China is the most populous country on the planet, with the second-largest economy and a growing military strength, all of which contribute to the perception that China is a challenger to the US for global leadership.
After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return to power of the Taliban in August 2021, many assumed that China would seek to fill the ensuing power vacuum.
However, that has not happened.
China’s engagement with Afghanistan has essentially been driven by short-term and narrow considerations, rather than a well thought through plan.
If China’s Afghanistan policy is anything to go by, it is clear that it is not yet ready to wear the title of regional power, much less global power.
Afghanistan shares a border with China and was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1955.
In 1963, the two countries officially recognized their border and agreed to demarcate the area, a 92km stretch of mountainous land that connects them.
In 1996, in response to the first Taliban takeover, Beijing shut its border crossings and refused either to recognize the Taliban or support the Afghan government in exile.
With the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the establishment of interim, transitional and then elected governments in Kabul, China re-established formal ties and began getting involved, albeit minimally. Its main interest was access to mineral rights, especially the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar Province.
Although China had maintained ties with the democratically elected governments of Afghanistan, it also began discussions with the Taliban in 2014, creating uneasiness on the part of the Afghan government and of the Western countries involved in Afghanistan.
In the quarter-century between the Taliban’s first and second seizures of power in Kabul, China had shifted from a marginal beneficiary of the global market to that market’s key driver. The Taliban clearly expected that an economically ascendent China would be quick to recognize its government after its renewed takeover of Kabul.
However, that did not happen, despite the visit in March last year by then-Chinese minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi (王毅) to Kabul, the first foreign minister of any country to meet with the Taliban leadership there.
China’s primary interests in Afghanistan today fall into the immediate, medium and long-term. In the short term, it is focused on combatting Islamic extremism, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP); in the medium term, it seeks to promote regional stability to facilitate continued construction of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Central Asia and Pakistan; and in the long term, it wants access to Afghanistan’s natural resources.
To date, China has prioritized countering extremism that could undermine its political stability in its direct engagements with the Taliban, while seeking to establish bilateral mechanisms for achieving medium and long-term interests.
The BRI and access to natural resources are practical and economically focused, with limited political and security components. Afghanistan’s deteriorating security is likely to keep significant exploitation of its vast mineral wealth a distant fantasy for the Taliban and Beijing for the foreseeable future.
China’s transactional engagement with the Taliban lacks depth. As it stands today, Beijing only engages the Taliban in a limited way to address its security concerns. Chinese engagement with regional countries, especially Pakistan, and the international community on Afghanistan, seems half-hearted and driven by regional competition with India over influence. These are all tactical and short-term engagements with no clear vision on the future of its ties with the Taliban authorities, or toward Afghanistan as a country.
The Chinese leadership likely cares little about the political structure of Afghanistan, beyond its ability to achieve its own objectives. This also goes for Afghan economic and social development and human rights. Instead, China is likely to focus on sustaining Afghanistan’s minimal stability — which would facilitate its access to the country’s resources and improve the chances of the Taliban being able to address Beijing’s security and counterterrorism concerns.
Afghans see this and bear little attachment to the relationship with China. Many Afghans are frustrated with China’s self-interested overtures toward the Taliban, which come at the expense of the Afghan public.
Clearly, China is not prioritizing Afghanistan’s interests or seeking to replicate the US role as its patron. Beijing’s policies, objectives and official statements are not very different from those of other small powers in the region, aimed primarily at making sure that no harm comes to China from Afghanistan. Beijing merely encourages other countries, particularly in the West, to address a crisis of legitimacy and stability, as well as the basic humanitarian needs of Afghans.
Chinese statements since August 2021 are few. They are generally framed as reactions to US actions and statements regarding the Taliban. China appears to lack a basic agenda to seek support from or deal constructively with the Afghan population. Today, despite its occasional engagements, Beijing does not recognize the Taliban and has no engagement with other Afghan political groups. Beijing’s calls for the Taliban to establish an “inclusive” government mirrors a regional and international consensus, as well as its own desire for political stability within Afghanistan, without offering any useful diplomatic solutions to achieve that goal.
The Chinese statements calling on the international community to help establish an inclusive government in Afghanistan illustrate how Beijing seeks to involve the rest of the world to stabilize its neighbor, because it lacks the will and ability to do so itself. China’s intense focus on its own self-interest blinds it to the possibilities that would emerge if it addressed its neighbors’ concerns. This sets a hard boundary on its global influence, as it will nearly always be an unwelcome presence in international relations.
Other global powers — the US, the EU and India — seek to shape the global environment proactively, and especially in their immediate neighborhoods, by understanding the needs and aspirations of others. By contrast, China seeks leverage and dominance in its relationships, and therefore has few friends and accumulates minimal social capital among the populations of the countries with whom it engages. The Chinese policy of providing infrastructure financing under opaque conditions to corrupt, under-resourced regimes in its neighborhood exemplifies its visionless transactionalism.
At the global level, African dictators who benefit personally from their ties with Beijing could hardly call on China to support them in a moment of crisis or a challenge to their authority. Of course, this is not to minimize the threat China poses or the influence it exerts upon the existing international system, and therefore the problems it causes. including border disputes with India, its aggressive maritime posture in the Indo-Pacific region, the arm-twisting in East Asia, or the threat of military force in Taiwan.
These threats are real, but they also highlight China’s institutional and diplomatic weakness, and its lack of a broad array of political, economic, security and soft-power instruments to achieve its objectives.
In short, China’s “global power” status is a myth.
Extrapolating the analysis on conflict avoidance suggests that China’s rhetoric on Taiwan is just that — only rhetoric that will never be backed with action.
Moreover, if India takes a decisive step toward reclaiming its territory, it is unlikely that China could mobilize political and military institutions to resist India. It will primarily opt for negotiations.
Today, it is even highly doubtful that if there is a conflict between North Korea and South Korea, China will come to defend the North.
Hence, it is time for the US and its allies, along with India and other like-minded partners, to confront the myth of China’s perceived global power status.
China must learn that it is not a decisive global power and it needs to behave in the existing international system. It needs to understand that the good old days of reaping economic benefits from stability that was guaranteed by the West while constantly criticizing how things are managed globally without taking any responsibility is over, and any aggressive posture toward any of its neighbors will no longer be tolerated.
Sadiq Amini is a program manager at ORF America, overseeing external relations and outreach. He was previously a political assistant at the US embassy in Kabul and worked at the Afghan Permanent Mission to the UN. The views expressed here are strictly his own.