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China Seeks to Fill Political Void in Afghanistan

China is looking to fill political and security void in the region after the US troops and the West left Afghanistan, for which it had long been prepared, writes Jessica Taneja.

Jessica Taneja is a journalist based in Delhi. 

With the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, the current establishment is in doldrums and unable to fill the power vacuum. The deadline for withdrawal of US forces is drawing closer, allowing China to significantly increase activity in Afghanistan. Apart from economic and diplomatic ambitions, China is looking to fill the political and security void in the region.  For China, Afghanistan is a strategic source that will enable the dragon nation to consolidate its power in Asia. Afghanistan, also known as “graveyard of empires” has remained unconquerable by western forces. Now China sees an opportunity to be the peacemaker and keep violence from spiralling out of control. In fact, Chinese foreign Minister Wang Yi recently played host to nine prominent Taliban representatives to discuss peace and security issues.

Beijing’s sudden interest in the region should not come as a surprise. For many years China lobbied the Taliban and its allies to solidify relationships. With the United States deserting Afghanistan, China has an opportunity to operate with impunity and be in direct contact with the Taliban.  Chinese trade support to a Taliban–controlled nation will make it a powerful influence in the region. Afghanistan has rich reserves of copper, coal, iron, gas, cobalt, mercury, gold, lithium and thorium, which is valued at over $1 trillion. China will leave no stone unturned in packaging the nation to its one belt one road initiative. With the Taliban eyeing reconstruction of the region, China will provide infrastructure development necessary to rebuild the nation,  eventually drowning it in debt and taking control of its prime assets.

Apart from the economic gains, China has serious security concerns in the region. Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has been facing a resurgence of terrorism infiltrating through the Wakhan corridor which is on the Afghanistan border.

Chinese analysts believe that extremists and terrorist groups will not enter its soil from the Wakhan corridor, they are likely to threaten China through Central Asia countries if the situation in Afghanistan worsens. China wants to thwart all efforts that could help advance the expansion of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Uyghur separatist organization seeking to establish an independent state. Last year, the US removed the terrorist tag on ETIM leaving Beijing agitated and defenceless. China worries that in the last year ETIM may have increased its logistical and financial resources, manpower, and weaponry. In the recent meeting with foreign minister Wang Yi, the Taliban assured that it will support China and disallow entry of Uyghur militants from the Xinjiang province.

Worldwide China has been facing criticism and punitive actions for forcing one million Uighur Muslims in internment camps violating human rights and interventional conventions. With both the Taliban and Pakistan silent on China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, half the battle is already won in the region.

Furthermore, Afghanistan’s inclusion into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would help China in improving its regional economic portfolio. Taliban controlled borders and high ways often become a risk for safe trade. By allying with the Taliban controlled government China is laying future ground work for controlling important trade routes. China’s dominance in the region will allow it to monopolise resources and control exports.

While touring Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Wang Yi discussed Afghanistan at length, hoping to garner support from the Central Asian nations in bringing stability to the war-torn nation. Meanwhile, some critics have described China’s effort to engage in Afghanistan’s reconstruction as the “next empire” to enter the “graveyard”. China’s strategy for tackling the Taliban controlled nation is to engage in economic issues that don’t threaten the terrorist organisation’s control.  In order to flourish economically it will have to strengthen security apparatus in the region. Both the US and NATO, with greater assets than China, failed to broker peace in the region, China’s intervention will only worsen the situation further.

China’s activities in Afghanistan will be championed by illiberal states and allies who have been patiently waiting to get rid of Western influence in Asia, its compromising manoeuvres can derail peace restoration processes for decades to come.  Moreover, China will blatantly use instability in Afghanistan as an excuse to project its military power internationally for the first time in decades.

For many years China isolated itself from the region and refused to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal matters. Now China’s “non-interference” policy seems to be taking a different turn. One that will give excessive power to a nation obsessed to rule the world./EURACTIV