact BRI adversely, and it wants to push Afghanistan to hitch CPEC or BRI.”
Still, China’s ability, Kugelman explained, to deepen its footprint in Afghanistan will “depend in great part on whether it reaches an understanding with the Taliban, which can see its influence still grow whether it holds power or not. If the Taliban is okay with China building out infrastructure and other projects in Afghanistan, Beijing are going to be a far better place.”
“China could well bring the Taliban on board with BRI. The insurgents have said they’re going to support development projects if they serve Afghan national interests,” he added.
What China actually must extend its Belt and Road program to Afghanistan is, ultimately, peace. Beijing has gone thus far on offer infrastructure and energy projects worth billions of dollars to the Taliban reciprocally for peace in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban isn’t the sole challenge to beat,” said Kugelman. “There are many sources of violence, both anti- and pro-state, in Afghanistan. So China will still face a particularly insecure environment, albeit it gets Taliban buy-in for its projects.”
There’s little question that the strategic assets in Taxkorgan, Wakhan, and Gwadar will strengthen China’s logistical infrastructure, helping it achieve its long-term economic and security objectives within the region. Peace, though, remains the particular key to China’s plan for a post-US Afghanistan.