What Does the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan Mean for China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

The border China shares with Afghanistan is less than 50 miles long—a length that belies its strategic importance. Beijing has long sought to control the Wakhan corridor, claiming Uighur secessionists could use the area to stage attacks in Xinjiang. Weeks before the People’s Republic of China became the first nation to say it would cooperate with a Taliban government, China’s foreign minister asked the Taliban to crack down on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (a group that, contrary to Beijing’s position, is unlikely to pose any real threat, if it even exists).

Meanwhile, instability in Afghanistan threatens the neighboring $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a centerpiece of the Belt and Road Initiative. And Beijing worries about what the Taliban’s success could mean for the rise of militant Islamist groups in Pakistan.

Stability, along with a diplomatic relationship with the Taliban, could have significant benefits for Beijing, which already has stakes in some of the country’s trillion dollars of natural resources.

As China seeks to balance security concerns and financial considerations, a nation that has long espoused the principle of noninterference may find its foreign policy tested in coming months. What will be the challenges and opportunities for China in Afghanistan? What will the U.S. withdrawal mean for China’s role in the region and globally? —The Editors


The speed of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan caught Beijing as much off guard as it did the rest of the world. China is concerned, primarily, with the possibility that insecurity in Afghanistan could spill over into the region, posing a direct threat to Chinese investments and citizens. In just the last month, Chinese citizens have been targets of two terrorist attacks in Pakistan, events that have undoubtedly compounded anxieties in Beijing about what a post-U.S. Afghanistan portends.

China has been and will continue to be pragmatic and transactional in its dealings with the Taliban. It has so far been clear that it sees two issues as particularly important for judging the Taliban’s reliability as a partner.

First, Beijing sees a stable Afghanistan as a necessary condition for managing its security concerns and political inclusion as key to Afghanistan’s stability, the Taliban’s newly achieved dominance notwithstanding. In successive statements, China has called on the Taliban to “form solidarity with all factions and ethnic groups … [and] build a broad-based and inclusive political structure suited to the national realities.” The Taliban’s ascendance is likely a source of unease for China, as Beijing’s space to hedge among different Afghan power brokers has diminished. Chinese scholars are not convinced that the Taliban are willing to share power, and express doubts about their ability to govern, predicting that conflict could easily erupt if the movement does not accommodate all the interests it needs to.

Second, China will be watching closely the extent to which the Taliban keeps a lid on the activities of militant groups in Afghanistan. In Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s high-profile meeting with the Taliban in July, he made clear Beijing’s expectation that the Taliban “make a clean break with” the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which Beijing regards as a threat, and “resolutely and effectively combat them.” Remarks made following the Taliban’s takeover have made the point even more directly. Chinese analysts warn—as do many Western ones—of the risk of militant groups thriving in Afghanistan, noting intra-organizational issues and inter-generational differences (with the younger fighters being more radical than the leaders) that will limit the Taliban leadership’s ability to cut off ties with those groups. Multiple scholars also note that the Taliban are unlikely to alter their Islamist ideology despite their savvier foreign policy and recognition that a more moderate domestic line is important for currying favor abroad. Out of consideration for religious brotherhood, one scholar says, the Taliban is unlikely to hand over ETIM figures to China and will at most prevent the group from engaging in anti-China operations on Afghanistan soil.

Beijing is likely still figuring out how involved it will get in Afghanistan’s transition and economic development in the medium-term. There are reasons to expect China’s approach to be circumspect given the troubled 20-year American experience in Afghanistan, which Beijing has labeled a failure, as well as the lackluster outcomes of China’s economic projects in Afghanistan so far (the Mes Aynak copper mine and Amu Darya oil field). Moreover, China faces a growing challenge on its eastern flank from the Quad-led Indo-Pacific coalition that will draw its attention. But there are also voices in China arguing for “constructive intervention” in Afghanistan’s rebuilding because of the country’s importance to Chinese security interests in the region, and because they believe China’s relations with key parties inside and outside of Afghanistan, especially Pakistan, create opportunities for it to wield influence. However it proceeds, China will try to avoid entanglement in Afghanistan’s problems, while having a say over matters that affect its expanding regional interests.

An Afghanistan under Taliban rule poses significant challenges to Chinese foreign policy. Simply put, the Taliban embodies all the so-called “Three Evils”—terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism—that could threaten China’s own domestic stability in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, as well as Chinese diplomatic and economic interests in Central Asia, Pakistan, and, indirectly, the Middle East and North Africa.

On the economic side, according to the latest available data, the total value of Chinese assets in Central Asian countries and Pakistan was more than $18 billion in 2019. The value of the contracts signed by Chinese engineering companies was about $14 billion in 2019 alone. At the end of that same year, more than 36,000 Chinese nationals were working in those countries, completing the constructions of various infrastructure. More are probably there working in other capacities. At the same time, potential instability in Afghanistan and/or the spread of it throughout the region is a test for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has boosting anti-terrorism cooperation and regional stability as one of its core missions.

The stunning speed of the Taliban takeover and the dramatic scenes of Western diplomats rushing to the airport on helicopters significantly boosted the morale of terrorists around the world. They saw that if one has enough patience and persistence, victory can be achieved even against a much more powerful and technologically advanced enemy. This has important implications for the stability of Xinjiang, as well as for countries where Chinese interests are large and terrorism remains a real threat. Iraq, a country that has become increasingly important for Chinese energy companies and engineering contractors, could be one of those places.

China has already expressed what it wants from the Taliban: a break of relations with all terrorist organizations, the expulsion of anti-China forces, and the keeping of its promise to establish an “inclusive” Islamic government. Beijing’s goals are clear. Firstly, it is necessary to ensure that Afghanistan does not become the epicenter of regional and global terrorism. Secondly, still unsure about if and how much the Taliban has changed over the years, Beijing likely hopes that the presence of non-Taliban elements in the new government could help to moderate the Taliban’s behavior at home and abroad.

Beijing can offer two things that the Taliban desperately needs: international recognition and economic aid, though the latter will probably be delivered only at a later stage and with great caution. For the moment, Beijing is likely to wait for the Taliban to make the right moves. At the same time, Afghanistan has already become one of the main issues in China’s bilateral and multilateral discussions with other countries, including the United States. If diplomatic and economic inducements fail, it is difficult to say what measures Beijing is ready to take.

The geographical reality of Sino-Afghani relations cannot but force the government in Beijing and the Taliban to make their utmost efforts to find a way to coexist as neighbors in a peaceful manner. Both sides will face great challenges to make that happen.

Is the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan an opportunity for China? Conventional international relations-textbook thinking would lead to an affirmative reply. But I believe the more sensible answer is that the future is unknown.

The Wakhan corridor connects Afghanistan and China, but for thousands of years the land connection has been virtually inaccessible to both countries. Even with the surge of religion-inspired violence in Afghanistan, the corridor serves China as a buffer against migration of unlawful entry or exit. Life in much of the corridor in Afghanistan has remained the same for decades, notwithstanding sporadic reports of recent Taliban reach to the valley. Beyond the China-Afghan border, the corridor is flanked by Tajikistan to its west and Pakistan to its east. All four countries are involved in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has counterterrorism as a core pillar of its mandate for security cooperation.

In terms of economic geography, with Afghanistan being land-locked, the country’s much-touted mineral resource endowment has failed to attract much in the way of successful foreign investment. Since 2008, Chinese mining companies have signed one contract after another to develop the Mes Aynak copper mine, located 25 miles southeast of Kabul, only to find the political and security environments too unstable to begin operations. Commenting on the recent change of government in Kabul, Chinese news reports express positive sentiments about future prospects in developing the mine. But, Afghan allegations that China ran a spy ring serve as a reminder that political and social risks for future Chinese involvement in Afghan economic reconstruction remain high.

If there is one thing that history books confirm about socio-political sentiments in Afghanistan it is that rabid acts against a foreign business presence perceived to be unwelcome often leave external actors little if any recourse. Nobody should imagine the situation will be drastically different in the future.

In the future, China still should participate in the international vision of working to see stability and development in Afghanistan. It will be wise and even necessary for China to multilateralize its investment projects, if only for the sake of hedging against political risks and losses in a business sense.

Will Afghanistan cooperate with China in the latter’s pursuit of security? Commenting on the change of power in Kabul in recent days, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson expressed hope that the Taliban will honor its pledge to “never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China.” Whether that will happen remains to be seen, in part as the existence of militant elements targeting China and Chinese interests remains unknown. But, for China, the most effective defense against cross-border acts of violence continues to be maintaining a solid guard at the border.

In short, the termination of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is not quite the game-changing development for China that some portray it to be. For China, Afghanistan is simply a neighbor that won’t move away. Future complications cannot be ruled out, as has always been true.

The recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of that country’s government and military have created a tragedy on so many levels. While China may be experiencing a feeling of schadenfreude due to American misfortunes, it should consider its own role in Afghanistan’s long-term future. After all, Afghanistan affects many of China’s other core interests, including stability in Xinjiang, governance in Central Asia, China’s relationship with Pakistan, and the future of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), among others.

China has articulated at least three major national interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan in recent years. The first relates to internal political stability. In a 2020 interview, Chinese Ambassador Wang Yu stated that China “supports a broad, inclusive peace and reconciliation process that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, [and] supports intra-Afghan talks for national reconciliation, peace and stability at an early date.” China’s interest in Afghanistan’s stability reflects the fact that as a bordering state, Afghanistan has a potentially outsized effect on China’s own internal stability, particularly in Xinjiang.

A second interest relates to economic development and the potential for expanding Afghanistan’s larger trade connectivity. In this context, China has promoted its BRI. Clearly, the major BRI-related project in the region is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); however, BRI projects in Pakistan may have limited success if neighboring Afghanistan is hemorrhaging violence or chaos inside Pakistan. At the second round of China-Afghanistan diplomatic consultation held in Beijing in May 2017, China stated that it considers Afghanistan “an important cooperation partner of the ‘Belt and Road’ construction.”

The third interest relates to mitigating violent extremism and not seeing Afghanistan re-emerge as a base for global extremist organizations and transnational crime. China views Afghanistan’s integration with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an organization originally set up to counter such challenges, as a potential solution. At its meeting held on July 14, 2021, SCO Foreign Ministers issued a joint statement specifically about Afghanistan that declared, among other things, that SCO members states “intend to assist Afghanistan in becoming a country free of terrorism, war and drugs.”

In his speech celebrating the Chinese Communist Party’s 100-year anniversary, President Xi Jinping stated: “China has always worked to safeguard world peace, contribute to global development, and preserve international order.” The sudden change in Afghanistan’s circumstances provides China a historic opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to match its words with deeds. The United States, its NATO allies, and other partners have spent treasure and blood on behalf of Afghanistan for roughly 20 years. Now is the time for China to step up to the plate by investing in Afghanistan’s economy, its people, and, ultimately, its long-term security. In the case of Afghanistan, Beijing and Washington arguably have more convergent interests than otherwise.

Although some Chinese observers may be feeling a certain schadenfreude from the sudden collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and its security forces, the reality is that China now faces a huge new strategic headache in its own backyard. Afghanistan is now a cauldron of instability, a likely rallying point for Islamist terrorists across the globe, and a potential wellspring of millions of desperate civilian refugees.

No one can be sure how the Taliban will attempt to pacify and govern their country or how they will deal with the international community. And let there be no mistake: The leaders of the Taliban, more than any foreign power, are now the primary decision-makers in Afghanistan. That said, unlike in prior decades when China’s wealth, power, and global ambition were less evident, Afghanistan and its neighbors now expect that Beijing will step—if gingerly—into a position of regional influence left by America’s departure. China has already assumed an important role in its timely and high-profile diplomacy with the Taliban, but even these unprecedented moves are child’s play compared with the tests of Chinese statecraft that are likely to follow.

For a start, Afghanistan will be a critical test of China’s economics-first statecraft. The Taliban did not fight for the right to cut mineral and gas deals with Beijing or to join the Belt and Road Initiative, but landlocked Afghanistan has always needed outside assistance to keep its economy afloat. Clearly, China can do business with some of the most odious regimes in the world, such as Iran or Venezuela, and win geopolitical influence in the process. However, Afghanistan’s economy is in an impoverished class of its own, and China will struggle mightily to find “win-win” business opportunities there.

Beijing’s playbook is most likely to work if the Taliban can consolidate political power and provide a meaningful level of security to Chinese investments. But that assumes the Taliban will have a capacity for governance and political organization not yet on display. It is one thing to manage a rural insurgency, quite another to rule a country of nearly 40 million people. If the Taliban’s grip on national power is seriously challenged by a new insurgency, Afghanistan will present a second test for China: whether and how to intervene in Afghanistan’s bloody politics.

Although Beijing has attempted to build independent diplomatic ties with various Afghan factions, it continues to rely on its close strategic partner, Pakistan, for much of its intelligence, influence, and access. Of Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan clearly holds the greatest sway with the Taliban. A cautious China would prefer to keep Afghanistan’s bloody politics at arm’s length and let Pakistan manage the threats posed by Islamist militants, but Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban could begin to wane once the erstwhile insurgents enjoy a safe haven on their own territory. Moreover, Pakistan has had difficulty merely protecting Chinese nationals working inside Pakistan. If China finds Pakistan wanting as a counter-terror partner, either for lack of will or lack of capacity, Beijing will then need to manage new frictions with Islamabad.

Finally, just because Washington and Beijing agree in principle about the need to cooperate against terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan does not mean they have ever seen eye to eye on how best to do so, or even who should be considered a “terrorist.” China’s deepening involvement in Afghanistan—especially if it includes early diplomatic recognition and sustaining economic ties to the Taliban regime—is more likely to exacerbate tensions with the United States than ease them.