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Question & Answer

China’s Goals after the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

August 27, 2021
9 min read
Photo credit: OnePixelStudio / Shutterstock.com
GMF’s Asia analysts Bonnie Glaser and Andrew Small answer some of the most important questions about what China’s goals in Afghanistan are and how the U.S. withdrawal affects the competition between Washington and Beijing.

There has been an intensive flurry of diplomacy from China on Afghanistan in recent weeks. What is Beijing looking to achieve right now?

Andrew Small: China has several immediate goals. It wants to see a government emerge in Afghanistan that can consolidate its position, domestically and internationally. This means the Taliban at least providing the semblance of a politically inclusive government and smoothing some of the roughest edges off their behavior, particularly while the spotlight is on them. Beijing doesn’t want a sanctioned, pariah state in its neighborhood, and it doesn’t want a government that will offer the illusion of total control only for things to unravel into another round of conflict at a later point. The window between the Taliban’s victory and diplomatic recognition is also one where China can lean hard on its most important demand: that the Taliban abjure ties with transnational terror groups. From Beijing’s perspective that primarily means Uyghur groups that target China itself, particularly the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), and groups that may destabilize neighbors that matter to China, particularly the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). China is coordinating closely with Pakistan, on which it will rely to navigate dynamics within the Taliban, and with Russia, with which it would prefer to work in diplomatic lockstep. But Beijing is also in contact with the Western powers, which will—among other things—have a significant impact on the finances of the new government.

This level of diplomatic energy is likely to continue too. Although China will be careful about its economic involvement in Afghanistan and will steer clear from all but the most limited forms of security involvement, it knows it needs to take on a more active political role there to secure its interests. Beijing will be a bigger player in Afghanistan than it was in the last couple of decades, though it will remain wary about being sucked in too far. An excessively prominent role is one it sees as fraught with risks.

What do the U.S./NATO withdrawal and the developments of the last week mean for U.S.-China relations? Is there potential for Beijing and Washington to work together to promote shared interests in stability in Afghanistan?

Bonnie Glaser: The Biden administration undoubtedly has some concerns about China’s future policy in Afghanistan. Washington would welcome Beijing using its influence to encourage the formation of an inclusive government and prevent the new regime from harboring terrorists, but at the same time it is likely concerned about human rights, especially the treatment of women and children, which is likely to be a low priority for China. Although the United States and China have an interest in stability in Afghanistan, and they have maintained long-standing channels to coordinate on the issue, the prospects for cooperation are dim given the high level of distrust toward one other. Speaking with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on August 17, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted that the United States should not expect support and cooperation from China while it is taking steps to “deliberately contain and suppress China and undermine China’s legitimate rights and interests.”

If a Taliban-led government emerges that is able to command international legitimacy, what steps would you expect from China then?

Andrew Small: If Beijing gets through this phase with a Taliban-led government that seems to do and say the right things, it will almost certainly be willing to swing in with some immediate economic support. This will be nothing remotely comparable to the level of aid the previous government received from the West, but some direct financing and some modest economic projects are plausibly within China’s gift. Beijing will want to convey the sense that far larger investments are possible, though, if certain conditions are met. It has already been given reassurances by the Taliban that they will not allow attacks to be launched from Afghan soil and that they will treat Xinjiang as China’s internal affair. But Beijing has received versions of these promises for two decades now and it is still not comfortable with the results. The TIP may be less prominent in Afghanistan than in Syria but there are still members of the group there fighting in support of the Taliban, to whom they have pledged allegiance, and Uyghur fighters have been provided with safe haven in Taliban-controlled territories for many years. Beijing will want to see whether this can be written off as the product of a wartime need for the Taliban to marshal all of their fighting forces or if this protection continues when they’re in power. China knows that the networks of relationships between the TIP and both the Taliban and Al Qaeda are far denser than they were back in the 1990s, when the East Turkistan Islamic Movement was a peripheral actor.

The same question marks apply to the Taliban’s guarantees of security. Beijing previously thought it had guarantees in provinces where the Taliban were the de facto power, but there were still attacks on Chinese workers. China isn’t naïve enough to think that Taliban control of Afghanistan magically transforms a country that has been at war for decades into a place where they can comfortably do business. Their investments can still be threatened by local grievances, an assortment of jihadi groups, foreign intelligence services, guns for hire, factional divisions, and a host of other factors, even in circumstances where the Taliban are largely able to maintain order. Recent attacks in Pakistan have only magnified that sense of concern. For the major investments that will only yield returns after many years, they will also want to be confident that the Taliban government is stable enough to merit these long-term bets. So, on all three counts—the Uyghur question, the security question, and the political stability question—China will want to bide its time before it is sufficiently confident for the big state-owned enterprises to move in seriously on the ground, whatever they agree to on paper.

What kind of leverage does China have over the Taliban? What are the Taliban looking to gain from the Chinese? 

Andrew Small: China has a few things to offer. When they were last in power, the Taliban wanted economic support from China and some protection from sanctions at the UN Security Council. Those factors haven’t changed, though Beijing now has substantially greater resources to deploy and is more comfortable threatening its veto than it was at the turn of the millennium. In a context where the Taliban know they will not receive real economic backing from the West—at least not without conditions they will find unacceptable—China is one of the few places they can turn. Beijing provided the Taliban with money and arms when they were in exile, and made investments during their last period of rule, so there is a residue of goodwill. The Taliban only need to look at the diplomatic protection China affords to Pakistan and the economic commitments Beijing has made in the neighborhood to see what might be on offer. China can dangle these inducements to a government that is likely to be in a difficult spot, economically and diplomatically.

Beijing also has its relationship with Pakistan to lean on. The pat logic that says that China can get Pakistan to do whatever it wants, and that Pakistan can get the Taliban to do whatever it wants, ergo China can get the Taliban to do whatever it wants, is demonstrably untrue. The experience Beijing has gleaned over the last decade, particularly with the Afghan reconciliation talks, has made it better aware of its own limitations and the limitations of what the Pakistanis are willing and able to deliver. But there is no question that this is going to be a period when Beijing will expect its Pakistani friends to bend over backward to ensure that the Islamist militant movement that they hosted and backed, and about which China has always made its reservations very clear, does not detrimentally affect Chinese interests now that it has come to power.

We have seen not only diplomacy but also a propaganda push from Beijing. What is the narrative that it wants to see emerging?

Bonnie Glaser: China’s propaganda machine has been spewing out stories about the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as evidence that the United States is an unreliable ally and a declining power. The rapid U.S. military retreat from Afghanistan is depicted as the third sign of the decay of U.S. hegemony following the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Beijing has also exploited the opportunity to deride the United States’ military interventions overseas, with Xinhua, China’s official news agency, calling it “the world’s largest exporter of unrest.” Absent from Chinese media is any mention of the fact that in the Afghan case China benefited from the U.S./NATO military presence that provided a modicum of stability.

By promoting this narrative, Beijing hopes to sow doubts in the capitals of the United States’ allies that it can be depended on to provide them protection in a crisis, thereby weakening U.S. alliance networks in Europe and Asia. By championing China’s policy of non-interference in other countries, the Chinese seeks to differentiate its foreign policy from that of the United States and NATO, and to enhance China’s image globally. In its official statements, Beijing is delivering a somewhat contradictory message that the United States and its allies should not cut and run there, but instead should take measures to ensure security and stability in Afghanistan.

There has been a continued stress from China on a “Taiwan dimension” to the issue. Is this credible? What has the reaction been on the Taiwanese side and from U.S. allies in Asia? 

Bonnie Glaser: A particular focus of Chinese propaganda and disinformation has been aimed at Taiwan, warning that the island could be abandoned in the event of a conflict with China, just as the United States ditched Afghanistan. Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, predicted that in the event of a war in the strait, Taiwan’s defense would “collapse in hours and the U.S. military won’t come to help.” Beijing couldn’t avoid the temptation to exploit the chaos in Afghanistan to try to reduce the confidence of Taiwan’s people in their public institutions. The Biden administration quickly dismissed any similarity between Afghanistan and Taiwan, and it has provided assurances to Taipei that the U.S. commitment to Taipei remains strong.

The Nationalist Party (KMT), which is the leading opposition party in Taiwan, has criticized the ruling Democratic Progressive Party for counting too heavily on the United States, which in the end may prove to be unreliable. KMT heavyweights who will face off next month in the election for chairmanship of the party—which could be a springboard to becoming the KMT candidate in the January 2024 presidential election—are seeking to convince the voters that the best way to protect Taiwan is to restore the party to power and improve relations with Beijing.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and Premier Su Tseng-chang have sought to reassure the public of the strength of U.S.-Taiwan ties, while at the same time emphasizing that Taiwan must be self-reliant and prepared to defend itself if attacked. U.S. allies have remained mostly silent about any implications of the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan for their security, though the messy exit has sparked debates within some governments and political parties over whether there is a need to rely more on indigenous capabilities going forward.