Will China move into Afghanistan?

Starting Series 2 of "What China Wants"

Hello fellow China watchers,

Welcome to Series 2 of What China Wants, as I try to untangle what China is up to in the world.

What’s quite extraordinary to note is how different things are now from when I started WCW just over a year ago. Back then, many of us hoped that Beijing and Washington were locked in a Trumpian spat that would at some point break. What broke, however, was any semblance of trust between the US and China. 

It’s not just America that changed its view about the People’s Republic. Now, most of the West and its allies have woken up to the fact that China is a major strategic threat. In my opinion, this is down to the emergence of Wolf Warrior diplomacy and the shedding of the country’s “hide and bide” stance, as well as the crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This may play well domestically in China, but it has played very badly indeed elsewhere. 

It is this change in the world’s perception that I want to look at more with Series 2. Next week, for instance, we will run with an interview with the author of How China Loses, Luke Pacey. 

Today I’m going to look at something that many would argue is intimately linked with a country losing, and that is Afghanistan. Known as the “graveyard of Empires”, Afghanistan has long attracted powerful countries, and has also long shown that there are limits to this power. Is China about to follow the US/USSR/UK in finding this out?

Finally, a little reminder about the publishing schedule for WCW. There will be a geopolitical piece every Tuesday, and a cultural/historical piece every other Saturday: aside from continuing our history of the Dynasties, I’ll be reviewing books and films, and dipping into other parts of China’s wealth of culture.

Many thanks for reading, and do please consider sharing, commenting, and subscribing if you haven’t already.

Sam

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The Fall of Kabul in August 2021 is without doubt one of the most important geopolitical moments of the century so far. The speed and chaos of the Taliban’s re-conquest of Afghanistan, and the wilting away of the Western-trained and equipped Afghan army and police, represents a defeat on a par with, if not exceeding, the loss of South Vietnam to the communist North.

To many, the American failure in Afghanistan is a result of the hubris generated by a country at the peak of its international power, as the US was when it invaded in 2001. This was arguably the same dynamic behind the Soviet Union’s occupation from 1979, and the British Empire’s two incursions before that.

With some arguing that China is now approaching the apogee of its own relative status in international relations, is the country about to follow the well-trodden mistakes of other superpowers and push into Afghanistan now that the West has left? The signs are that it might.

In the decades after 1975, American influence - not surprisingly - disappeared from Vietnam. This is almost certainly going to be the case for the US and its allies with Afghanistan moving forward, a dreadful return on the blood and treasure spent over the last twenty years. The US alone spent a trillion dollars on security and aid, and the UK at least $30 billion, and thousands of soldiers were killed and injured; but the chances of Washington or London seeing any return on this in any shape or form is unlikely at best. According to Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, the UK’s main goal now is to work with other nations to exercise a "moderating influence" on the Taliban – which is perhaps a lot more than the US will be able to do.

Elsewhere in the world, wherever America has pulled back, so China has stepped forward. Beijing looks like it will be following suit in Afghanistan. Its pledge the other day of $31 million in emergency aid for the embattled country follows hot on the heels of an announcement in the days after the Taliban victory that China will pursue a constructive role in establishing “peace and reconstruction” in Afghanistan.

At first glance, China’s positive position on an extremist Islamic government on its borders is strange, not least because cracking down on militant Islam has been the stated driving force behind the crackdown on the Uighurs.

Look a little deeper, however, and it is clear that there are substantial potential benefits to China in dealing with, and influencing, the Taliban.

First, is to reduce instability on its borders. If the Taliban can maintain control, then this suits China, especially if it prevents Afghanistan becoming a harbour for Uighur militants.

The second benefit is for China to project power into a country in its own backyard, thereby showing that it is able to succeed where America cannot.

Third is that there are theoretical economic benefits to be gained. It is likely that China will expand its Belt and Road Initiative into the country, for example building roads and telecoms networks. But there are also substantial mineral deposits to exploit, with deposits worth up a $1 trillion, according to reports.

A great deal has been made of Afghanistan’s natural wealth. Raj Kohli, a veteran of the mining sector and a Senior Board Advisor to AWR Lloyd, management consultants to the extractive industries in Asia, notes that “there is excitement about Afghanistan’s mineral inventory, particularly for lithium and copper, two critical clean-tech metals,” but there are also plenty of gemstones and iron.

For now, however, the country’s mineral riches are a paper fortune only, as the travails of one of its leading mining companies have shown. In 2008 the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp was awarded a thirty-year, $3 billion contract to extract high-quality copper at the Mes Aynak mine, believed to the world’s second-largest with an estimated deposit of 5.5 million metric tonnes. Yet to date, not a shred of copper has been mined.

That there has been no progress is not a surprise given the operating conditions there. According to Kohli, there are three main practical difficulties in developing the mines.

The first is obviously security, which is likely to be a problem even under the Taliban as groups like ISIS seek to destabilise the regime.

The second – in a related fashion – is logistical: how do you evacuate at scale from a land-locked country with limited infrastructure? 

The third is financial. Finding the funds to develop super-high risk projects is always a challenge, although it is something that China has plenty of experience with in other parts of the developing world, like central Africa. However, with the increasing international furore around countries being debt-trapped by China, governments are now pushing back on the hardcore terms and conditions that often accompany Chinese investment. So whilst the money to develop Afghanistan’s mines may be available, unless the Taliban are really desperate there are likely to be difficult conversations for Chinese state investors moving forward.

China isn’t just interested in the mining opportunities that Afghanistan presents. According to The Global Times, a Communist Party tabloid, Chinese firms have additional contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Afghanistan, including a $400 million oil project run by Petrochina. But many, if not most, of these deals are on hiatus following the collapse of the previous regime.

There is a question as to whether China will push hard to get these investments back on track. If it feels that having an unstable Islamic nation on its borders is too much of a risk, then it may look to decrease this instability by encouraging financial investment. This in turn will suck China into other “nation-building” endeavours needed to make its projects succeed, including augmenting the security situation.

That said, the last year or so – for example the scaling back of the Belt & Road Initiative - has shown that China is not made of money. Beijing has an increasing number of strategic priorities around the world that all need care, attention, and cash.

Given the difficulties of doing business there, a sensible government, and one with plenty of options for investment elsewhere, might be tempted to pass on putting money into Afghanistan.

Beijing, however, is less and less likely to play it safe when it comes to international relations. Buoyed by strident self-belief, and desperate to show that it can succeed where America cannot, there is every chance that China will invest more into Afghanistan, especially if it means it can reduce their vulnerability in Xinjiang at the same time.

It may work out for them, but on the other hand, experience says that it probably won't.