October 22, 2014 | Monograph
China’s Post-2014 Role in Afghanistan
Co-Authored by Nathaniel Barr and Daniel Trombly
As the United States draws down from Afghanistan, regional actors are recalibrating their policies to protect their interests in the country. Aside from Pakistan, China may be the most important neighboring state in shaping Afghanistan’s future. Two major objectives drive China’s Afghanistan policy: exploiting its raw minerals and other natural resources, and preventing Uighur militants from establishing a safe haven. On this latter point, Beijing has an approach to violent non-state actors (VNSAs) in Afghanistan different from that of the United States and India, and these differences may produce tensions. Further, while the initial set of policies that China likely will adopt toward Afghanistan after the U.S. drawdown appears to be settled, Beijing will face more difficult questions if these policies don’t achieve their objectives: That is, if Beijing’s post-U.S. drawdown policies fail, it will have to adjust, and it’s not clear what direction its adjustments would take.
For the past 13 years, China has benefited by letting someone else (the United States and the International Security Assistance Force) do the bulk of the work in attempting to secure Afghanistan. Moving forward, however, Beijing will face the question of whether its policies can succeed in the absence of a large American presence. The major Chinese policies include:
- Pressuring Pakistan, China’s closest ally in the region, to crack down on Uighur militant groups in its tribal areas, as well as those who shelter these groups.
- Engaging and negotiating with VNSAs, including the Taliban, to both ensure the security of its commercial investments and to prevent Uighur groups from establishing a foothold in Afghanistan.
- Working with Russia and Central Asian countries within a multilateral framework to advance common security interests.
Beijing can derive some advantages from each of these policies, but each also has limitations. Though pragmatic considerations are driving China to increase its involvement in Afghanistan, clear constraints remain on what Beijing is willing to commit and what it is capable of accomplishing. China won’t try to fill the security vacuum left in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, and is unlikely to dramatically increase its economic aid or development projects. Further, China’s post-2014 policies aren’t designed to prevent the Taliban’s resurgence. If anything, Beijing has displayed a strong preference to engage the group.
China faces significant uncertainty should its policies fail to attain their objectives. Adjustments that it makes might be instructive in establishing the trajectory of China’s foreign policy not just in Afghanistan, but also in other volatile countries where Beijing has enduring interests. Should China become deeply involved in either ensuring the security of its economic projects in Afghanistan or trying to deprive Uighur groups of safe haven, this could spur China toward a more hands-on approach elsewhere. Conversely, China may become more risk-averse in many unstable countries where it’s currently engaged if it is forced to abandon its projects in Afghanistan.