China’s expanding regional influence hitting a roadblock in Afghanistan
Since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the 10-story Longan Hotel in Kabul’s Shahr-e-Naw neighborhood has served many visitors from China. Seeking to scare off Chinese institutions, investors, and businessmen, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) attacked this hotel on December 12. As a result, five Chinese nationals suffered injuries and some Afghans including Taliban security forces were killed.
The following day, Beijing called on the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) to guarantee security for all Chinese diplomats and citizens in the country while also advising all Chinese nationals to quickly leave Afghanistan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin condemned the act of terrorism as “egregious in nature,” declared that Beijing was “deeply shocked,” and demanded there be a “thorough investigation” along with “resolute and strong measures” on the Taliban’s part to “ensure the safety of Chinese citizens, institutions, and projects in Afghanistan.”
This attack marked a setback for the Taliban. The IEA regime seeks to present itself as capable of stabilizing and securing Afghanistan. This is necessary from the standpoint of moving toward international recognition as a legitimate government and luring foreign direct investment in the country’s economy.
Since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, a host of countries have kept their diplomatic missions open in Afghanistan. These include China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey. Yet, if these governments conclude that their diplomats aren’t safe in Taliban-governed Afghanistan, the rulers in Kabul will have more difficulty escaping international isolation.
This act of terrorism at the Longan Hotel followed other recent attacks against Pakistan and Russia’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. On December 2, ISKP was responsible for an assassination attempt on Pakistani chargé d’affaires Ubaid-ur-Rehman Nizamani. Three months earlier, Islamic State’s Afghan franchise killed two Russian diplomats in a suicide bombing outside their country’s embassy in Kabul.
The Taliban couldn’t secure or protect those embassies and that was a major blow to them. This attack [on December 12] happened despite the fact that [on December 11] the Chinese officials had met with the Taliban deputy ministry of foreign affairs,” Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a former Afghan diplomat, told Responsible Statecraft. “Chinese officials had asked for a tightening of security around the embassy and for Chinese citizens and despite that this happened…These [ISKP] attacks on foreign entities and expatriates…are very concerning for the Taliban.”
In terms of Afghanistan’s economic future, the Taliban looks to China to play a huge role. Since taking back power last year, the IEA has painstakingly tried to assuage Beijing’s concerns about the security of Chinese businessmen and workers in the country. The de facto government in Kabul has good reason to fear that the Chinese and others will see this month’s hotel attack and ISKP’s other acts of terrorism as reason to view Afghanistan as too risky to invest or do business in during this period. Yet, according to some experts, the effects of the Longan Hotel attack will likely be temporary, mindful of China’s long-term interests in Afghanistan.
“The Chinese approach is generally risk-averse in problem states with regards to security. Despite this minor setback, the Taliban would likely agree to certain remedial actions that could potentially create the space for Chinese security companies to quietly deploy inside Afghanistan,” said Javid Ahmad, a former Afghan ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who is currently a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, in an interview with Responsible Statecraft.
Katawazai similarly assesses the situation. He said, “From my understanding, though this attack has shaken things up, in the long run the Chinese will continue their engagement with the country.”
There are two major reasons why China has long-term interests in remaining an engaged actor in post-U.S. Afghanistan. First, there are Uighur-related issues and Beijing is worried about the threat represented by East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Second, Afghanistan’s natural resources matter significantly to China’s national interests while the country fits into Beijing’s grander objectives such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC), which is one of the Belt and Road Initiative’s major showcases.
The leadership in Beijing fears that Afghanistan could become a country on China’s borders where militant groups like ETIM have a haven from where they can plot attacks against the Chinese homeland. Beijing maintains that this was the case in the late 1990s and early 2000s during the Taliban’s first time in power.
“Unlike its other five neighbors, Afghanistan has nothing in common with China and Beijing has generally viewed Afghanistan as an uncharted territory,” Ahmad told Responsible Statecraft. “Considering China’s growing engagement and direct support to the Haqqani Taliban, Beijing appears primarily concerned about possible arms sales to Uighurs and the dangers of them reorganizing and establishing tactical partnerships with other militant groups under the Taliban’s protection.”
When addressing the issue of militant Uighur groups outside of China, Murat Aslan, a researcher at the SETA Foundation and a faculty member at Hasan Kalyoncu University, explained that “there are 15,000 Uighur [fighters] in Syria, and they want to go back to their homeland. So, when the Taliban holds all these individuals in Afghanistan, like they did with al-Qaida, the Chinese are concerned in terms of security.”
Ultimately, ensuring that Beijing has a relationship with Kabul whereby there is an understanding on ETIM and other militant groups such as ISKP is an objective on the part of China’s government. This factor gives Beijing incentive to continue trying to maintain some type of a relationship with the IEA, even if it is not fully formalized.
“China shares a border with Afghanistan [which] is insecure and according to various reports there are 20 various terrorist groups that [are] operating there,” said Katawazai. “Among them, the ETIM is China’s main concern security wise.”
Second, there are issues pertaining to Afghanistan’s rare earth metals (lithium, mercury, cerium, zinc, silver, gold, lanthanum, etc.) that have driven Chinese interests in the country for decades.
Afghanistan has an estimated $1-3 trillion worth of rare earth elements. This natural resource wealth is important to China’s long-term plans in the country, helping to explain why many Chinese businessmen have been paying frequent trips to Afghanistan. This is particularly so mindful of how lithium is used for satellite earth-scanning technology, defense technology such as armed UAVs, and so on. But this has yet to translate into real progress towards extracting the resources.
As Afghanistan becomes increasingly relevant to the future of great power competition in greater Central Asia, China has the most potential to gain more clout in the country through economic, trade, and investment activities. Nine months ago, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke at a meeting between China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in Anhui Province.
Wang said that the three countries should enhance trilateral cooperation in the domains of security, development, and politics while also calling for the CPEC to extend to Afghanistan. Yet, helping the war-torn country become more of a participant in regional connectivity will be challenging, to say the least. On top of problems between the IEA and Pakistan’s government, there is a lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan where managerial capacity is also low — to say nothing about dire security dilemmas with groups such as ISKP threatening Chinese businesses and nationals in the country.
During the roughly two decades in which the United States and its NATO allies occupied Afghanistan, China was able to essentially allow these Western powers to do the heavy lifting in terms of security in the country while combatting terrorist organizations. For all its railing against Washington’s role in Afghanistan and its welcoming of the U.S. exit last year, Beijing benefitted from the Western military presence in its neighbor to the West.
Yet, as underscored by the Longan Hotel attack, the Chinese must contend with a new (in)security landscape in Afghanistan amid the early stages of the country’s post-U.S. period, which does present serious challenges to Beijing. China will be monitoring and assessing the country’s situation while of course seeking to help shape an environment in Afghanistan that is conducive to China’s own security and economic interests.
For China, it’s not necessarily important which Afghan actor is in power, even if that’s the Taliban. Regardless of which group of Afghans claim to lead Afghanistan, Beijing can be counted on to make pledges to work with that government in ways that benefit China’s long-term interests. Thus, although the December 12 attack was a serious setback for the Taliban, if the IEA maintains its grip on power, it’s safe to bet that Beijing will continue engaging Kabul’s Islamist rulers because doing so serves China’s long-term interests.