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