From Bystander To Peacemaker
Despite being technically neighbors, connected by a small, remote, and closed border, China has historically maintained a minimal relationship with Afghanistan. The only points at which Beijing has taken on an active role there are when it has been confronted by security threats, whether the Soviet presence in the 1980s or the presence of Uighur militant training camps in the late 1990s. Over the last decade, with the exception of some resource investments – which have yet to become productive – China sat out the conflict in Afghanistan. It wanted neither a Western victory that might entrench a US military presence in its backyard, nor a Taliban victory that would pose risks to Xinjiang and the wider region. As a result, its financial and political contributions to Afghanistan were at best tokenistic, the minimum necessary to avoid alienating anyone.
But following the US announcement of a drawdown of troops, China’s political calculus has shifted. Its anxieties about “encirclement” have been superseded by fears that Afghanistan will once again become a safe haven for East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) fighters; that proxy contests between Pakistan and India will escalate; and that the entirety of China’s western periphery will be destabilized.