China in Afghanistan: Ambitions, Apprehensions and Opportunities

By- Shreyas Deshmukh

It was on December 26, 2017 in joint press conference with foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed firm intentions of expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan in a ‘proper manner’. Since then China intensified its efforts towards this direction with the help of Pakistan. A vital segment of this policy was establishing a cordial relationship between Afghanistan (now the Islamic Emirate) and Pakistan which would eventually lead towards partial stability in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, it was an opportunity to regain so-called strategic depth and re-establish secure connectivity to Central Asia. It is the same policy of transactional relationship Pakistan has with the US. 

Meanwhile, China continued with its vigilant approach towards developments in Afghanistan and focused only at the political engagement avoiding any major military and economic interventions. The reason would be British, Soviet and American experiences they have observed and studied carefully. Perhaps this also provided an understanding to put Chinese Afghan policy in the hands of Pakistan, because it is the closest ally they have in the region, who understands the national character of Afghanistan better than anyone else. Such third-party transactional relationships may continue in the future as well because Afghanistan is critical fragment of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). After announcement of BRI in 2014 China emerged at the forefront as one of the chief negotiators in the Afghan peace process. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, since 2001-2013, it had 44 high level interactions with Afghan policy makers, but since 2014 until September 2, 2021, just in seven years it had 106 exchanges. 

Afghanistan in China’s Global Ambitions 

Vitality of the success of BRI is at the core of China’s ambition to become a global hegemon. For the last eight years, China has extensively spent economic and political capital to acquiring and building infrastructure projects in Eurasia and South Asia.  Official BRI website has listed six such land connectivity networks of which two westbound networks are the most important segments from strategic perspective as well as its energy and trade security.  These are China – Central Asia – West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC) and China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan is located at the centre of North-South Corridor where Central Asian Region countries will have close access to Karachi and Gwadar port in Pakistan. According to a World Bank report, if trade passes through Afghanistan, it will decrease shipping time by 10.3 per cent to 11.9 per cent for countries along the CCWAEC.

Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, or other Iranian ports could be another option, but are subject to volatile US-Iran relations which can lead to trade barriers. If US-China cold war intensifies, and the recent 25-year China-Iran agreement reaches productive implementation, then China will be the dominant force controlling most of the regional maritime and land-based trade routes. 

In early 2016, China started running two pilot projects for freight corridors. The first was from the city of Yiwu located in Eastern China to Tehran via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The second one was from Nantung in East China to Hairatan in Afghanistan via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Later in June 2017, China stopped cargo trains to the dry port of Hairatan due to losses and poor infrastructure facilities. Since 2018, it has restarted efforts to relaunch this route because of feasibility for China to connect to Tehran and further to Central Asia and Europe. Now, it is trying to build a 657 km stretch of road between Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, costing US$ 1.8BN with investments from the Asian Infrastrcuture Investment Bank (AIIB)has agreed to invest in the venture. In May 2018, China joined the Transport Internationaux Routiers (TIR) convention while Pakistan, which is a key partner in BRI, ratified the TIR in April 2018. This will help them move goods along the North-South Corridor. Iran has already launched a corridor based on TIR conventions and sent the first cargo using the same to Uzbekistan via Afghanistan on August 11, 2020.

The CPEC and CCWAEC have been advertised as the flagship projects of BRI. The volatility of Afghanistan and the fact that it lies in China’s backyard makes it a strategically important region for China. The country has been perceived as a ‘black hole’, with the potential to adversely impact development in the neighbouring region due to spreading instability and severing existing and emerging trade routes. 

Other than trade routes and security aspects, China is eying Afghanistan for its reserves of strategic minerals. Copper and Lithium are some of the key components for making electric vehicles, batteries and smart home systems; units China’s manufacturing industry invests heavily in. Afghanistan holds an estimated 1.88BN metric tons of iron ore alongside the world’s second largest supply of copper and lithium. Today, China controls most reserves of such strategic minerals in different parts of the world. The unexploited minerals in Afghanistan thus naturally remain a highly coveted resource for China; Beijing has been working on increasing its control over the same for little over a decade now. 

The exploration and development rights of the Aynak Copper Mine, which contains 5.5 million tonnes of high-grade copper ore, were secured by the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and Jianxi Copper Company Limited (JCCL) in 2007 while the principal mining contract was signed in May 2008. Since then, the project has been stalled due to a variety of reasons including the deteriorating security situation. In April 2019, the Afghan Government announced that it will take a decision on the fate of this project, as it was finalising a new mining law.  On the other hand, MCC, by citing different reasons such as falling copper price, and slowing Chinese economy, wants to renegotiate the deal while dictating new terms and conditions. Now with the Taliban at the helm of affairs, its state-owned companies probability of getting the mining rights of mineral resources in the future cannot be denied.

The road forward for China?

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, the initial discussions between China and the Taliban leadership were cordial.   The political will and mandate of the Taliban is still unclear and the international community is apprehensive about legitimising the insurgent group. China’s own concerns vis-à-vis the Taliban are focused on groups like ETIM which threaten its own sovereignty. Once China’s doubts are assuaged, an official recognition of the Taliban by China could soon take place. The dilemma which existed earlier for Chinese policy makers and the choice they had made by not actively taking part in Afghan stability will not be a limiting factor anymore. 

Talks have already been initiated to connect Afghanistan with the CPEC. China proposed assessments to implement projects such as immigration reception centres, drinking water supply schemes and cold storage at crossing points between Afghanistan and Pakistan, construction of Quetta-Kandahar railway, Kabul-Peshawar Motorway and railway. Initial Soviet economic success in Afghanistan indicates that Afghans could be open to more economic engagement, if it does not precipitate revolutionary changes in its cultural and social fabric. This leaves a little wiggle room for China to use its economic heft, as it is already exploring the venue diplomatically. 

The ideal scenario China would be looking for is a stable Afghanistan with favourable disposition in power under which it can invest in connectivity and mining projects. It would like to revive mining at Aynak and expand CPEC to Afghanistan soon. Probability of opening of Chinese-Afghanistan border will remain low, as security in Xinxiang always remains a high priority at all costs. China has kept its economic ambitions on the back burner till political stability and security are restored in Afghanistan. Keeping aside China’s direct economic interests in Afghanistan, its global ambitions based on geo-economic strategies could be threatened by the risk emanating from Afghanistan in the Central and South Asian region. China has two options; either eliminate the threat or contain it within Afghan borders.

The increasing attacks on CPEC projects in Pakistan have alerted Chinese leadership which has been worried about such scenarios where rival powers may use instability in Afghanistan to threaten Chinese projects in the region. This will leave China in policy uncertainty on ground intervention into Afghan matters to contain activities of rival power within Afghan borders. It might use its economic leverage on its allies and partners to close borders and implement strict border controls.

Shreyas Deshmukh is a Research Associate with the National Security Program at Delhi Policy Group, a think tank in New Delhi, India. Prior to joining DPG, he worked with MitKat Advisory Services as a geopolitical risk analyst and Research Assistant at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS). He holds a master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Pune. He frequently writes on the geopolitical developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His academic focus is socio-political and security issues in South Asia.

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