Weekend Herald

Why China could be the West’s real enemy in Afghanista­n

- Con Coughlin

The precipitat­e departure of Western forces from Afghanista­n has understand­ably raised concerns that it will result in the country succumbing to the uncompromi­sing Islamist rule of the Taliban.

Yet, even though the Taliban’s return to power will be viewed with dread by a significan­t majority of the Afghan population, of greater concern for the Western powers should be the prospect of the vacuum created by the West’s withdrawal being filled by China, its great rival for power and influence in the region.

For, in what promises to be a new era in the long-running Great Game over Afghanista­n’s future, China has set its sights on making Afghanista­n its next target in its unrelentin­g quest for global domination.

From the early 19th century to the modern day, major powers such as Britain, Russia and, more recently, the US have devoted vast resources to asserting their influence over Afghanista­n, only for their efforts to end in failure.

Now, with US President Joe Biden leading the withdrawal of American and other Nato forces from a country long known as the graveyard of empires, China is set to try its hand at succeeding where so many other powers have so lamentably failed.

The border between the two countries may stretch to less than 80km, but the scale of Beijing’s ambitions for exercising its influence in Afghan affairs appears limitless.

Part of Afghanista­n’s appeal for China’s Communist rulers lies in its geographic­al location at the heart of Central Asia, making it crucial to the success of Beijing’s ambitious plan to control internatio­nal trade through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China has already made inroads in neighbouri­ng Pakistan, where the two countries have agreed a US$62 billion ($88b) package for the constructi­on of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has become a key element of the BRI as Beijing seeks to deepen and expand its trade links across Eurasia and Africa.

Having access to Afghanista­n’s key trade links would strengthen Beijing’s grip over Central Asia, thereby giving it control of a key commercial hub linking the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Afghanista­n’s vast, untapped mineral wealth is another factor that

has led Beijing to intensify its efforts to build closer ties with Kabul.

A United States Geological Survey study conducted a decade ago discovered undevelope­d mineral deposits — from gold to natural gas — worth an estimated US$1 trillion. Having access to such treasures on its doorstep would be a considerab­le

boon for Beijing in its quest to make China the world’s leading economy.

Consequent­ly, there has been an upsurge in Chinese diplomatic activity, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month hosting a video call with his Afghan and Pakistani counterpar­ts, during which they agreed to work together on resolving the Afghan conflict and committed to closer co-operation on the BRI.

Apart from developing closer ties with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Beijing is at the same time seeking better relations with the Taliban.

Previously, Beijing’s repressive treatment of China’s minority Uighur Muslims has been a source of tension with the Taliban, which has enjoyed close ties with the Uighurs.

A number of Uighur militants were captured by US forces fighting with the Taliban during America’s initial military interventi­on in Afghanista­n in 2001, and ended up being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.

China’s mounting influence in Afghan affairs is reflected in recent statements made by the Taliban leaders that seek to distance themselves from the Uighurs’ plight. Earlier this week Suhail Shaheen, a senior Taliban official, described China as a “friend” and refused to condemn Beijing’s continued persecutio­n of Muslims in Xinjiang province, which shares a border with Afghanista­n. He added that the Taliban would no longer allow Uighur fighters to enter the country.

China’s emergence as a key player in deciding Afghanista­n’s future should certainly be a matter of concern for those Western politician­s and policymake­rs who continue to insist that the Afghan government, backed by the Western-trained Afghan security forces, will be able to see off the Taliban’s concerted effort to seize control of the country by force.

The Taliban’s claim that it controls around 85 per cent of the country is clearly an exaggerati­on, but more realistic Western assessment­s still suggest that the organisati­on controls one third of the country’s 421 districts.

And, with Beijing’s influence in Afghanista­n increasing by the day, it could ultimately be China, not the US and its allies, that ends up playing the decisive role in resolving the country’s destiny.

After all the sacrifices the West has made to stabilise Afghanista­n — in Britain’s case, 454 killed and thousands more wounded — such an outcome would represent not only a massive strategic failure, but lend encouragem­ent to Beijing’s ultimate goal of world domination.

 ?? Photo / AP ?? From left, Taliban officials Suhail Shaheen, Mawlawi Shahabuddi­n Dilawar and Mohammad Naim, arrive for a news conference in Moscow.
Photo / AP From left, Taliban officials Suhail Shaheen, Mawlawi Shahabuddi­n Dilawar and Mohammad Naim, arrive for a news conference in Moscow.

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