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October 8, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 323

Afghanistan's Role In China's Belt And Road Initiative

October 8, 2021 | By Chris King*
China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 323

The Biden administration's aim in withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan was to reset its global strategic priorities. So far, however, it has undermined Washington's efforts to contain Beijing, as it alleviated pressure on China's western front and handed over to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a very important fulcrum in the heart of Asia.

In the past, the U.S. forces at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan, Kuryab Airport in Tajikistan, and Almaty Airfield in Kazakhstan were like daggers pointed at Russia and China. However, following Russian and Chinese pressure on the four Central Asian states, the U.S. was eventually forced to withdraw from these air bases. Yet the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan remained a huge deterrent for China.

Now that the U.S. has lost its presence in Afghanistan to deter China, the CCP has gained a very comfortable strategic space. In fact, Afghanistan, known also as the Crossroads of Asia, is connected to many major countries in Eurasia. Furthermore, its strategic position makes it even more important for the development of China's flagship project: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).


(Source: Twitter)

China Needs Influence On Afghanistan To Secure Its Western Xinjiang Province

When Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the BRI in 2013, the CCP stressed that Xinjiang and the Fujian province would gain unprecedented development opportunities. Since then, Fujian province, adjacent to Taiwan, has been approved as the core area of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, while Xinjiang region has been positioned as the core area of the Silk Road Economic Belt. In fact, three of the six Silk Road Economic Belt routes pass through the Xinjiang region: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor, and the New Eurasian Land Bridge.

Xinjiang shares history and a nearly 50-mile border with Afghanistan. In the early days of the Soviet Era, Xinjiang, with its long border with the Soviet Union, was an important conduit for Soviet personnel and material support for the CCP, before it took power in 1949. In the middle and late period of the Soviet Union, due to the serious deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations, Xinjiang became the front line of the CCP against the Soviet Union. In that period, Xinjiang became home to bases for training Afghan mujahideen fighters in the 1980s and to two listening posts for monitoring Soviet military movements in Central Asia and Afghanistan.[1]


(Source: Twitter)

Xinjiang's strategic position has always been critical for Beijing. It plays an extremely important role as a barrier to the security and economic development of China's hinterland, and as a source of raw materials, energy supplies and foreign trade. Furthermore, since 2010, Xinjiang has hosted two special economic zones: one in Kashgar, a heavily Uyghur city in the south, and one in Khorgos, near the border with Kazakhstan. The CCP's commercial interests in Xinjiang drove China to escalate repression and human rights violations against the Uyghurs with the goal of curbing secessionist ambitions.

However, in order to keep control of Xinjiang, China also needs to control Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the Taliban permitted Uyghur insurgents who formed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to set up training camps in Afghanistan. After opening diplomatic and economic relations with the Taliban in around 1998, Chinese Ambassador Lu met with then-ruler of Afghanistan Mullah Omar, in Kandahar. During the meeting, Lu asked the Taliban to do their utmost to ensure that there were no armed Uyghur groups in Afghanistan that could threaten China. In exchange for more political and economic relations, the Taliban ensured it would "respect the sovereignty of China, [practice] non-interference in its internal affairs, and not [let] anybody use Afghan territory against the neighboring country." Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar made the same promises to the CCP when he met with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, on July 28, 2021.[2]

Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the CCP has been using economic aid and development projects in exchange for the Taliban's cooperation, ensuring that the movement stops supporting the Uyghur separatist forces, and in the hope of wiping out ETIM's foothold on China's periphery. Ensuring absolute security in Xinjiang is vital, as the region is a central BRI passage from China to Central, West, and South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

The Taliban Want To Be Part Of The BRI

Meanwhile, the Taliban themselves have already expressed their desire to be part of the BRI. In a September 1, 2021 interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid expressed the Taliban's desire to participate in China's BRI. He said: "China is our main partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us, since [Beijing] is willing to invest and rebuild our country. We care very much about the BRI project, which will lead to the revival of the ancient Silk Road. We are also rich in copper resources, and with help from China, the mines could also be brought back into production and modernized. Ultimately, China is our laissez-passer to global markets."[3]

During a September 2 phone call between Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Jianghao and Abdul Salam Hanafi, who was then deputy head of the Afghan Taliban's political office in Doha, "both sides exchanged views on the situation in Afghanistan and issues of common concern," according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website. During the phone call, Hanafi stated that "the cooperation under the BRI advocated by China is conducive to the development and prosperity of Afghanistan and the region at large" and that "Afghanistan hopes to continue to actively support and participate in the BRI."[4]

Speaking at a September 6 press conference, Mujahid again expressed the Taliban's hope for cooperation with China, stating that they seek to join the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project that is part of the BRI.[5]

The Taliban desperately need foreign aid and investments, and China is ready to help on one condition: that the movement stop supporting Uyghur separatists. The CCP, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the U.S. withdrawal, can now finally exert influence over Afghanistan, advance its BRI, and take control of the region.

Conclusion

Decades of almost uninterrupted war in Afghanistan have left the country with an extremely simple economy and a low level of development. In 2020, according to the World Bank, Afghanistan's GDP per capita was about $508,[6] and, according to the Asian Development Bank, 47.3 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.[7]

If Beijing wants to successfully implement the BRI, it cannot allow an economically backward and unstable Afghanistan to affect neighboring countries and the overall progress of the BRI. Thus, the CCP will have to cooperate with the Taliban regime by investing in infrastructure projects and by providing foreign and emergency aid. After improving the investment environment, Afghanistan can also connect with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

It is worth noting that, in the past, the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have attacked Chinese personnel working on CPEC projects, as well as some Chinese nationals in Pakistan.[8] The joining of Afghanistan to the CPEC will not only connect the regional economies, but will also help prevent anti-China attacks in Pakistan, given the historical ties between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. That would be a welcome development for Beijing.

*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989.

 

[1] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 319, The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) And The Taliban Are 'Old Friends', September 29, 2021.

[2] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 319, The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) And The Taliban Are 'Old Friends', September 29, 2021.

[3] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9577, During September, China-Taliban Relations Continued To Strengthen, October 5, 2021.

[4] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9577, During September, China-Taliban Relations Continued To Strengthen, October 5, 2021.

[5] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9577, During September, China-Taliban Relations Continued To Strengthen, October 5, 2021.

[6] Data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=AF

[7] Adb.org/countries/afghanistan/poverty

[8] Aninews.in/news/world/asia/pakistani-taliban-attacks-threaten-safety-of-chinese-projects20210919210638/, September 19, 2021.

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