As the intra-Afghan negotiations progress and the US troop withdrawal is in sight, there are plausible apprehensions about the future of Afghanistan. Certainly Afghanistan requires support from the international community, especially regional actors who have vested strategic, economic, and security interests in Afghanistan. While amongst the regional players, Pakistan’s role would remain critical to Afghanistan’s stability, the past few years have also witnessed Pakistan’s most trusted ally China’s apparent keenness to expand its engagement in Afghanistan. Given the fact that Beijing’s recent suggestion to Afghanistan has been “to be like Pakistan”, it would be useful to assess Chinese interests and future engagement in Afghanistan.

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement issued in April 2020, China’s officially stated position on Afghanistan is that “China always respects Afghan people’s choice of their own path of development, and stands ready to continue to support, mediate and facilitate the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan, as well as play its constructive role” (Xinhuanet). Given China’s ambitions and its energy requirements, its critical interests in Afghanistan can be identified as: 1) Beijing wants to guard its borders and control the spillover of extremism in Xinjiang; 2) minerals in Afghanistan are attractive for Beijing; 3) extension of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Afghanistan to facilitate connectivity to Central Asia; and, 4) China’s ambitions for regional influence.

China is concerned about the security situation in Afghanistan and does not want Afghanistan to become a safe haven for South-Central Asian militants, which could threaten its stability in its western provinces. Beijing’s initial moves in Afghanistan were instigated by the announcement of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. China’s extended interest in Afghanistan was seen in 2014 when Beijing appointed a special envoy for Afghanistan (for the first time), under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2015, China for the first time offered to mediate in the prevaricated efforts to engage the Afghan Taliban in the “peace process”. China initiated mediation between representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Taliban within the framework of a “peace and reconciliation forum”.

China has been worried about the rising Uyghur secessionism in the western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) bordering Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Afghanistan, and is apprehensive about the proliferation of rising extremism from the Afghan-Pakistan border into the restive Xinjiang. Continued instability in Afghanistan would also have direct implications for China’s BRI in the region. Many reports suggest that Uyghur separatists of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) have deep links with Al Qaeda, receive training in the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and also weapons (and training) from Pakistan. China would want to seek insurance from the Taliban that the East Turkestan separatists do not get any support from Afghanistan after the Western forces leave Afghanistan. Another major security concern for China is drugs from Afghanistan as the Golden Crescent (meaning Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan) is the main gateway for smuggling drugs into China.

China has been discussing Afghanistan’s incorporation into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and options including connecting CPEC via railway to Kandahar and the Kabul-Peshawar motorway have been discussed. Chinese companies have been circumspectly watching the natural resources in Afghanistan which are estimated at $1 trillion. In 2007, a deal worth $3.4 billion (30-year lease) was signed between Afghanistan and two Chinese state owned companies—China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper Company Limited (JLC)—to mine copper in Aynak Copper mine in the eastern region of Afghanistan, the world’s second-largest copper deposit. In 2011, China National Petroleum Corp. was awarded three Amu Darya basin exploratory blocks in Afghanistan. Even after a decade, there has been no progress on these projects due to security, political and procedural obstacles.

Beijing has also been active in offering military assistance to Kabul and between 2016-2018 it provided more than $70 million in military aid to the Afghan government. In a bid to ramp up its counter-terrorism efforts and deny the Islamic State entry into China, it has assisted Afghanistan in building its mountain brigade in the Wakhan Corridor near Afghanistan’s northern Badakshan province.

China seeks to leverage the fact that it doesn’t have a history of invasion/war against Afghanistan, unlike other major actors like the US and Russia. Over the last five years China’s engagement has significantly widened from being an indifferent economic player to extending cooperation in security, counter-terrorism, dealing with the challenges of the coronavirus and aiding Afghanistan’s connectivity with  the neighbouring states through BRI. Given the current realities, Beijing is likely to be the second most important foreign actor in Afghanistan (after Pakistan) owing to several facilitating factors. First, despite the economic slow-down post-Covid-19, Beijing seems to have a sufficient appetite to sustain investments catering to its strategic objectives; second, its all-weather friendship with Pakistan provides it ample space and comfort to operate in Afghanistan; third, Chinese presence in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood, i.e. Central Asia, Iran, etc. is likely to facilitate its future engagement with Kabul; and fourth, China’s readiness to offer military assistance through equipment, training, etc. is of appeal to Afghanistan, which aspires for military build-up.

Although in the coming years, Beijing is likely to enhance its role in Afghanistan through infrastructure investments and extended military assistance, it will also consciously expand its soft power in Afghanistan. Till very recently, Beijing maintained an independent policy in Afghanistan, but it appears that China (now!) prefers a multilateral approach in Afghanistan in  order to guard its financial investments and ensure economic and strategic returns given the complex security situation. This was apparent in the recent meetings which it hosted with Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan, and Pakistan-Afghanistan-Nepal. Extended Chinese influence in Afghanistan will raise challenges for Indian presence and New Delhi needs to carefully watch Chinese moves in Afghanistan while formulating and executing its engagement with Kabul.

Dr Shalini Chawla is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.