CCP-led China has been critical of the U.S. role in Afghanistan from the beginning of its intervention in 2001, even as it benefited from America’s two-decades-long ‘strategic distraction’ which allowed China to grow dramatically. To Beijing, noted China analyst Yun Sun in War on the Rocks in May, “the war has long deviated from its original goal of counter-terrorism and morphed into a plan to control the heart of Eurasia and China’s backyard.”
And now the sudden U.S. withdrawal by President Biden is adding growing chaos to the mix. Chaos, which might require, or allow, Chinese intervention. This could be done alone through the United Nations, or with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
On June 21, the South China Morning Post reported:
The growing violence has raised fears for Beijing that instability and terrorism could spill over into its borders, including into the neighbouring Xinjiang region, where China has been accused of repression of Uygurs and other Muslim-majority ethnic minority groups.
It could also threaten Chinese development projects under Beijing’s infrastructure investment strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing indicated this month that it wanted to “substantially expand” its projects under the initiative, including in Afghanistan.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a meeting with Afghanistan and Pakistan in June that the accelerated withdrawal of US troops posed a “challenge” to Afghanistan, but could be beneficial for the country’s long-term security.
Wang also said China supported talks between the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators, and noted that the Beijing-Russian-led SCO could play a bigger role in the peace process.
So, how might China respond? Returning to the piece in War on the Rocks, Sun added:
In the worst-case scenario that an organic political reconciliation fails and that all the regional frameworks are unable to bring about a solution, China would likely reach out to the United Nations, including asking for a potential U.N. intervention, to stabilize Afghanistan. The recent message from Chinese analysts about China potentially sending peacekeepers to Afghanistan “under the terms of U.N. Charter if the security situation in the South Asian country poses a threat to Xinjiang after American troops pull out” is a signal and a testing of the waters in this regard.
It is entirely conceivable that China’s own security presence along the border — and even inside Afghanistan under the banner of bilateral cooperation — will intensify. In recent years, evidence of these activities include China helping Afghanistan patrol the Wakhan Corridor and the widely reported arrest of a Chinese intelligence network in Afghanistan this past January.
China would like to incorporate Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative, or even make it an organic addition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This proposal was first made in 2017 and in the past year has seen “encouraging signs” as Afghanistan re-export trade through the Gwadar port in Pakistan commenced in 2020. China understands that economic development in Afghanistan and regional integration will remain challenging after the U.S. withdraws. Nevertheless, this is a policy objective that Beijing will likely continue to pursue.
Then there is the SCO. Using the SCO as a vehicle for China in Afghanistan was first touted by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The idea was then suggested again a week later in a June 27 piece in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) – “Could Shanghai Cooperation Organisation help stabilise Afghanistan after US pull-out?”
“Led by China and Russia and created in 2001, the SCO also includes India, Pakistan and four other former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. It has four observer states – Afghanistan, Mongolia, Belarus and Iran – and six dialogue partners.”
“Instability resulting from the American withdrawal may force the group to intervene in some form,” writes the author.
As a Eurasian security grouping focusing on ‘anti-terrorism cooperation,’ member states have conducted multiple joint military exercises, and this could see a way for both China and Russia to gain added security influence in a weakened, post-U.S. Afghanistan.
Of course, Russia’s commanding role in the SCO raises historical concerns.
“Any intervention by the security grouping, which is led by Russia and China, would be ‘totally different from the Soviet invasion’, diplomatic observers say,” according to SCMP.
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