Prompt Evacuation Shows Deepness of China’s Involvement
China’s diplomacy with Afghanistan boils down to two goals—drive the U.S. troops out from its neighbor, Afghanistan, and tame the Taliban to cut off traffic between the Xinjiang Uighurs and other Islamic militants. With the former goal achieved through the U.S. Biden administration’s own decision, the Xi Jinping administration is left with the other major task of preventing terrorism.
China knows Afghanistan has historically been a “graveyard of empires,” and contrary to its diplomatic support, it is likely to be cautious in leveraging the reemerged Taliban regime.
Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Stavridis said that the dominant power in Afghanistan will be led by its neighbors, especially China, and while the Great Game will continue, the main participants are expected to be the neighboring countries (Nikkei Asia, August 21, 2021). Few would argue that China is the foreign power most capable of exerting influence in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has returned to power after 20 years.
China had established its own connections not only with the collapsed former government of Ashraf Ghani but also with the Taliban. So since April 14, 2021, when President Biden announced his policy of full withdrawal from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks (revised to withdraw by end of August on July 8), China grasped the deteriorating war situation precisely, especially the Taliban’s aggression. The extremely early evacuation of Chinese nationals from Afghanistan was a telling sign.
On July 2, 2021, the Chinese government evacuated 210 Chinese nationals from Kabul on a chartered Xiamen Airlines flight. The Afghan capital was taken over by the Taliban on August 15, so they completed the escape almost a month-and-a-half beforehand. It also revealed there were fewer Chinese residents in Afghanistan than expected.
The swift Chinese escape was incomparable with Japan. A week after the fall of Kabul, Japan finally sent three Self-Defense Forces aircraft, but they were hampered by a terrorist attack at the airport, and could only evacuate one Japanese, Hiromi Yasui, a 57-year-old Kyodo News staff member in Kabul on August 27. Japan also transported 14 Afghans out of the country by request from the U.S. government on August 26.
China’s chartered plane flew to Wuhan City in Hubei Province. The destination was probably chosen for its medical expertise and institutions, since 22 onboard tested positive for COVID-19. Because China has good relations with the Taliban, unlike the Western countries and Japan, it did not have to deal with evacuating embassy-staff Afghans and their families. There were “70 tourists” among the evacuees—that there were Chinese traveling to wartime Afghanistan came as a great surprise.
A Group of Spies in Operation
Perhaps, Chinese nationals posing as “tourists” would be more appropriate, because in early January 2021, ten Chinese spies were arrested by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and deported on a flight chartered by Beijing. According to India’s Hindustan Times and other sources, the ten Chinese, including one woman arrested on December 10, 2020, after receiving local training, had been engaged in espionage activities since July-August 2020 while running a restaurant in Kabul.
All were operating for China’s intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security. Firearms, ammunition, and drugs were seized from the spies’ homes. They also possessed documents revealing connections with a Pakistani who served as a mediator between the Taliban and Pakistan—their relations are so complicated and bizarre.
Two of the arrested spies were in contact with members of the Haqqani Network (HQN), an insurgent group affiliated with the Taliban, and were planning to set up a fake module of East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which seeks independence of the Xinjiang region. They may have approached HQN to set them against ETIM.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has been appointed as the Interior minister of the interim government, is the son of the HQN founding leader and has ambitions for the government’s inner circle.
He is also the “most wanted man,” with the U.S. Department of Defense offering up to 5 million USD (about 550 million JPY) reward to anyone providing tips for his arrest. Before coming to power, he is said to have been hiding with other top Taliban members in Balochistan Province in southern Pakistan along the Afghan border. HQN is known to have close ties with Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
Surprisingly, in its great espionage operation in Afghanistan, China had been running a covert mission to lure out ETIM members and supporters hiding in the country. The ETIM is an independence movement in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which the Xi Jinping administration is most cautious of. From around 2014, when the Islamic State (IS) declared itself as caliphate in Iraq and Syria, about 500 young ETIM members are said to have received secret military training and returned to Xinjiang, engaging in various terrorist activities.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, which had been in conflict with Afghanistan under the Ghani administration, a series of incidents involving the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an anti-government, pro-Taliban group, has targeted Chinese nationals. TTP is believed to be an organization supporting Uighurs suppressed by the Chinese authorities.
On July 14, 2021, a bus exploded in northeastern Pakistan, killing 13 people, including nine Chinese workers. The victims were on their way to the construction site of the Dasu Dam hydroelectric power plant (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province), which is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. More than 30 Chinese workers were on the bus. Although there were no claims for responsibility, Pakistani authorities believe TTP was involved. Obviously, the aim was to remove the Chinese.
The TTP did claim responsibility for another case. On April 21, 2021, a bomb exploded in a car in the parking lot of a luxury hotel in Quetta, in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan Province, where Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Nong Rong was staying. Fortunately, he was away attending an event, but the bomb killed four people and wounded 11 others. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated, “We believe the Pakistani side will bring the assailants to justice. China will continue to resolutely support Pakistan’s anti-terror effort.”
The fact that northern Pakistan was the hideout of Osama bin Laden (killed by U.S. forces in May 2011), the leader of the international terrorist organization al-Qaeda and the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, clearly shows the pro-Taliban stance of the Afghan neighbor, Pakistan.
Traditionally, Pakistan has taken the so called “strategic depth” stance toward its neighbor, Afghanistan, to maintain geopolitical superiority over its archrival, India. In other words, it is poised to shake Afghanistan by constantly leveraging Afghanistan’s Islamic militants and anti-India terrorist organizations detested by India.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is constantly checking India by signing the highest-level “all-weather strategic partnership” with its neighbor China, which remains unaffected by changes in the external environment. However, as China’s domestic presence grows, Pakistan also faces the contradicting outcome of dealing with the despotism of the anti-Chinese terrorist organizations.
Secret Chinese Base in the Mountains
The “Wakhan Corridor” is an area China cannot overlook in dealing with its nagging concern, the militant Uyghur forces. China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region shares a border with the Badakhshan Province in northeast Afghanistan. This border, spanning approximately 70 kilometers, is called the Wakhan Corridor, a mountainous area at an altitude of 5,000 meters. Currently, foreign tourists may not pass through, but it seems locals are allowed to come and go.
Only 16 kilometers from this corridor, a secret Chinese military base exists in the Pamir Mountains in the southeastern Gorno-Badakhshan Region of Tajikistan, another Chinese neighbor. Built under the agreement signed by the Chinese and Tajik governments in October 2016, the base is a full-scale military facility with three command centers, five border service outposts, five border checkpoints, and a training center. Its existence has been confirmed by satellite images (U.S. online news Eurasianet).
China has another overseas military base in Djibouti in northern Africa, which opened in August 2017, so the two bases were built around the same time.
By establishing a base there, China aims to crackdown on drugs and also arrest and remove the militant Uighurs travelling between Xinjiang and Afghanistan via the Wakhan Corridor, and eradicate links with the Islamic State (IS) and other Islamic extremists. The militant Uighurs include the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), the base organization of the ETIM. Beijing is keeping particular eyes on them.
As U.S. forces retreated from Afghanistan, Russia is eager to prevent the former Soviet bloc countries in Central Asia, especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, from allowing U.S. military aircraft to operate bases in their countries, as in the initial stages of the Afghan war. From early to mid-August 2021, Russia conducted joint military drills with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan along the Afghan border, suggesting its extreme caution for the U.S.
In the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a framework for security, economic, and cultural cooperation by Russia and Central Asian countries, the Xi Jinping administration is focusing on preventing terrorism and military exercises for that purpose.
SCO members were the six countries of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. With India and Pakistan upgraded to full members in 2017, it expanded to eight countries. SCO celebrated its 20th anniversary in June 2021. Afghanistan also joined as an observer state in 2012.
As China further increases its presence in not only Central Asia but also in a region including South Asia, it is making full use of the wide-area partnership for the situation in Afghanistan. Together with the regional economic cooperation concept, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing sees it can exert a multilayered powerful influence from both security and economic aspects. Restructuring the Taliban suddenly surfaced as SCO’s priority agenda.
Key for Economic Restructuring
China-Afghanistan relations accelerated around September 2014, when President Ashraf Ghani replaced the former President Hamid Karzai (the presidential election was held in April 2014). The escalation of the civil war may have played some part. China announced its first military support of 70 million USD to Afghanistan and delivered military equipment to Afghanistan in July that year.
As a diplomatic move, in January 2016, Pakistan, concerned about the situation, approached the U.S. and China and planned the Quadrilateral Coordination Group for peacebuilding with Afghan involvement. The Taliban refused to participate, and Afghanistan did not join. In July 2016, two Taliban representatives made a secret visit to China to explain the war situation and requested expanded international support.
Although the Afghan government opposed this, China held three Moscow peace talks from late 2016 to 2017 with the cooperation of the Putin administration, and also advanced the peace process by using the SCO together with Russia. Afghanistan’s status as an SCO observer was also an advantage. In essence, China’s motive for further involvement in Afghanistan was to counter the militant Uighurs.
As is well known, since 2017, the U.S. Trump administration has been actively intervening in the peace process. In February 2020, although conditional, it agreed on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
After a long civil war, Afghanistan has plunged to one of the poorest countries in the world; among its population of 39 million, 40% are living on less than a dollar a day. Naturally, there are almost no large companies to serve as key industries, and the majority are labor-intensive small and medium-sized enterprises.
Manufacturing technology is low and product quality is poor. Facilities are decrepit and storage facilities are not in order. Necessities of life such as pots, plates, cups, and beds are overwhelmingly made in China, and some 230 trading companies from Afghanistan have set up operations in Zhejiang Province (Hangzhou, Ningbo, Shaoxing, Yiwu), Guangdong Province (Guangzhou), and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Urumqi), buying goods and exporting them to Afghanistan.
In 2020, the amount of China-Afghanistan trade was 550 million USD. In 2021, it was 310 million USD for the six months from January to June, a 44% increase over the previous year. Chinese companies’ investment in Afghanistan has reached a cumulative total of 430 million USD. The Chinese government has applied a preferential measure of zero tariffs on imported goods with over 97% Afghan raw materials.
Afghanistan is rich in underground resources such as coal, oil, natural gas, copper, gold, and lithium. Located at 40 kilometers southeast of Kabul, Mes Aynak copper mine boasts one of world’s largest copper reserves. In 2008, a consortium of the state-owned China Metallurgica Group and Jiangxi Copper Company Limited signed a 30-year development project plan (3 billion USD = about 330 billion JPY) with the Afghan government, but the project has stalled because of the ongoing civil war and disagreements over the contract terms.
On September 3, 2021, Taliban’s spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid attended an online international conference and called for the extension, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, of the highway (approximately 2,700 kilometers) that links Kashgar in Xinjiang with Gwadar Port in southwest Pakistan. which is part of the CPEC development project underway by China and Pakistan.
CPEC is the flagship project in China’s BRI concept. Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also pledged to play an active role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, but this will depend on how stable the country will become.
Full-Fledged Support When Afghanistan Has Stabilized
On September 8, 2021, a day after the Taliban announced its new cabinet, China and Pakistan held the first Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Afghan Issues. Ministers from Afghan’s six neighboring countries, including Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, attended online.
Wang Yi proposed six emergency support measures by the Chinese government: the provision of 3 million shots of COVID vaccine and 200 million RMB (about 3.4 billion JPY) worth of food and winter supplies, opening of Afghan border checkpoints, strengthening of refugee issue management, early start of humanitarian assistance, thorough elimination of fundamentalist terrorist organizations, and strengthening cooperation in drug smuggling crackdowns.
Wang also expressed his willingness to make the meeting a new framework for supporting Afghanistan, saying it marks the official establishment of a coordination and cooperation mechanism for Afghanistan. Pakistan also provided its own food oil and medical aid.
Although the meeting was organized by Pakistan, it is easy to imagine China was pulling strings. Wang boycotted the online meeting on the Afghan situation held on the same day, September 8, at Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, because Beijing is hasting to establish a framework without the U.S.
Foreign ministers from 22 countries, including the G7, such as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, attended this meeting. We can see China’s strong desire to take initiative, along with Pakistan, in Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
Looking back, only three countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have given diplomatic recognition to the former Taliban regime (1996-2001). Neither China nor Russia had diplomatic relations with the former Taliban. The Jiang Zemin administration remained cautious, keeping a close eye on international affairs.
The Xi Jinping administration would also conduct a businesslike diplomacy focusing on its national interests. It will first want to check the stability, i.e. longevity, of the interim government, that includes two “most wanted terrorists” as cabinet ministers. Wang Yi has already exacted a promise from the Taliban (First Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar), that no forces will use Afghanistan’s territory to launch attacks on China. This is a pledge that China wants more than anything else.
Since the Taliban regime cannot shake off the shadow of Islamic extremism, China is unlikely to advance immediately into the vacuum left by the U.S. troops’ withdrawal. While providing humanitarian and diplomatic support, until Afghanistan becomes stable without once again becoming a hotbed of global terrorist groups, China will not be in haste. China still has a free hand to continue to use its close relationship with Pakistan skillfully for diplomatic developments with Afghanistan.
This is a translation of the Japanese article published in the November 2021 issue of the Seiron magazine.
Born and raised in Nagoya City. Graduated from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and majored in Chinese and International Relations in 1976. Served as China bureau chief and editorial writer at Yomiuri Shimbun. Served as a part-time professor at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a professor at Akita International University. Became a freelance journalist in April 2020. Has been a contributor to Toa monthly magazine focusing on contemporary China, for over 13 years.